Recently I’ve become aware of the sense of anonymity people have in certain situations, and how it affects their behavior in a negative way. My personal theory is that this is prominent in two areas of life: 1) the Internet and 2) Behind the wheel of a car.
Being online is a fantastic sort of voyeurism. This is especially true on sites like Facebook, where you can peruse pictures and details of people’s lives, without them really knowing you’re doing it. On any site on all of the world wide web, you can sit at your computer and read things and watch videos all day long, and no one except the company webmaster will have any idea what you were looking at. Somewhat related to this is the phenomenon of people being able to join in a “conversation” on a website’s “Comments” section. More often than not, when you look at a Comments thread, you will see people being unnecessarily cruel to each other. They are either disparaging the content of the original post/article and being rude to the author by doing so, or they are fighting with other commenters in the section. It is more rare to see a supportive response (something like, “Totally agree!” or “Good point!”) instead of something mean (“Get your facts straight!” or “Are you some kind of idiot?!”). As examples of this, I would like to point out a few entries on this very blog; I wrote not one but two about comedian Daniel Tosh, and many of the comments were just straight up rude. Then there was a single comment I got on this post from someone named Bob. I found his comment to be very insulting, like he enjoyed telling me I was wrong and to not always assume that I’m right. I’m not disputing the accuracy of the original content of his comment that I had made a mistake, but his tone was really uncalled for.
It got me thinking that because you are usually commenting under some sort of screen name, which could be a version of your actual name or something completely fabricated, like Fluffy123, no one knows who you are when you make a comment. If no one knows who you are, many people feel emboldened to make a comment that they would not normally make to someone’s face. Think about it – if someone you don’t know very well is talking, and you disagree with them, you are not likely to say something rude like, “Get your facts straight, you moron!” You might be more likely to say something like, “I disagree” in a more polite tone.
I’ve had the behind-the-wheel theory for a while as well, but it was really exemplified for me this past weekend. On Saturday, I had an appointment at a very busy shopping plaza at the corner of Sunset and Laurel Canyon in West Hollywood. There is underground parking, and mid-day on a weekend (when I was there) it’s usually pretty crowded. I found a spot and pulled in, but not well. I had to back up and pull in a second time. As I was in the process of pulling in the second (and final) time, a big SUV pulled up behind me and started beeping. First I was shocked, and then really annoyed, so I decided to address the situation. I got out of my car and went to the elevator bank that goes up to the shopping plaza. I watched across the garage as the SUV parked, and a young guy got out and walked to the elevator as well. He looked all of 23 and had a bit of a baby face, and for a moment I actually considered not saying anything at all because I didn’t want to scare the kid. Then I thought, “Screw it. If he has the balls to beep like that, let him defend it.” So as we got into the elevator and the doors closed, this is the conversation that followed:
Me: Did you just beep at me as I was pulling into a parking spot?
Him: What? No! I haven’t used my horn in months! Why?
Me: Because it was completely uncalled for.
Him: What kind of car was it?
Me: An SUV.
Him: What color?
Me: I don’t know, dark.
Him: [As the elevators open on to the shopping plaza filled with people] Well it wasn’t me.
Me: [Not interested in calling a complete strange a liar and beleaguering this conversation] Ok then. Have a nice day!
Him: [To my back as I walked away] F** off!!
Obviously, I have no way of ever proving if he was the Beeper in question, but his overly defensive attitude told me all I really needed to know. And I didn’t expect anything to come out of the conversation, and wasn’t even looking for an apology. I just wanted the type of person who beeps aggressively like that from behind the safety and anonymity of their over-sized, gas-guzzling SUV to think twice before doing it again.
I’m not some sort of parking garage vigilante, but I do think people be need to be held accountable for rude behavior. Bully behavior is when you pick on someone who you know can’t defend themselves, or someone you don’t think can fight back. I’d like to add to this, being a bully is also when you behave rudely or poorly because you don’t think anyone will ever call you out on it and you will not have to answer for your actions. Most of the time, when someone does something rude or aggressive behind the wheel, they’ve sped off like a demon and you’ll never see them again or have a chance to address it. Similarly, when someone is rude to you online, you can comment on it, but they could disappear off into cyber space just as quickly as they came in. They don’t have to answer to you.
Beyond the rudeness, there is something really disturbing to me about this behavior. I think, as some kind of moral code, you should be proud of the way you act when you think no one is watching, not devolve into the baser levels of human behavior just because you think you can get away with it.