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Sin and Virtue: The Internet's Secret Code

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

Okay, so not long ago, I put out a post (written in November, actually...) about the internet getting meaner. Since then, I've been wracking my brain about why it's happening.

Then I developed a theory that made it all snap into place.

Art by Michelle Browne

What makes someone end up as the main character on Twitter for a particular day?

It might be a subculture issue - for example, tabletop roleplay game (TTRPG) Twitter is pretty mad at Critical Role right now because their opening credits feature arguably colonialist imagery/fantasies, and some have argued that its Marquet setting is supporting/pushing orientalism. (Orientalism is the term for the Western artistic fascination with "The East," conflating a whole mess of cultures that include everything from Anatolians and Turks to Egyptians and Iranians, all the way to to Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese cultural elements, and more.)

I can't really debate this argument because I'm not a SWANA (South-West Asian and/or North African) or SEA (South-East Asian) person, but I would say that there's only so much any particular work of media can do to unpack the entire legacy of colonialism. Change is always going to be incremental; even revolutions leave a lot of paperwork in their wake.

However, there is something interesting about a good-faith effort being taken as cynical, false, and ill-willed. It's not the first time I've watched something like that happen, either - particularly on Twitter, which thrives on anger, because its algorithm says it has to.

So - just posting on Twitter to vent or be angry is kind of inherently dangerous on that basis alone - it's more likely that you might go viral just when you're vulnerable. Add in a mixture of people interacting in bad faith, and the recipe for conflict is already spicy. But what about people who see themselves as inherently just, or fighting for the right cause? Surely we've all been that person, who signal-boosted a conflict because it seemed important, or weighed in with their two cents. Sometimes, or frequently, the target of that ire may be a person or group with whom we usually would agree - except for this time, or a few other times, of course...

But why would we treat each other badly?

To survive in a system hostile to our existence, many marginalized people have to learn the art of reading subtext. People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and those who have survived trauma and/or abuse also tend to be members of marginalized groups - and reading the subtle tells of people acting abusively tends to train in hypersensitivity. Unfortunately, that hypersensitivity and the rampant lack of mental health care and resources means that many marginalised people are extremely jumpy, even around each other. The casual abuses of the world around us trains us to default to paranoid readings of the words and writing of mainstream culture. After all, being openly homophobic/queerphobic, openly racist, or openly discriminatory in other ways is punished socially, or at least awkward - but passive-aggression or more subtle jabs abound. Not noticing these things can be harmful to us, so unfortunately, we tend to default to paranoid readings of situations - even when creators, content makers, or other internet strangers are acting in good faith.

Good intentions, bad chemistry

Speaking of abusive or discriminatory environments, it's also true that a lot of leftists in North America have come from culturally Christian backgrounds. Even if we've moved away from that lifestyle and religion, the logic and classification system remains in our minds - the moral hierarchy of goodness and badness, of evil and moral rightness. And unfortunately, that system is pretty lopsided and badly balanced. After all, we're talking about the system of beliefs wherein - particularly for evangelical Christianity - anal sex is about on par with sexual assault; robbery with being overly proud of yourself; and murder, on par with masturbation.

"Wait, that's not right!"

Well - that's a complex topic, but technically, they're all sins. Sure, some admit that not all sins are equally bad - but they're all considered sinful. There's more to it than that, sure, but from a lay-Christian perspective, the sin thing is persistent. We are all sinners before God, and ultimately, only He can forgive us - so the rhetoric goes.

Now substitute in "problematic" for the word "sinful." Suddenly, certain behavioural patterns make an uncomfortable amount of sense. There is also no God-figure or representational stand-in, such as a priest or pastor, to act as a forgiver or mediator of transgressions for those of us in the social justice sphere. There is the crowd - whose reactions are cherry-picked by the algorithm to show their worst side - and that's about it. Thus, we may turn to the crowd in hopes of forgiveness, but without leaders (or even a belief in leadership), that just results in a wall of diverse opinions.

So what comes next? Do we need secular forgiveness-priests?

I'm not saying we need leaders or arbiters of forgiveness, because that's inherently a system of power that seems both ineffective and dangerous, but it's worth being conscious of our roots so that we can understand the flaws in our own rhetoric and belief structures.

And hey, it's a lot easier to be less suspicious of others when we understand the flaws and dangers of our own perspectives - and the way our mental health issues and backgrounds colour our perspective. Slowing down and giving others the benefit of the doubt takes time, practice, and discipline - but once the habit is created, life becomes so much more relaxing.

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