THE ESSAYS ISSUE, VOL. 2
The week of April 5, 2015

The Internet’s all right for fighting

By Emmett Rensin

Like most teenage malcontents, I spent a lot of time hanging around garbage Los Angeles rock closets and garbage bars that weren’t too strict about IDing, talking garbage politics, and listening to garbage music on garbage nights and smoking garbage pot in parking lots with other Valley kids whose older sisters’ boyfriends had cannabis club cards, too. I don’t know where the real punks were. Long gone by 2005, probably, and sure as hell not hanging around Second Street with some eighth-grade poser in a Joy Division T-shirt.

The kids in the dance clubs were our chosen enemies. The difference came down to two kinds of dancing for people who didn’t know how to dance. Ours involved moshing, throwing our elbows, and kicking our legs out in what must have looked like a looked a highly choreographed routine. It was fake fighting, and it was the most sincere thing I had going for me.

I don’t go in much for mosh pits anymore, but the idea of routinized violence stuck with me: I traded bullshit dancing for bullshit Facebook arguments. I am an addict, more in the style of Candy Crush obsessives than heroin junkies; I’m never looking for a fix—just getting one, mindlessly, in any spare moment over anything at all.

I argue to procrastinate. I argue before I get out of bed. I argue on my own wall and on the walls of others; I belong to several Facebook groups dedicated to arguing (although these, as a rule, generate arguments far less satisfying than the organic kind—such is the nature of self-selecting clubs). I argue on my laptop between episodes of Law and Order: SVU, and I argue on my phone at bars and parties.

That last behavior earns the ire of a set of scolds who operate under the bizarre misapprehension that before smartphones, in-person conversation was a universally rapt affair. These people are everywhere, at bars and parties, on cigarette breaks, and some years ago the frequency with which my face went down into the glow of artificial light was cited among the top reasons a woman was leaving me. She said it revealed how uninteresting I found her. Well, if it means anything, know that I’m looking down on my phone to yell on Facebook because I like it.

Let me give you just a partial list of questions over which I’ve helped fill threads with over six dozen comments, burning out the energy of whoever wanted to talk in the first place. Here’s some from just the last week:

  1. Whether moral truths imply moral facts
  2. Whether or not Arrested Development was actually a good show
  3. Whether there’s a proper way to say “Nevada”
  4. Whether working in firearm design is a moral act
  5. Whether Rahm Emanuel should remain mayor of Chicago
  6. Whether writers’ retreats are scams

In addition, there was the proper definition of a tabloid, the ethics of aggregation, the dramaturgical promise of this year’s House of Cards, how much light can remain when the sun has technically “set,” how involved Iran is in Syria, and how insulting it is to see William Shatner ads for PriceLine on Hulu when you’re trying to watch Star Trek because Leonard Nimoy just died.

I argue to procrastinate. I argue before I get out of bed. I argue on my own wall and on the walls of others.

I’m told I belong to a conflict avoidant generation, but it’s never hard to fill out my dance card for these things. Even those who would never raise an objection, much less their voice, in the course of in-person conversation have difficulty resisting a comment thread gone hostile. Most don’t have the endurance to hang in for the whole thing—they’ll argue for half an hour then move on—but this does not speak to their willingness so much as their athleticism. I didn’t start out with enough steam for a day-long online brawl. It took time the develop the chops for such a marathon, and if I only fought with those in similar shape, I’d spend most of my time just looking for a worthy match. But amateurs make good enablers, too.

“Enablers” is wrong. I’m not speaking of the kind of vice that makes one’s life unmanageable. These aren’t cigarettes; I don’t need to quit. I argue on the Internet for the same reason I used to frequent mosh pits: There is a pleasure in harmless conflict for its own sake.

• • •

Presently, nobody seems to believe me when I say my motives are so simple. I suspect this is because Internet arguments belong to the class of activities we’re meant to be ashamed of. It’s meant to be a guilty pleasure. The consensus lumps it in with over-liking, with late-night texting one-night stands, with following the Instagrams of old lovers, and with all those things too many of us do but only admit to with some dutiful self-reproach. I’m not proud, but at least I’m self aware, right?

We do this because we believe that these activities give away a certain kind of insecurity. They are obsessions, the behaviors of people who can’t move on, who can’t find self-respect, and who are trying much too hard. For a nation obsessed with self-starting, there is no motive less desirable than pretension, than fixating on a world that doesn’t fixate on us. The over-liker and the late-night texter have given up their power. The Facebook arguer is giving up her cool. At best, we are taken to be trying too hard to sound smarter than we are; at worst, we are taken to be contrarians, moved by the secret insecurity of assholes, projecting our abiding fear that we know nothing and nobody likes us. Who gets into a fight without anything to prove? What’s worse these days than seeming like you’re trying to prove something?

• • •

It’s easy enough to ignore the scolds. But these last few years have seen the rise of something far more threatening.

I’m speaking of an aggression usually often referred to as trolling but better known as harassment, a practice that has made the Web increasingly unsafe for advocates of certain politics. I like nothing more than a good burner, but they’re difficult to instigate when for somebody like Anita Sarkeesian—one of the prime victims of the Gamergate campaign— the word “argument” is a polite term for “death threat.” The frequency of these attacks has taken over Web culture during the past few years, and if I’m to defend an Internet for fighting, I should say something about those who have used that Internet to make people fear for their lives.

For a flame war to be fun, it must exist with fun in mind, and the game hinges on it remaining a game. The views may be sincere, and the anger may be real, but all of this must exist within the fiction of its context and within the mutually understood assumption that this is an exercise, not a war. Here’s a Facebook fight I’m tired of having: whether or not an acceptable response to a political argument is shut up get raped and die. (It’s not.)

I’m told I belong to a conflict avoidant generation, but it’s never hard to fill out my dance card for these things.

A Facebook fight about Israel isn’t the same as a death threat, and I refuse to have anything to do with these monsters.

I’m inclined to think of the mosh pit. We had a way of dealing with it there. Let the naysayers stand on the sidelines, and let anyone who wanted to get too rough try it: The crowd had no reservations about lifting them into the air and throwing them outside the circle.

• • •

I spend a lot of time rationalizing my own habits. I feel compelled to justify even trivial behaviors to the uninterested, or against those who charge others of abusing my hobbies, or really anyone who suggests that how I spend my time makes me anything less than exactly the sort of person anyone should like. I watch NFL football. I spend more time in ponderous discussions of whether the sport is too violent than I do watching actual games.

We run into trouble when we try too hard. That’s where the trap is. The need to give reasons, to give good reasons, to persuade others that an activity that has nothing to do with them at all becomes the very way we validate their skepticism. If it’s fine, then why are you so defensive about it? Some pleasures don’t need reasons. As far as Internet arguing goes, the reason-givers are the assholes: Those are the future trolls who can’t help telling you that they don’t argue—they debate. Well. I don’t debate. I argue. And I don’t have a good reason for that; the lack of one is a reason in itself. Activity without apparent purpose is a rare pleasure these days. I like arguing on the Internet because so long as everybody plays fair, there are no consequences. It’s either that or Tetris.

Sometime between the mosh pits and the Facebook fights, I spent a lot of time hanging around 12-step meetings. The real die-hards there, the lucky few of the 1 percent for whom such programs work long term, never stopped being addicts. It was only that their addiction wasn’t harmful anymore. Instead of drugs, they had meetings: meetings they could go to every single day, meetings with rituals and validation and retreat from the world, everything an addict looks for but without the nasty side effects of real drugs.

A decade or two in, most of them were in little danger of going back to the bottle. They didn’t need a meeting every day; they no longer had the reason this keeps me from using to come back to the group every night. They did it because they felt compelled to and it provided an outlet for an impulse unacceptable in ordinary life in a space designed for that sort of bloodletting. They did it because it felt good.

We don’t need reasons. Some things can be done for their own sake. The nay-sayers miss the point when they say that it’s all meaningless; the trolls miss it when they attach too much importance to high meaning. The question is safety, not purpose. A mosh pit is better than a real fight because real fights break bones. The Internet is all right for fighting, because so long as everybody understands the game, nobody goes home broken.

Maybe that’s wrong. But you can find me on Facebook. I’m happy to fight about it.

Emmett Rensin is an essayist in Chicago. His previous work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Republic, Vox, the Los Angeles Review of Books (where he is a contributing editor), and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @revemmettrensin.

Photo via Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr (PD) | Remix by Jason Reed