Loving My (Anonymous, Online) Neighbors

I recently wrapped up a major academic research project exploring how online communities comprised of anonymous members—in particular, the notoriously noxious League of Legends gaming world—attempt to police digital harassment. Most games have some sort of complaint or moderation function that triggers disciplinary action in the event of severe verbal abuse (in the case of League of Legends, disciplinary reports trigger a “judicial” review process by other players, who generally do a good job of identifying and punishing misconduct).

But these measures, however well intentioned, can’t hold back the general cultural tide toward the coarsening of dialogue. The mask of the Internet has largely decoupled us from the consequences of speech: in some cases this is a great boon (consider the example of Christians under ISIS rule or political dissidents in China), but I’d venture to guess that many, many web-denizens are leveraging their cyber-anonymity to curse out their opponents in an online game, or perhaps harass disfavored celebrities on Twitter.

In the age of faceless digital culture, it seems all too often that the principle of “loving one’s neighbor” breaks down with terrifying ease, once anonymity enters the picture. Ensconced within cyber-bubbles of people who think and speak and act like us, we risk letting ourselves slip into a pattern of contempt for the Others out there. I find myself reminded of the old Twilight Zone episode “Button, Button,” in which a couple is given a mysterious box containing a lone button and one instruction: pushing the button dispenses a six-figure payout, but will result in the death of an unknown, anonymous individual. The power of the episode is found in the intuitive principle that we feel little loyalty to those we don’t know.

Simply as a matter of social order, this impulse has far-reaching implications: when one takes into account that three-quarters of white Americans have entirely white friend groups (at least according to one study), it’s easier to understand how persistent racial animosity takes root. It’s easy to speak derogatorily about other races, other religions, and other cultures when there are no individual faces to attach to that narrative. Consider too how LGBT advocacy groups effectively leveraged the power of sympathetic individual stories to reframe public debates over same-sex marriage: personal accounts elicit sympathy in ways that academic argument and theories of social morality simply do not.

But compassion only for the neighbor-who-is-known is not enough.

I recently reread the parable of the Good Samaritan, and was struck by the anonymity of the compassion Jesus calls His disciples to display. The Samaritan who stops to help the wounded man doesn’t even know his name: all he knows is that the injured man happens to be in need.

Somehow in my head I’ve always personalized this account. I’ve imagined the Samaritan and the injured man as having been—or having become—fast friends who just happened to strike up an unlikely relationship across cultures. But that story bears a Hollywood gloss; it isn’t the narrative Jesus recounts. As far as Jesus’s Samaritan is concerned, the injured man is simply a human being who is worthy of compassion…no matter their identity.

In online gaming spheres, discussion forums, and chat rooms, it may be challenging to remember that behind the anonymous moniker “Blyzzx182” is (probably) a human being made in the image of God and possessed of intrinsic dignity and worth. Yet as far as our moral duties are concerned, that anonymous thing on the Internet, unleashing their vicious rage from behind the veil of cyberspace, is just as much a “neighbor” as the acquaintance living down the apartment hall.

And that is a challenging thought.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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