Where does online aggression come from?

NOTE: The following editorial published in today’s edition of Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post is translated an re-posted here with the permission of the author, Guo Yukuan (郭宇宽), a former professional journalist who is currently doing post-doctorate studies at Tsinghua University’s Research Center for Theoretical Economics. The Oriental Morning Post version is available here.

Recently I posted something online that was a bit at odds with the views of some internet users. Of course, it’s quite normal to find different views about a particular topic or issue, and I’m perfectly happy to exchange views with those who don’t see eye to eye with me.

But many web users have a very interesting way of “conversing.” Not bothering to listen to specific points I make, they pipe right up with things like: “Guo Yukuan, what do you know about logic! You with your PhD! Has your conscience been eaten by dogs?” That kind of thing. It’s as though they feel an unrestrained hatred towards me.

This sort of thing really gets me down. Here I am trying to talk things out and these people harass me endlessly. Where exactly does this anger that they’re venting on me come from? What is it, I wonder, that has made us lose all capacity for rational discussion?

Not long ago, I went back to my native Nanjing for a visit. I hailed a cab to the airport, and as we were trying to leave the city the traffic was a bit backed up. As we approached an intersection and the light was about to turn red, the sedan in front of us suddenly stopped dead rather than accelerating through the light. It was maybe two seconds before the light actually turned red, so we had to wait through the light, costing us probably twenty seconds in all.

I noticed that the sedan in front of us was a nice one, worth perhaps three- to four-hundred thousand yuan, and the tags were brand new. Clearly, the owner was from a well-to-do family.

My taxi driver swelled with anger, curses tumbling right out of his mouth. When the light finally changed, he furiously drove out in front of the sedan. Was the little bit we had to wait worth all this, I thought? If your emotions are that out of check isn’t it dangerous to take the highway?

I tried to reason with the driver. He spouted on about corrupt officials and how they were all a bunch of nothings with no sense of shame. In their corrupt way they finagled themselves into nice cars like that, but they didn’t know the first thing about driving them. If he had a tank, he said, he’d shell the dogs into oblivion.

Actually, I’d noticed when we passed the sedan that the driver was a woman. She was wearing a very fashionable hairdo, and seemed to be new to driving, but there was nothing to suggest that she was indeed a corrupt official. But in any case this was what Brother Taxi Driver believed, and he spat out his litany of curses.

I changed tack and asked the driver about his own family situation. When he talked about his child he was quite energetic. His child was in primary school right now, and he talked about all the expenses this involved, how if they were to go to a decent middle school he would have to slide 20,000 yuan into the school’s hand. And all the time he had to send his kid to this or that extra tutorial class, for which fees were high.

Then he started in on how ridiculous it was that teachers at the school didn’t always do a proper job of it, and they had to pay extra for tutors. Seeing that his anger was ebbing up again, I piped up saying that it was only right to spend a bit of money for the sake of one’s children. I asked him how his child’s studies were going. He said they were doing very well, that their test scores were always close to the top. Well at least his kid was doing well, I suggested, and at that he finally calmed down a bit.

I was taken aback when the driver was again whipped into a fury as we reached the airport, saying that to get a passenger at the airport he would have to wait in line for more than two hours, but that going back to the city empty was a waste, so he wasn’t sure what to do. He said some people didn’t have to wait though, they knew the airport security people and just slipped them cash so security would just look the other way.

I asked why they didn’t set up a professional association to regulated such behavior. In China right now, no-one can set up an association, he said, and whoever tries will be arrested just like that. Well then, I asked, had they tried reasoning with airport management? And what would he say, he asked. These people don’t understand reason, he said. Reason with them and they’ll beat you up.

By this time it was much clearer to me why he was so angry. In his world going through the backdoor and relying on connections was just the way of it, and he despised this kind of corruption. But he had no choice but the play by these rules, all the while feeling deeply wronged. The emotions he built up were under a state of high pressure, with no release valve, and every time he came up against some small thing his emotions exploded. Even something like waiting an extra 20 seconds could set him off on a half-day rant.

This made me think of an experience I had several years back. I was at a dinner party and someone who knew a friend of mine at the table came in and joined us partway through. My friend made introductions, saying that this guy was an urban management officer (城管). My first thought was, geez, can’t you find respectable work to do? But this guy was quite upfront about it, saying right out that being an urban management officer wasn’t work for human beings, and that they were all quite conflicted about it.

Conflicted how? He said that these small-time hawkers didn’t have a basic sense of order, and if it weren’t for urban management the streets would be chock full of them — and what would happen if the roads were all jammed? The police couldn’t deal with it, so the urban management officers had to. Well, I asked can’t you guys deal with the problem a bit more tactfully? Come and try it for a couple of days, he said. Try saying politely to these folk, I’m sorry, sir, but you can’t put your stand up here because it blocks traffic. They’ll give you the cold shoulder, hem and haw, and as soon as you’ve turned your back they’re right back out there.

I remember back to my youth when I lived on a college campus, and in that oasis of culture there was quite a palpable atmosphere of reason. I grew up learning to cherish reason as a matter of habit, and I’ve never felt the poorer for it.

But China today has a massive social subclass (底层社会) that moves and operates on the principle of might makes right (强权规则), by which the largest fist holds sway and has the say, and reason is unwelcome. These brutal emotions feed off of one another, so that to a large extent they distort the character of the masses, to the point that they no longer believe that reason is the way forward.

When I put all of these experiences together and look back on those people who have attacked me on the internet, I can understand where they’re coming from. And given the chance I’d love to sit down and talk with them, so long as we can look into each others’ eyes. Might they not feel a touch of shame in noting that this Guo Yukuan isn’t such a terrible guy after all? Have I done anything so offensive that I should deserve your hatred and such poisonous words?

Some people have asked me where I find the patience to speak reason with those who have no sense of it. In fact, when I come across these irrational sorts of internet users I don’t feel angry at all. Quite the opposite, I feel a kind of sympathy.

I can’t blame them any longer for being unreasonable. Rather, I have to ask, what sort of social environments, institutions and formative experiences is it that have molded their characters, world views and values in this way?

4 Comments to “Where does online aggression come from?”

  1. Jack says:

    Great insights here, and thanks for the translation. It’s funny how both sides of society have this innate sense of moral superiority which the Great Wall divide between haves and have nots reinforces by making it impossible for both sides to engage in debate. That’s one of the nice things about having free speech – we can tell anyone what we think of them, prince or pauper.

    In China, officials in their sedans cruise by the hoi polloi sneering at their uncultivated lifestyles, and the hoi polloi rage against corrupt officials outside kebab stores into the wee hours, neither side ever conceiving they might meet and see the truth of their griping.

    The tiny middle classes are the most fascinating, as they simultaneously despise the official aristocracy for their corruption, their greed and their utter disregard for others, while they also detest the great unwashed for identical reasons. As far as the white collar non-Party members are concerned, they’re the only people in China worth anything whatsoever.

    When will this end?

  2. Adam says:

    I just came back from a holiday in Vietnam where it seems like hawkers are much more tolerated. There are vastly more of them than in China, but it appears that they have a smaller footprint and cause less general disturbance. It could be the “marijuana effect” in play – the countries where weed is legal often have the fewest users.

    This is a great article. I think problems like hawkers could very easily be solved. Give them a place to peddle their wares (like a flea market area or something) and they won’t block the streets. But heckle them enough without giving them a place to sell, and maybe they resort to picking pockets instead. It seems like city officials are unable to apply reason to this problem.

  3. ltlee says:

    “He said that these small-time hawkers didn’t have a basic sense of order, and if it weren’t for urban management the streets would be chock full of them — and what would happen if the roads were all jammed?”
    Well, China has one big problem. Rapid urbanization which amount to the largest migration in human history. Living in rapidly growing and evolving cities means living among strangers where many “rules” would be established and re-established. Before these rules could take their forms which could accommodate most residents, a period of “might is right” is inevitable. Similarly, online communication is by nature communication among strangers. Aggression is inevitable in the absence of competent moderators.

  4. You ask what sort of social institutions would create this sort of behavior? In addition to the third world institutions that make it difficult for everyday folk to participate equally in society described above, you have a country that funnels one voice and one opinion throughout the entire country. And it is a voice that if you are not entirely on board with China (or as I have heard it more comically described, a “China Cheerleader”), you will be demonized.

    Anyone who writes about China and says one bad thing can just expect nasty criticism. I have seen it on my own blog, and virtually every other article, that even to the slightest inclination, hints that China might not be the answer to our world’s problems, will get the nasty feedback you mention.

    The growing sub class in China, as you mention, is angry, and rightfully so. But, because of the censorship and tight control of the media, they are forced to take it out on something their country’s officials will approve of– and not their own institutions that are causing the problems in the first place.

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