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  • Joe Cottrell-Boyce

What we are doing when we argue with strangers online

My grandad once told me that as a child, he believed he would go blind if he walked down a Protestant street. He was half joking, but the imperative not to look too closely upon the ‘other’ was telling.

He had grown up on a terraced street sloping down towards the Mersey, in a neighbourhood almost entirely populated by Irish-Catholics. Protestants lived in a parallel universe of near identical streets less than a mile away, perched on Everton Brow. Each community had its own shops, pubs and cinemas. There was no reason to venture into the world of the other, yet their very otherness was a source of fascination.

Humans have a basic need for belonging. For connection with family, friends, neighbours and colleagues who see, understand and accept us. At the same time, we live in fear of rejection and exile; vulnerable to doubts about our own acceptability.

Throughout history, we have sought reassurance that we belong to an ‘us’, by talking about ‘them’. We differentiate ourselves and affirm each other’s goodness, rightness and normalness by discoursing on the badness, wrongness and weirdness of others. In constructing imagined others, we can attribute characteristics and intentions curated to reinforce by comparison our own shared identity. And for most of human history, the other has had no right of reply.

Othering is obvious in sectarianism, xenophobia and racism, but it is also present in discourses less loaded with genocidal potential. A departmental meeting where colleagues bemoan the hopeless ineptitude of workers in another team. A clique of parents at the school gates debriefing on the irresponsibility of other parents. Even the most compassionate humanitarians have little empathy or patience for those they perceive to lack sufficient humanitarian compassion.

Othering provides objects for the projection of fears and anxieties and useful scapegoats for blame; preserving the cohesion of the in-group. But beyond this, the act of discoursing on the other in and of itself delivers an experience of intimacy and belonging. The feeling of solidarity that comes with being an us, talking about them, carries the latent promise that grace might be extended to us in moments of doubt, frailty and failure. That our place already assured, we might be given benefit of the doubt. While they remain others, we might be allowed to be human.

In the era between the industrial and digital revolutions, spaces for talking about and interacting with ‘others’, were clearly delineated. There were spaces where people of different tribal affiliations could be confronted; on football terraces, at election hustings, in TV and radio interviews and of course during periodic outbreaks of intercommunal violence and persecution. But in public, on a day-to-day basis differences were to be managed rather than addressed head-on.

Cities, the sociologist Richard Sennett observes, are places where, “strangers are likely to meet”[1]. Urbanisation required people to develop the skill of ‘civility’, defined by Sennett as the, “shielding of others from being burdened with oneself”[2]; a reciprocal withholding of aspects of the self in order to co-exist with people who are different. There is a recognition in the concept of civility that the version of ourselves we share with the world is contingent on the space we are occupying, on a spectrum of public to private. We withhold or express different aspects of ourselves depending on whether we are in a supermarket, a dinner party or in bed with a partner.

Civility is not utopian; all too often the ‘public persona’ curated for spaces shared with strangers conforms to the norms of a dominant class or culture. It is however a social compromise. A truce, where people from different creeds, cultures and factions agree not to draw undue attention to their differences. Of course, once people retreat from a public space, back to the bosom of a family or communal enclave, discourses on the goodness of ‘us’ and the badness of ‘them’ can resume.

In the early days of the internet, there was hope that social media might lead to a revival of the social sphere. That we were on the cusp of a brave new world where we would all have a voice in a global conversation. Social media has indeed brought about a profound social change; we now spend more time interacting with strangers than at any previous point in human history. More time talking to the kinds of people we mainly used to talk about. But it has not necessarily led to us listening to each other. Instead, the internet has turned out to be a place where strangers meet, without the fetters of civility, hosting an abundance of discord but very little dialogue.

In part, this is because communication is taking place in a space where the private and public are disorientatingly collapsed. A space where the promise of anonymity licences toxic disinhibition while the simultaneous threat of exposure provokes profound anxiety. Whereas the function of offline communication is contingent on the public or private space we are occupying, online communication is often attempting to perform contradictory functions concurrently. 

The allure of arguing with strangers on the internet is obvious; it offers an opportunity to jump into the thick of the discourse. To man the barricades, championing ethical, political or aesthetic causes and fight perceived enemies of progress. But when we send a critical tweet, as much as we want to elicit a response from our interlocutor, we also yearn for likes and retweets. By highlighting the badness of online others, we hope to have our own goodness seen and affirmed by fellow travellers. We yearn for belonging.

The spectacle of interaction with the other in online spaces performs the same function as in-group discourses on the other; to locate us in an ‘us’. But collapsing interacting with and talking about the other into a single performative dialogue has profound implications for our sense of individual and group identity.  

The problem is that online, the other can respond. Whenever their rightness is questioned, they feel an existential urge to declare and evidence our wrongness. Offline, establishing in-group consensus on the badness of the other to affirm our own goodness is a straightforward, low stakes endeavour. Online, it is a task of Sisyphean futility. The constructs of us and them we use to ground and orientate ourselves are open to constant attack online and require constant maintenance.

In online discourse, interlocutors often appear more concerned with revealing the malign content of each other’s character than engaging with the content of their respective arguments. Adversaries are accused of unarticulated and often sinister motivations; pro-Palestine activists are all antisemites. Pro-Israel activists are all génocidaires. TERFS are fascists. Trans-rights activists are groomers. The point is not to win the argument but to challenge the other’s moral entitlement to speak at all.

An enormous amount of energy is expended on protecting carefully imagined constructs of the other from the disruptive influence of the other’s actual voice. We try so hard not to hear the other we are arguing with, denying the possibility that there could ever be any nuance or middle-ground because ultimately we need them to be wrong and bad. If they stop being others and start being human, we are left untethered.

It might seem depressing that the dream of an inclusive, global conversation has descended into a Manichean cacophony but just as civility helped facilitate the mass mobilisation of populations to serve the interests of industrial capital, for the tech giants of today there is profit in discord. Because while the platforms that we share on feel public and anarchic, they are in fact privately owned, surveilled and controlled. Our furiously typed tirades do not belong to us; our words are the commodifiable property of corporations.

The more our divisions are laid bare, the more data we provide on the granular detail of our differences, the more effectively we can be targeted by precision marketing. For the owners of the platforms where discord is played out, questions over Trans rights or a two-state solution are ultimately less relevant than the revelation that TERFS prefer Pepsi and Zionists enjoy a Domino’s.

The tragedy is that the polarisation and division played out over social media rarely delivers the yearned for sense of belonging. The ‘us’ we seek online remains ultimately chimeric, because constant maintenance of our constructs of the other goes hand in hand with the constant curation of our own online identity. Writing prophetically four years before the birth of Facebook, the sociologist Zymunt Bauman observed that we had moved from a panopticon to a synopticon-style society, where everyone is watching everyone else and “spectacles take the place of surveillance without losing any of the disciplining power of their predecessor.”[3] Since we must share with all or not at all, any authentic acknowledgement of doubt, frailty or failure is perilous, lest the ever-present other exploit these admissions. In contrast with the offline world, where identity is context-contingent and flexible, online, self and group-identity have become calcified and brittle. We can extend no grace to ourselves, or our compatriots. Heretics and hypocrites must be purged.

Throughout history, othering has been the prelude to oppression and genocide. But othering is also intrinsic to being human; a species which for most of its time on the earth has lived in small co-operative groups, with limited contact with strangers. Offline, in-group discourses on the other can provide a foundation upon which a sanctuary of connection and acceptance can be built. Arguing with strangers online offers tribal affiliation without intimacy. The dopamine hit of superficial validation from fellow-travellers but not the refuge of genuine connection. Ultimately, the unwavering repetition of the script that I am good and right and normal and you are bad and wrong and weird, leaves little room for either of us to be human.


[1] Sennett, R. (1978) The Fall of Public Man: On the Social Psychology of Capitalism, New York: Vintage Books, p. 39

[2] Ibid p.264

[3] Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity, p. 86

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