Life in the pecking order
Why is insulting others so in vogue today?
By Susanne Janssen
Have you ever watched a flock of hens establishing their hierarchy? They peck at each other mercilessly; the chicken at the bottom of the “pecking order” is jabbed at by the others, while the chicken at the top goes unscathed. They settle their pecking order by physical aggression and dominance, similar to wolf packs, where wolves fight to get a higher place in the hierarchy.
These days, in our society, we mostly interact verbally, while physical aggression is used less frequently to settle one’s social status. However, on social media, as psychologist Nigel Barber explains, we’re more like chickens.
“An insult can thus be interpreted as an attempt to reduce the social status of the recipient and raise the relative status of the insulter,” he explains. “The pecking-order logic of insults means that if the recipient is shamed, then the insulter rises in status relative to the victim: the insulter is the one doing the pecking rather than getting pecked.”
Not all attacks are equal, of course. “Some pecks miss their mark and have no impact upon relative status,” Barber says.
Spiraling out of control
Needless to say, most of these darts are thrown on social media. Most people, hopefully, wouldn’t step out of their doors and yell defamations at their neighbors. Yet many people feel emboldened to do so on the Internet.
“Who cares?” you might think, because thanks to an algorithm, most people’s Facebook walls and Twitter feeds mainly display content that reflects their own opinions.
However, the whole culture of insulting seems to be spiraling out of control. How and why have the floodgates been opened to release so much hatred?
For many years, an open but civil discourse was a value that most people shared. Freedom of speech means the right to express one’s thoughts; but over time, this right has become increasingly problematic.
“Political correctness” seems to have changed this. Previously used as a way to express facts and thoughts without discriminating against others, this is now a term fraught with negative connotations that would almost imply an elitist dictatorship that tells people what to think and say.
This has caused major backlash. Once all barriers of civility are gone, the waves of disrespect, prejudice, misogyny, xenophobia have the power to erode the basis of our democracy.
It wasn’t always like this
Before, U.S. society was marked by compliance and friendliness. Europeans are often stunned from the friendliness they encounter by the staff at a grocery store, as well as by the smiles and polite manners among strangers that children learn from an early age.
Barber describes how effective communities maintain solidarity by keeping direct scorn to a minimum. “Hence the elaborate traditions of politeness and respect found in real-world communities of the past; people behaved in this way to avoid unnecessary anger, disputes, and violence.”
Online communities, however, don’t operate this way anymore. Trolls and paid campaigners fuel the flames, stirring up anger and hatred, which effectively divides communities, faith traditions and entire countries.
Facebook and other social media try to find ways to cushion the blow of these destructive forces, while maintaining the high demands of freedom of speech and tolerance. The usual group mechanisms that function in face-to-face relationships — someone who verbally puts down his fellow tennis player will be eventually disqualified, for example — don’t work in the virtual domain, given that people have the whole world to search through to find others who share their views.
Where does all the vitriol come from?
But what is the root cause of all these insults? Normally, a person who is happy and content with his or her life doesn’t feel the need to abuse others. Furthermore, people who feel that their voice matters and that they have some influence over their community don’t need to yell at or slander others.
In our global society, this isn’t the case anymore. People feel overwhelmed and powerless amid rapid changes in the world, globalization and growing injustice.
Thus, lacking any alternative mode to set the world straight, they turn to insult those who think differently, as an outlet and means of relief.
Decency is not a priority
The insults we see every day on social media also influence how we interact; they mark a “new normality” in society. Even politicians join the fray when they mock their opponents.
Violating codes of decency doesn’t have the same consequences it once did, and controlling mechanisms are still missing since there is a fine line between control and censorship. This gives way to a culture of outrage and polarization, in which content providers often share posts that, rather than inviting readers to share their opinions, simply ask which side they are on.
These posts only seek to evoke an affirmative response or a flaming rejection — nothing in between. Chickens always peck the ones below them, because they cannot touch those above. And in turn the pecked chicken will peck the one below it, creating an endless chain.
Must it be this way among human society as well? Aren’t we better than this?
Confronted with offensive and polarizing posts, I can simply choose to ignore them. I share kindness instead, even if I get fewer likes and shares. I need to believe, even if it’s difficult, that kindness is stronger than abuse, that love is stronger than hate.
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