Demonizing 101

Of late I have been embroiled in, or party to, more interpersonal dramas than usual, and I’ve also been on the receiving end of a lot of gossip.  This has prompted some reflection.  But first, an observation.

A few days ago, I attempted to send an instant message to a friend over the AOL network.  As it happened, I mis-clicked on someone I haven’t spoken to in quite a while.  Because I have multiple IM accounts on multiple networks, I use Trillian to keep everything organized.  When I selected the wrong person, Trillian gave me a box asking me to select the IM account from which the message would be sent.  The “normal” account I used for that person was not in the list — meaning, that at some point, the person had actively blocked that particular account on the AOL network.

I was a bit astonished by this, as our last communication, in late July, was cordial.  I was sufficiently perturbed by this blocking that I clicked through most of my AOL contacts.  As far as I can tell, only one other person — a more recent acquaintance — had blocked me, but in neither case did I expect to be blocked at all. 

Of course, I am also aware that there are two or three people who have put me on permanent “invisible” status on Yahoo.  I, myself, have done this to a small number of people, usually to discourage a pattern of incessant or invasive messages.  But still.  Some of the invisible people are folks I know are there (Trillian’s funny that way!) but for reasons that have rarely been communicated with me, they simply hide themselves.

There’s something significant in this.  No, I don’t feel bad about what these people have done; those petty enough to block IM accounts without explanation aren’t the sort of people whose opinion I necessarily respect anyway.  Rather, this exercise in online blocking, coupled with the recent dramas and gossip, really highlights the us-versus-them mentality that encourages the demonization and depersonalization of those with whom we disagree.

We do this all the time.  I was speaking with a friend last weekend and he told me stories about a mutual acquaintance that, on reflection, were uniformly and unfairly negative.  A few days ago, a friend was telling me about a date that didn’t go well, and wouldn’t you know it — the date was described much like a child molester.  I’d lay money that my friend didn’t have that opinion before the date.  And don’t get me started on a series of e-mails with a friend about the presidential race.

It is sad that so few of us are willing to disagree with a person, or a person’s actions, while resisting the urge to demonize that person.  I wonder how the relatively impersonal nature of online communication contributes to this; when a person has absolute power to control the flow of debate (by, e.g., hitting the block button), what does this signify for our ability as a culture to engage in the truly hard work of trying to reconcile major differences?  How can we move forward in a respectful way that treats others as intrinsically worthy persons, when at the first sign of disagreement we completely and irrevocably disengage?

This sounds like a “theory of communications” question for Duane.

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1 comment

  1. Hi Jason,

    I am trying to get a hold of you regarding the Fall Technical Conference next week. I sent you an email and left you a voice message on the contact information posted on this website. Could you please get back with me? Thank you!

    J.D.

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