Why Are People Jerkier Online?

Reading this essay, I contemplated why people are more apt to be a jerk online than in person. I thought back to a recent conference, where I confronted a Marxist presenter about how the attempt to put his ideology into practice in the past had created, rather than the utopia he sought, Gulags and Killing Fields. "Why," I asked, "should anyone believe it will be different this time?"

His answer was that he didn't care if the utopia he wanted could ever be created: "We struggle because we must."

I was stunned. This was really evil: At least the 20th-century tyrants had believed that, in the end, they were going to create a utopia. But this guy didn't mind if 100 million people died for no purpose except to fulfill his need for "struggle." If we were online, I would have laid into him. But... but... we had met an hour before, and he had been nice. He had shaken my hand, and thanked me for reading his paper.

The difference was this: online, he would have been merely this evil idea he was expressing. But in person, he seemed like a decent guy, who just happened to have gone mad on this one point.

Of course, there is danger on the in-person side as well: how many Germans went along with the Nazi regime because the brownshirt from down the street was polite and took good care of his children, and to really challenge him would create unpleasantness?


  1. Gene,

    What a disgusting individual. Sometimes it's just better to call things - and people - the evil that they are, regardless of how nice they seem to be. I'm learning that there are boundaries to polite dialogue.

    1. Yes, that is absolutely the second danger I noted. It is not easy to know where to draw these lines!

  2. It's harder to say jerky things to someone's face. Online communication creates a degree of separation that makes it easier to treat other people as if they aren't human. Related to this is the fact that you lose a lot of nuance with writing because you can't see facial expressions, hear tone, etc.

  3. "this guy didn't mind if 100 million people died for no purpose except to fulfill his need for "struggle."

    I doubt that's what he meant. The quote you provided doesn't indicate that on its own.

    Assuming he's not crazy, he probably meant that people will continue to struggle for their vision of a just society or utopia despite the fact that revolutions have gone horribly wrong in the past.

    The fact that the French Revolution led to gruesome carnage doesn't mean that the initial ideals of the revolution were necessarily wrong, does it? It indicates that certain values were lacking, though.

    1. So wait a second... I was actually there talking to the guy, and you are going to show up here, your only information being MY DESCRIPTION OF WHAT HE WAS SAYING, and offer me a lecture on what he really meant?!

      Please see post title.

    2. Did he actually say that he "didn't mind if 100 million people died for no purpose except to fulfill his need for struggle"?

      That sounds like your interpretation of what he meant, rather than a straight description of what he actually said.

      It's that sentence which I was questioning.

    3. No, he didn't say that, which is why it is not in quotes. But he quite specifically said that he didn't care if no future revolution would ever produce better results: we struggle because we must.

      Mr., I was ACTUALLY THERE TALKING TO THE GUY. Which of us is likely to have a better sense of what he meant?

    4. Someone gets drunk, rives, and runs over a child. (And knows it.) Gets away with it.

      Then gets drunk, rives, and runs over a child. Gets away with it.

      Again, he gets drunk, rives, and runs over a child. Gets away with it.

      When asked about this history, he tells you, "I will continue to get drunk and drive, because I must!"

      He didn't tell us he doesn't care about running over children, but we are within reason to infer it. (At the very least, he cares very little about it.)

    5. Of course I wasn't there so I can only go on what you wrote.

      You quoted him as saying "we struggle because we must" and you described him as saying "he didn't care if the utopia he wanted could ever be created".

      It seemed to me this didn't necessarily mean that "he didn't mind if 100 million people died for no purpose except to fulfill his need for struggle".

      That appeared to be your interpretation, which didn't necessarily follow from what he actually said, which is why I questioned it.

    6. "Of course I wasn't there so I can only go on what you wrote."

      Yes. And what I wrote was that he didn't care if people died. So go by it!

      You're just doing this to annoy me, aren't you?

    7. it's funny because from my perspective you're the one being a bit jerky here. I genuinely didn't think that your interpretation necessarily followed from what you described him as saying, as I explained in my comment above.

      None of my comments have been written with the purpose of annoying you. But I got a hostile response in which I was implicitly described as being a jerk.

      And so as a result I thought you were being a jerk!

      Funny that. Maybe the problem is sometimes just a failure of communication.

    8. 1) I did not write down every word he said. I wrote down a key quote, and then summarized the rest for the audience.

      It's my story. You weren't there. You just have to believe me, or decide my stories aren't worth listening to.

      It's like asking Shakespeare, "Oh come on now: Hamlet wasn't really that uncertain, was he?"

      And... what do you care? Like I asked, is this guy your friend?

    9. I think your blog posts are interesting which is why I read them. I commented because I felt like it. What you wrote didn't seemed to follow, then there was a comment in response saying "What a disgusting individual", so I chipped in.

      Yes, the main point of the post is not what this guy said, but people being jerky is not really the only subject of the post either.

  4. And a final note: what the heck does it matter to you whether that is what he meant or not? Is he your lover or brother or something? It wasn't even the point of the post: I could have made the guy up and his role in the post would not change which was to illustrate the difference between encountering someone online or in person.

    1. He's the leader of the local underground revolutionary faction I'm a member of. My job is to manage public perception whenever there is an accidental leak of our murderous plans.

  5. You got me on this one, Gene. I thought you were going to be complaining about *other* people saying things online that they would never say in person... But actually, you really were talking about, "Why Do I, Gene, Find It Easier to Be a Jerk Online to People?" I have nothing to say.

  6. *sigh*

    What really astounds me is that after all these years, we still don't treat serious Marxists as complicit in a very warped and evil ideology. Instead, we confer on them this noble quality of "the struggle".

    I just.. give up.


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