I’m a sucker for arguing on the internet–partly because I have this superstition that if I can find the right combination of words, almost anyone will be able to see things the way I see them. It’s been proven wrong a lot, but I keep believing it. (That’s what makes it a superstition.)
But I’m also intrigued by how toxic these debates can be under cover of anonymity. People say all sorts of things that they wouldn’t say face-to-face at a party–and I wonder if they are being more true to themselves, or less.
If angry people on the internet are mostly saying things they don’t mean, then I think society is doing all right. But if all that internet rage is an expression of people’s genuine, unspoken feelings, then I think we have a problem–because it seems like an awful lot of people see me, and people like me, as essentially monstrous.
Do we still believe in orcs?
In the Tolkien universe and most of its derivatives, orcs are a force of pure chaos and corruption, evil and irredeemable to the core. They live only to kill and enslave in the name of their wicked masters.
You don’t owe any moral obligation to an orc. They have no women and children, no conscientious objectors, no honest soldiers doing their duty. A dying orc won’t weep, or pray, or call out for his mother, or beg for his life.
This is handy for stories full of glorious battle, because it allows the heroes to slaughter without introspection. If you want a morally-costless “good war”, you pretty much have to be fighting orcs.
Our orcs are different
Of course, there’s no such thing as orcs, and we like to think of ourselves as having outgrown the idea–at least, we don’t imagine them among other nations and races anymore. But I think we still harbor some suspicion that there are orcs among our political opponents.
When you sort your enemies ideologically (rather than racially or nationally), it’s a lot easier to despise them. After all, a person can’t help their skin color or their hometown, but they choose to be Democrats/Republicans/bigots/atheists/whatever. And who would choose that, if they weren’t somehow morally or intellectually deficient?
In fact, the clearer your worldview seems to you, the harder it is not to believe in orcs. After all, the answers are so simple–why else would so many people stand in the way, if they weren’t vicious or stupid?
You can’t learn from an orc (and why would you try?)
None of this is to deny the existence of evil. In fact, the worst thing about assuming that your enemies are orcs is that it robs them of moral agency; you don’t have to think about how a real, human person could believe and behave that way.
You won’t respect their arguments well enough to refute them, and–more importantly–you won’t recognize yourself when you start to resemble them.
Hence Godwin’s Law: we have no sense of who the Nazis really were, other than “bad guys”; so when we see new bad guys, we say, “Aha! Nazis!” They’re a secular Satan, not a historical, human institution from which helpful inferences might be made.
We still believe in orcs–we’re just more polite about it.
I’ve never been in danger by virtue of my beliefs, but as my political and religious opinions become less and less popular, I find myself more and more frequently being compared to boogeymen like the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazis, Westboro Baptist, etc. In other words, at least in the internet’s candid opinion, I am becoming an orc.
That could mean all sorts of things.
In all seriousness, sometimes I wonder if I really am a bigoted monster, and this is just what that feels like. (I’ve never been anything else, so I can’t say for sure.) Maybe all those comparisons are apt. I can’t make myself believe it, but I suppose it could be true.
It could also mean that we’re in for some rough treatment in the years ahead. That’s certainly the suspicion lingering at the edges of most political conversations I’ve had with other Mormons. On some level, everybody wants to be a martyr. But I don’t really believe that either.
Maybe it means that we’ll just be marginalized, like the Klan, the Nazis, and Westboro Baptist. That seems less enjoyable than being fed to lions or run out of town at gunpoint. There’s a dignity in persecution; it would be harder simply to be shunned, and loathed, and left alone in peace. I think that’s what I’m most afraid of, to be honest.
Of course, it could also just mean that people are sometimes not very cool on the internet.