The BBC just ran a story on Internet trolls, with these words from the author near the end of the story: "Most of the chief protagonists in my book I met online first, and offline second. I always liked them more in the real world. By removing the face-to-face aspect of human interaction, the internet dehumanises people, and our imagination often turns them into inflated monsters, more terrifying because they are in the shadows. For me, at least, meeting them in person re-humanised complex, awkward, and usually annoyingly likeable people. Next time you come across a digital monster, remember there is a person behind the avatar, and he or she is unlikely to be how you imagine."
The story (by Jamie Bartlett) describes encounters with those people who spend their time on the Internet finding and verbally assaulting strangers. We call them trolls, and they pop up all the time in the comment section of news stories and opinion pieces. Bartlett set out to get to know some of them in person, and describes for us what that was like. I am most struck by his words above: "I always liked them more in the real world."
We have become adept at attacking others and are losing our ability to speak with others -- a tendency most clear in the political arena. Bartlett quotes George Orwell, writing about his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, as he was faced with an enemy who was fleeing while trying to hold up his falling trousers. "I had come here to shoot at 'Fascists'," he wrote, "but a man who is holding up his trousers isn't a 'Fascist', he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself."
We have become experts at de-humanizing each other. I want to be part of re-humanizing those with whom I disagree -- discovering that they are people like me, or (if you prefer) that I am a person, like them.