This week I met two jerks on the internet

This week I met two jerks on the internet.

Shortly after the SONA speech I was feeling something I don’t think many of us are used to feeling. I was feeling hopeful. More than that, I was feeling inspired. I’m not such a wide-eyed child of nature that I thought Cyril the Saviour had descended from ahigh to lead us humming and holding hands to the Kingdom of Rainbows, but I liked the rhetoric of somewhat starting over, of trying again, of everyone gathered up and working in our different ways toward a common goal, certainly one in which our leaders don’t steal as rapaciously from us but perhaps also one this time in which those who have are willing to give so that those who don’t can have a chance of more. In the same way that the endorphins of falling in love help carry you through the difficulties and dreariness of a real-life relationship, we need the happy hormones of a renewed political rhetoric, especially before a budget speech.

I chanced upon a chap on Twitter. He was no one I knew although I feel I’ve known plenty like him. He is a particular kind of Capetonian man who drives a particular kind of car and went to a particular kind of Cape Town high school, the sort of school that seems to regularly produce people who have a certain assurance of regard for themselves and a conviction of their rightful place in the world.

His car had been clamped because he had parked in the wrong place, and he had to pay R500 to have it unclamped. Now, there are many responses available when your car has been clamped. You might feel annoyance or embarrassment at yourself for having parked in the wrong place; you might feel aggrieved at the management policies and write a strongly worded letter to the decision makers. Or you might feel that the rules shouldn’t apply to you because you are very important and very busy, you have an important job and a nice car, so you are justified in taking out your entitled frustration on another person who is less powerful than you, who set none of the rules that you have violated, and who you consider to be worth less than you because he has what you consider to be a less important job. Then, you might boast about it on the internet so that your friends can chuckle and shake their heads and say what a character you are.

Was his tormenting of the security guard racist? I can’t see inside his head, thankfully, and I suppose it’s possible, as one anonymous friend of his argued, that he would behave that way to any minimum-wage worker who has no way of fighting back, even if that minimum-wage worker were white, but since we live in South Africa that’s a hypothesis that’s hardly likely be tested. Let’s be generous and say that his behavior wasn’t racist, even though it is externally indistinguishable from racist behavior. So the question becomes: is simply being a coward and a bully really that much better?

So I was in high dudgeon, and as I engaged this jerk and he replied with the aggressive bravado of a young lord of the southern suburbs, as he switched to personal insults and the dim-witted bluster of legal threats, my dudgeon stayed buoyant. There is something darkly, shamefully seductive about being righteously publicly angry: it is the mentality of a mob, even when there’s only one of you. There’s a quickening of the blood, a rush of something sickeningly like enjoyment. Sanctimoniously, I let myself be seduced by the somewhat nauseous pleasures of being right. Even when it became clear that he was out of his depth, that the swagger and confidence of his place in society was a thin layer covering a profound ignorance – of law, of morality, of the dynamics of power, of how to use the internet and how to use the English language – even after he deleted the initial tweet and the mocking photograph he had taken of the security guard, I didn’t let it drop. I was right, and he was wrong, and I wanted to punish him. I became the bully.

And so when I finally stepped back from the screen I felt queasy. I do not like the spectacle of people too convinced of their own rectitude. The internet is very good at separating us from humanity – our own, and that of the people we disagree with, even the villains. Dehumanising someone, no matter what you think of them, doesn’t lead anywhere good; shame doesn’t build anything better. That way leads to cruelty.

I encountered two jerks on the internet this week. At least I can do something about one of them.

The Times, 22 February 2018