Trolls, Avatars and the Convertible Effect

I remember when I first learned about the atrocities of the Holocaust in school. I could not imagine the type of person who could do such things to another person. I remember one particular story about an SS Soldier who would return home after a day of putting Jews in the ovens, kiss his children on the forehead and read the paper over dinner.

Was an entire nation of people born void of their soul? It would actually be more comforting if this was the case. But what’s most chilling about the stories of Nazi Germany is the idea that it could have been any of us in that situation. Are we so sure we wouldn’t have succumbed to the same kind of culturally normalized evil? Certainly we wouldn’t stoop so low as to dehumanize our sisters and brothers, would we?

Then in my psychology class, I learned about the Stanford prison experiment, where the basement of a campus building at the school was converted into a makeshift jail. Half of the student volunteers were assigned to be jailers, while the others were to be prisoners. The degree to which peoples’ behavior toward – and attitude about – one another over such a short time period in a highly contrived environment was sobering.

Recently, I read a study about how people treat one another in traffic. Anyone who has driven in an urban setting has likely been either the purveyor or the recipient of road rage, or maybe both. It seems to be increasingly normal that people act aggressively toward one another, though they don’t know each other at all.

The study found, though, that the aggressiveness toward other drivers was markedly reduced when the other driver was in a convertible. The theory as to why is because there are fewer barriers between the two people, so it’s harder to ignore their humanity.

In short, it’s easy to berate, or even cut off, the a-hole in the next lane; it’s entirely another thing to do it to a real, live human being.

Can a few pieces of metal and glass really make that much of a difference? Is our compassion for one another so fickle and fragile that we dehumanize each other as long as there’s so much as a window between us?

Or a yellow star?

So it’s no surprise that the vitriol some people spew at each other online is apparently everywhere. As I expanded my writing circles online to places like the Huffington Post, I came to know a type of user known by many as “trolls.” The moniker comes from the old fairytale stories where the trolls would hide under bridges, only to jump out to harass or scare passersby, then retreat to their hiding place down below. Granted, even the word “troll” as a dehumanizing ring to it, but I can see where the idea came from after reading some of the comments people post.

They don’t even know me, said the voice in my head. Why are they so…mean?

The fact is that we all have a little bit of troll in us. From a safe arms-length distance, we are much more inclined to cast off-hand judgments when there’s no perceived risk to ourselves. We’ll say things about folks in the media, distant relatives or even close friends or spouses when we feel like we can get away with it.

But when there’s a chance we’ll have to face that person with them knowing what we’ve said, well, that’s a different story.

I’ve written off and on about the value of mutual accountability, particularly in a recent post about Rob Bell leaving his home church, Mars Hill. Though a physical, flesh and blood community of faith is hardly the only way we can experience such accountability, it is one that adds an important component to our faith experience.

My wife, Amy, loves to point out that, although people can find God on a mountaintop or in a book, that mountain can’t come listen to you when you’re in crisis. The book can’t hug you back.

They may fall short on help keeping us in check when we start treating our sisters and brothers as a little bit “less than.” Sometimes the best reminder that God is in our midst is to do the hard work of acknowledging that same divinity in the eyes of someone you find very hard to love. But once you see it, it’s pretty hard to ignore.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of social networking and the benefits of having people connected in such different spaces, all at the same time. But when we begin to see it as a reasonable substitute for direct relationship, we risk treating the people on the other end more like the two-dimensional avatar we see on their profile.

There was a reason Jesus walked around and talked to people, face to face, most of the time. And it wasn’t just because he didn’t have a laptop.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of “Banned Questions About The Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called “PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.” For more information about Christian, visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Kathleen Haley

    Having been the victim of many trolls, I agree that it is really easy to jump out any criticize when you are not looking the person in the face. 

    Welcome Christian, I’m up in Denver.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Kathleen! Good to connect, albeit virtually :-)


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