The Psychology of Anonymity

Historically, anonymity required at least of modicum of investment and effort. You could opt for the spandex suit and the horn rim glasses of Clark Kent’s Superman (or is that Superman’s Clark Kent?). You could ride into town as the tall dark stranger with the ominous six-gun such that no one dared speak to you, much less ask your name. Or at the very least you needed a grassy knoll to snipe from, or a car from which to flip a finger. But the Internet today provides options for anonymity with unprecedented ease. The result has been an opportunity to study some fascinating aspects of human psychology. Not to mention the opportunity for some interesting dinnertime conversations.

Specifically, the conversation was on Flame Baiters. This is the name given to Internet users who post on websites or send emails that are intentionally rude and insulting to a person or a group. The writing is often completely off-topic, but seems intent only on eliciting an emotional response. The Flame Baiter is most always anonymous.

The obvious first question is, why? What motivates Flame Baiters? The answers are already pretty well documented as Flame Baiters are simply online bullies. By causing someone to lose emotional control through a response to the bait, they exert their own control over them, and in this way fulfill their unsatiated need to feel empowered. This sense of empowerment can also come from the baiter’s duality should they also know their target in person. Online, they abuse their target, possibly even hinting they know the target personally, then in person they feign friendliness. This knowledge, and the resultant suspicion they hope the target will feel toward their friends serves to further the baiter’s sense of control.

So the Flame Baiter, like all bullies, has issues… likely issues they are not even aware of at a conscious level. It’s a pitiable situation, but in the greater scheme of groups in need of help, I’m not going to lose any sleep over the lack of a telethon for these people. I am intrigued though about the implication of this behavior. What does it say about the practitioners of Flame Baiting and who they are as people? What other behaviors might we expect of them?

First, I would contend that there are far more “cyber” bullies out there than there are “in-person” bullies. And while I think those who would bully to your face are likely and capable of bullying online, I suspect the converse is not true. I think the reason is simply fear and/or insecurity. It’s said that bullies don’t lack self-esteem because without it they could not bring themselves to confront and taunt people. But Flame Baiting requires no such risk. It’s somewhat tailor-made for the insecure or closet bully, and I suspect this is the sort of person that makes up the majority of the rank. So the Flame Baiter is basically revealing a hidden side of their personality. And I would claim, the truer side. By virtue of what amounts to fear, they have learned to suppress this bullying behavior when dealing with people in person. But now comes an opportunity for them to express this repressed personality without fear of physical or social retribution.

I would assert that we are never so true to our nature as when we know no one is watching. The Flame Baiter, by way of their anonymity, is not being watched, and is revealing their true self in a way that is safe for them. It seems not a big leap to expect that this same sort of person would engage in other self-serving behaviors when not under a watchful eye. I wouldn’t be surprised to find this person shoplifting, or running stop signs at deserted intersections. And while this is not abhorrent behavior, it is inherently anti-social. These people are placing their own self-interest above the needs of the whole. They play by the rules when being watched, but freely serve themselves when they feel there are no consequences.

In some ways, you could argue that this sort of behavior is more corrosive to society that the in-your-face social deviance exhibited by the conventional bully. The conventional bully is known as such and is often treated carefully and usually not trusted by society. Whereas the Flame Baiter is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Earning your trust by day, and stealthily thwarting you by cover of darkness.

All of which brings me (curiously but unsurprisingly) to God, and why despite being an atheist I do not want to live in a world without him. God is the ultimate security camera. We are told he watches all we do and makes us accountable for those actions. And while this is often a disconcerting notion in the bathroom, I think it is absolutely the thing that keeps many would-be social deviants (of many flavors) from acting on their impulses and being their true selves. The idea of God acts as a brake on the wheel or as a lid on the pot. It gives many believers the idea that there are consequences for their actions, even if no one is watching. Without this constraint, there would be many many more people doing many worse things than Flame Baiting. There are frankly an uncomfortable number of social deviants even with a population who professes to be over 4/5 Christian. It makes me wonder how many “heretics in Christian clothing” are already out there, attending services and feigning Christian values by day, and acting on their less than Christian impulses by night.

Dawkins and Hitchens are wrong. We do not want religion to go away. The vast majority of the population is not psychologically suited for that. If anything, religion needs to strengthen its role in many people’s personal lives (maybe it could devote less time to politics?). I think the notion of a perpetual father figure might keep a few more people in line.

Waxing Political

I’ve been staying largely on the sidelines of the seemingly never ending run-up to the 2008 Presidential election. Watching and waiting for some of the dust to settle. The problem is, that I’m not a rabid fan of anyone running, and I don’t believe anyone else entering the race at this point has any reasonable prospect of winning. But it’s time to weigh in. Not that I’m endorsing anyone. I’m not quite ready for that. But I do have some opinions that are forming based on the the current campaigns, debates, caucuses, and primaries. And in the spirit of this blog’s mission to publicize the musings in my head, I thought I’d share.

First, a confession of my bias. It’s no secret to any (either?) of my regular readers that I consider the Bush administration to be probably the most destructive in history. We have been “reaping” the rewards of a failed foreign policy for years now, exacerbated by a virtual lack of an energy policy. And now we are feeling the results of the misguided resurgence of Reaganomics coupled with some of the most radical de-regulation of industry in the modern era. These policies are abject failures, and as a result, it would be very difficult for me to rationalize a vote for a Republican, almost regardless of the person. And this is a difficult position for me. I tend not to be a partisan voter, but I think federal politics has become so partisan, and the pendulum has swung so far in one direction, that it needs to be countered in the other direction. I say this in full awareness that I won’t be happy if it swings too far back either, but we need to establish momentum in that direction.

To that end, the Republican ticket has become almost irrelevant to me, except for considering how scared I should be if any of them get elected. To that end, it’s also worth considering how they stack up as opponents of potential Democratic nominees.

Fortunately, flash-in-the-pan Fred has winked out. And while Ron Paul is great fun to watch, he is arguably the Ross Perot of this campaign. He has no chance at the Republican convention, but he makes the debates interesting. I do think that he has enough grass-roots support though that he could be a wild-card. I think it’s possible that he could be drafted as an Independent candidate. This would put him in the position of being the Ralph Nader of the Republicans. Someone without danger of being elected, but who could draw enough votes from the Republican candidate to influence the overall election results. Go Ron!

Rudy is a might scary prospect, but hopefully he’s also on the way out. He seems most intent on continuing the Bush strategies. He doesn’t say so directly as invoking Bush’s name is somewhat political suicide at the moment, even for members of his own party. But many of his backers and handlers are ex-Bushies, and if you listen to his policy proposals, they amount to more of the same. However, while he’s one of the scariest prospects to be President, he’s probably the most beatable in the general election as his Bush allegiance could be leveraged against him.

Rev. Huckabee is another scary prospect. He’s an extremely likable guy. He knows how to give a speech, has a great sense of humor, and a populist message. The trouble is, he’s also a raving Evangelical. He sees no problem with codifying his religious views into law. He’s also a Young-Earth Creationist. He accurately argues this shouldn’t matter as he believes educational curricula are the domain of the states. But while this does potentially protect our students, it doesn’t bode well for his decision making process. Like it or not, professing a literal belief in a 6000 year old planet means that as a person you are willing to disregard mountains of data, the opinions of experts in their fields, and 100s of years of wisdom in order to preserve your world-view. This is not a leadership position I want to follow. We need a leader who’s willing to make decisions based on things that actually are, not things that he feels are correct. The good news is that Huckabee’s funding is fading and maybe he’ll burn out. But it’s way to early to write him off yet.

This brings us to McCain and Romney. There is a lot to like about John McCain. He does seem to be honest and straightforward with his opinions. I get the sense that we actually know where he stands on the issues. His relatively centrist views on most issues honestly make him a somewhat appealing candidate for me. Unfortunately, he’s adamant about “the war on terror” and won’t back away from the preemption policy Bush started. This is the key reason, bolstered by my current aversions to the Republican party in general, that I can’t get behind him. However, this makes him the biggest challenge to the Democratic nominee – whomever that is.

Romney is the big unknown. He is the Gumby of the Republican slate. The only thing that’s really clear to me is that he will adopt whatever position is required to get him elected – regardless of its anatomical improbability. I don’t believe he has any personal convictions whatsoever. I’m pretty sure that he could just as easily have chosen to run on the Democratic side, and would be just as comfortable pandering to that party’s base. This scares me for a whole different reason. If elected, he’ll likely continue to bend with the political breezes. But we need a fundamental directional change at this point, and that will require a leader who’s willing to paddle upstream. That isn’t Mitt. The danger is, Mitt “looks” presidential. He’s a good speaker, and with the proper propaganda machine behind him, he will be appealing to many voters who aren’t really paying too much attention to anything other than the sound bites – and unfortunately, that’s most of them.

The Democrats are honestly easier to talk about, but mostly because they have self-selected down to three already. Some would claim, it’s already down to two. But I hope that’s not true. The reason is that I think Obama and Clinton both have some serious issues.

Hillary is, in many respects, the ultimate political machine. She’s a smart and capable woman, and she’s maybe the most politically astute candidate running in either party. She knows how to play the system to get a result. On the one hand this is a little scary. It’s hard to tell exactly where she stands, but in many respects, she’s most likely to actually get something done. The problem is, she carries a lot of baggage. A third of voters say the country isn’t ready for a woman to be President. And her personal negatives as a Clinton approach half the electorate. The Clinton legacy carries another anchor too – Bill. At least recently, Bill has dropped the facade of elder statesman in favor of rabid politician. He speaks in plural tones of Hillary’s election. It would seem he wants back in the White House, one way or the other. While many Bill fans may welcome a de-facto third term of Bill Clinton, I think the negatives of this approach will outweigh the positives in the general election. He would do well to take a page from Poppy Bush’s book. Let it be Hillary’s campaign, and be the quiet strength behind her. In the end though, while it may not be fair, but the reality is that come November, she is the most likely candidate to be beaten. I think McCain will trounce her, and Romney will likely will out as well. Her best hope is to have to face Rudy or Mike, but that’s unlikely.

Obama has similar problems. He also stands against a third of the electorate who (in this case) do not feel the country is ready for a Black President. Should race be an issue? No. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t. And the Dems can’t afford to lose this election for a matter of principle. However, if that were the only liability, I’d be willing to roll the dice. Obama has a high likability factor. He’s an eloquent speaker and a charismatic individual. But what will he actually do as President? It’s hard to tell. The policies he espouses are largely recasts of Clinton’s and Edwards’ policies. He hasn’t led with any policy introductions, nor identified anything that really distinguishes him from the others. Further, I get the impression that he thinks his charisma and likability will aid him in getting things done as he’ll just get everyone to come together and get along. I think he underestimates the forces against him. I think he runs the risk of being enormously ineffectual. Granted, given the proper handlers and supporting cast, his oratory skills could be used to great effect. But basically we’re then left to vote for a bunch of unknown appointees who would surround him in office. In this sense, he’s very much like Romney. I’d rather have a clearer direction from the start. Still, he doesn’t carry the baggage of Hillary, and I think would put up a better fight in the general election. But he’s hardly a shoe-in.

Which brings us to Edwards, the dark horse. Edwards has a strong populist message. He’s railed against the injustices of the corporate driven federal policies of years past, and seems arguably the strongest advocate of the middle class. He’s politically young though, and it’s not entirely clear he’ll play the game enough to accomplish what he’s setting out to do. But that may be a good thing to a degree. I can’t quite get behind some of the isolationist policies and some of the almost socialist policies he’s purporting, but he’s pushing the pendulum in the right direction, and pushing hard. I think the existing Congressional and lobbiest structure in place will keep the pendulum from moving too far left. I also think that some of his policies will moderate in the general election, as right now he’s desperately trying to distinguish himself from the Democratic front runners. Is he electable in the general election? Yes, I think so. He has no big negatives. I doubt the Republicans can Swift-boat him on a $400 hair cut. Arguably, I think he has the best chance to defeat any of the Republican candidates. Edwards’ problem is that he’s unlikely to survive the Democratic Convention.

But why can’t the Edwards campaign get traction? He’s claiming this is because of a lack of media coverage. And I think he’s right. My unscientific poll of friends and neighbors indicate that an appalling number are not following the campaigns or the candidates. They listen and respond to the media sound bites and the emails forwarded from their friends. This means the media does have a disproportionate influence on voters. If the networks aren’t running stories on Edwards, then he’s invisible to an absurd portion of the electorate.

Some are accusing the news media of having political agendas. That because of Edwards’ anti-corporate positions, the big businesses that own the news media have black-balled him. But I don’t think it’s anything that sinister or premeditated. I think it’s simply that networks are looking for stories that resonate with viewers. Edwards can spout policy all day, and that will not be as interesting to people as who Oprah is stumping for or whether or not Hillary had the right to invoke the name of Martin Luther King. These are the same media outlets providing us daily updates on the death-spiral of the Spears family. It’s sad, but in some ways it would be really beneficial for John Edwards if his wife had waited to have cancer until now. It would make him news, and he desperately needs that.

Where are we? Not in a pretty place. Mostly I think we have demonstrated that our vaunted democratic process is inexorably broken. Despite having access to more information than any population in history, we are possibly the most ignorant. The election of the so-called leader of the free world has devolved into little more than a national student council election. Still, as Jefferson said, democracy is the worst of all possible political systems, except for all the rest. So I guess we make do.