A few weeks ago there was a rather nasty and violent incident in Queenstown, one of New Zealand’s main tourist traps, involving two groups of passers-by on the street. Something happened, a brawl broke out, and at least two people were stabbed.
Apparently it came out of absolutely nowhere. And this sort of thing seems altogether too common these days. I’ve encountered it myself – I still recall the time I was walking past the cenotaph in central Wellington, minding my own business and thoroughly wrapped up in my own thoughts, when I suddenly became aware of some woman nutting off behind me – absolutely screaming abuse at the top of her voice. All of it directed at me. Apparently I’d missed noticing that she was trying to stop me to ask for directions, to which she responded by exploding into some kind of psychotic hate-rage at me for daring to not respond to her questions. I hadn’t even noticed her.
That sort of thing is their problem, of course, not mine. This phenomenon of people being attacked out of the blue by others who have acted as judge, jury and executioner on them – all without their target even being aware of their existence – isn’t isolated to the public streets, either. There’s a lot of it on social media. Quite often these days I’ll see something on social media – typically Facebook – that goes along these lines:
Post: I prefer oranges to apples.
Comment: So you don’t like apples, then.
Post: I didn’t say I didn’t like them.
Comment: Yes you did. And what about grapes, mangoes and lemons? You’ve clearly never heard of those, you’re obviously ignorant.
And before you know it, they’re abusing each other online with all the hate and force they can muster.
Why does this happen? Part of the problem, I think, is projection. If a passing stranger – either in real life, or online – doesn’t respond in the way that the code in somebody’s head says they should, it gets taken as an attack which has to be avenged in kind. It happens so often, and in so many different ways and contexts, that I can’t help thinking it reflects some aspect of basic human nature.
In particular, I wonder whether this sort of conduct is a reflection of the old hunter-gatherer days when everybody knew everybody in the kin-related hunter-gatherer band. Those in other bands, particularly those at distant locations, were strangers and – by nature – likely enemies because they represented competition for resources.
All that broke down with the advent of agriculture and with it the ability to sustain larger organised societies; but our innate suspicion of strangers remains. Mostly, people can keep it under control. But every so often, they don’t – and incidents such as the ones I described above erupt.
Online it’s a different matter again; everybody is, in effect, a ‘stranger’ and the partial communication possible with the written word alone means that miscommunication happens more often than not. If somebody is ungenerous and looking for a fight – well, they can provoke one in a few exchanges.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019