There seems to be a new, public wave of hand-wringing over technology changing us, making us mean or cruel. People cry out that the only reason women receive rape and death threats online is because of anonymity; there’s belief that bullied kids would never kill themselves before the internet; there’s a panic over the shaming that many (especially white men) face for revealing their racism, privilege, bigotry. But as Tabatha Southey points out, we—we humans—are cruel. We have always been cruel. We almost certainly always will be cruel.
Lately, humanity has been flattering itself that it was better and kinder before the Internet — as though we never slipped anonymous notes through locker doors in high-school hallways that were echo chambers in themselves, as if we never wrote on actual walls.
I had a growth spurt at 10; by 11 I’d reached menarche and developed breasts—the first out of my school and friend group. By the time I was 12, I was referred to as “Bazoonga Breasts” by everyone in junior high school, because most other girls—and certainly not any other 6th graders—had not developed to the extent I had.
I didn’t hear anyone, except teachers and family, refer to me by my given name for almost two years.
To hear us now, you’d think no one ever ever crank-called late at night, dialled up even before dial-up to offer abuse, stared into other people’s windows through our own twitching curtains.
When I was 13, everyone I ate lunch with, spent time with on the weekends, socialized with, and thought was my friend decided they liked another guy better than they liked me. That guy was mad at me, so convinced everyone to send me letters telling me how worthless I was, how much they hated me, how much everyone wished I would just kill myself.
I took a decent swing at it.
We were never bitches before BBS. We never took our children to public hangings. The way it’s told now, we never publicly shamed anyone, put them in the stocks, or hurled rotten vegetables at them in the street. We never quietly dropped anyone off the guest list at a time when, new social spheres being difficult to access, a true precipice might well lie below.
When I was 20, the people I thought were helping me leave an abusive, violent relationship—the people who had helped me orchestrate fleeing in the middle of the night, getting into a motel room, fending for myself for several days—stood me up. We were supposed to meet at someone’s house and then caravan to another state; they purposefully didn’t show up, leaving me to either return to my abuser or make a 700 mile drive I’d never made before on my own. When I called to ask where everyone was, they told me they’d left hours earlier.
They thought it was funny.
They had, in their words, punked me.
We didn’t start the flame war. Scandalous satirical pamphlets were once cranked out by writers and sold at train stations, like so many primordial blog posts. Political cartoons have a long and vicious history. Incivility is our legacy, not our invention. It is part, but only part, of who we are. And have always been.
No, the internet hasn’t made us cruel. The internet has simply made it impossible to deny the reality of our nature, amplifying what was once small and local into a chorus people can no longer ignore, and are forced to confront with eyes that want excuses for the baseness of our very being.