I have a confession to make. I frequently, even though I know there are much, much better things out there, visit sites like TechCrunch and PandoDaily. I peruse much of what Farhad Manjoo, Megan Garber and Brian Moylan write. I read Francisco Dao, though his words makes me long for the soothing sound of nails careering down a chalkboard. I scan MG Siegler’s posts, knowing that his opinions are horribly contorted and absurd.
When I disagree with someone, I don’t mute them: I hate-read them instead. Sounds nuts, doesn’t it? Sounds guaranteed to raise my blood pressure and engorge the Swear Jar. So why do I do it? There are enough good journalists and pundits out there. Why do I read things I know will be asinine or obnoxious? Why do I actively seek out things that will make me angry?
As it happens, I’m not unique in this. Anthropologists have known for a long time that we all, sometimes secretly and sometimes not-so-secretly, desire an enemy: someone who offends our core values, at times even creating a straw man when we cannot find a viable candidate. As Desmond Morris noted in Tribes, “for some members of twentieth-century cultures, the only way of fully understanding themselves is to establish whom they are against”.
In other words, the threat of a common enemy ties us together and strengthens us. Could this be why homosexual blogs, for example, will scour the news media and Twitter for any whiff of anti-gay rhetoric from public figures, even if they are relatively unknown and largely unimportant?
Social groups need to have a mechanism to understand external phenomena, even if it exists in the form of: “that is the work of the devil”. Otherwise, rifts may appear in group structure the moment new knowledge arises, as happened during the Copernican Revolution. Social groups look to their leaders, both religious and lay, for guidance in how to understand what is new.
Social cohesion also occurs on a personal level during fear and periods of heightened emotion. One psychological study, performed by Professor Dolf Zillmann and others, even suggests a “snuggle theory”: that the dyadic viewing of horror movies is a sort of “status declaration ceremony”. In English, that means that among heterosexual couples, a horror movie allows the male to display his masculinity in a non-threatening way and the female to act fearfully, in kind.
Ovid, you will recall, suggested taking female companions to bloody gladiatorial combat as an effective route to seduction.
When we call out laziness or sloth in another, we are testifying that we are not practitioners of either. It becomes a more moral lesson to others; a warning. Recently, many in the technology journalism world wrote diatribes about the billionaire Sean Parker, founder of Napster and ex-president of Facebook, for alleged environmental transgressions associated with his nuptials.
Without performing a full analysis of the environmental records of the journalists in question, it is logical to assume that the scandal actually had nothing to do with what Parker did or did not do to the environment. The scandal was against the excesses of the wealthy, and. as Parker pointed out in a nearly 10,000 word op-ed in TechCrunch, he had been made the scapegoat for excess in Silicon Valley.
There are downsides to hate-reading, of course. If performed flippantly, hate-reading can cause us to distill our enemies into one-dimensional caricatures. We then describe them as dumb, unimportant, vapid, vain and evil. Parker will always be portrayed as excessive, Mark Zuckerberg as aloof and the brothers Samwer as unethical.
After any world news event, we first run to our own trusted news sources to learn what happened “in reality” and then to the pundits we trust to parse how the opposition wrongly viewed the event. Like medieval exegeses on the bible, we want to know the “right way” to see the world.
In spite of all that, we need to know a bogeyman actually exists, because it validates our way of life. Finding those people helps us assure ourselves that we are not crazy, neurotic conspiracy theorists.
Hate-reading sets us apart from bubble-dwellers who subsist on their own Kool Aid and pipe dreams. It defines the bubble’s walls. As Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War: “if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss”.