Yesterday, the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s father died. Although he had battled ill health, it was an unexpected death. The majority of her political opponents, the media, and social media pundits offered her their condolences, and newspaper articles eulogised on his role in bringing up and educating Australia’s first female Prime Minister. Whether you agree with his daughter’s politics or not, he did a good job bringing up his daughter to contribute to public life and achieve on her own terms.
But some social media pundits couldn’t help themselves. They made snarky comments about her, her father and various other personal issues. Speculation ranged from how he felt about her politics to whether the tax payer would pay for his funeral. It was almost like they thought she had arranged this personal tragedy for her own political gain.
Now I can’t help wondering – are these people like this in real life? Or, in real life, are they normal compassionate people who, despite differences of opinion, recognise that a personal tragedy is common to us all, a precondition of being human. People you and I would be happy to know.
There has been a lot of conversation in Australian media and social media about trolls – people who (usually anonymously) frequent social media sites for the purpose of vicious personal attacks. An anti-bullying ambassador, Charlotte Dawson, was hospitalised after vicious attacks on twitter (#diecharlotte) became too much for her.
Who are these people? Why do think they have a right to attack others?
At the same time, US news reported on a 16 year old who called for the assassination of her president, Barack Obama, via twitter. Where does this hatred come from? Why do people think this semi-anonymous (although in the case of the above 16 year old, her twitter handle was in her own name) forum is OK for vitriolic hatred, calls for violence and personal attacks, the sort of behaviour that most of us would not engage in, in real life?
There is a psychological concept called cognitive dissonance. Most of us like not to feel hypocritical. We like to feel we are logical, our thoughts, taken individually or en masse, make sense. We don’t want to seem to contradict ourselves.
So maybe these people have thought themselves into a corner, whereby their unrelenting hatred and attacks in a political context cannot be stopped, even for personal tragedy or common decency. They have objectified the focus of their obsession and no longer see them as sharing the common human experience that unites us. They cannot back down or rethink their position, no matter what.
This is not logic. This is irrational. This is hatred.
There is a level of intellectual sophistication involved in being able to deal with, to hold, two cognitively dissonant thoughts at the same time. Say, hatred for someone’s politics and compassion for them as a person not feeling compatible in one psyche. This sort of sophistication and maturity might not be expected from a 16year old (although her parents should cut off her social media accounts until she understands the concepts of treason and inciting violence as criminal offences) but it would seem the majority of trolls are not under-age.
But just like the metaphorical “paint yourself into a corner”, some people think themselves into small confined positions, from whence they are unable to be flexible and respond to changing conditions. But wouldn’t you rather react and change according to changing conditions (evolution having shown us the options are adaptor die) than make ourself into a public fool and be publicly castigated for your rigidly inflexible position? Let alone possibly do actual harm to another, as occurred with Charlotte Dawson.