Why do people fight each other over nothing?

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.

A beautiful picture of Earth from 1.6 million km sunwards. NASA, public domain.

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.

Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

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15 thoughts on “Why do people fight each other over nothing?

  1. Hey, I am co-owner of writingforums.com and I am amazed by how some members behave over something apparently quite trivial. The red mist descends and they become keyboard warriors.

    I think society is changing and not necessarily for the better.

    And please don’t get me started on the views of the ‘Snowflake’ generation 🙂

    1. I see a lot of that on forums I read – people performing like hate-filled and abusive psychopaths towards each other. Kind of odd, because being nice is a virtue and it costs nothing to be kind. Sigh…

      I think we’re exposed to a lot of this behaviour through social media in ways we weren’t before – and there’s the GIFT theory, in which a platform, anonymity and the fact that targets can’t physically respond when abused. It’s been offered as an explanation for why ordinary, everyday people turn into hate-filled idiots online. Couple that with the fact that written English – usually dashed off in a comment at the speed of thought – is often ambiguous and lacks the nuance of face-to-face contact, and … well… yah…

      1. To be honest, Matthew, while we give members some leeway we work on a policy of respect so the hate-filled psychopaths are soon shown the door.

        I noticed on Twitter last week, someone attacked Greta Thunberg. I thought how mean but she is one tough cookie and came back with a reply way beyond her years. ( I think the marketing machine wrote it – but fair play to her if she can motivate people to face up to crisis. Whether the politicians and naysayers agree, they should at least respect her.

  2. Thank you… Interesting post.

    I think that it’s just people dealing with an historically high rate of cultural and economic change and, companion to that, an historically low level of predictably that reaches down into almost every moments of people’s daily lives… People are threatened and made uncomfortable, I think, by uncertainty, and uncertainty is historically high as our planet undergoes the shift from an industrially-based economy to one that is digitally-based. The last time our planet’s human population experienced this level of extreme disorientation was when Earth’s economy shifted from agriculturally-based to industrially-based… For generations, the agricultural skills learned by youngsters could be applied for the rest of their lives… With the dawn of the industrial age, this was no longer the case.

    1. Hi Kevin – thanks for commenting. I agree. The nature of the ‘digital economy’ and its associated alteration of social behaviour is easily of the scale of the industrial revolution, and I think it will take as long to play out – generations, likely. With fallout along the way, just as happened with the industrial revolution when it turbo-powered capitalism and knocked over the early modern mercantile economy and its associated social structures. As you say, the transition was traumatic, huge and dislocating at every level. Just now, I suspect, we’re running to the end of the ‘neo-liberal’ cycle anyway – which has succeeded in transferring mass-generated wealth into the hands of a very few – and whatever follows is being further shaped by the transition to the digital world. It’s social as much as economic, but then economics always was a form of sociology. Economists such as Kondratieff have tried to identify long-run cycles in socio-economic behaviour; I suspect that’s pattern-matching, but nonetheless there is a two-generational social pattern that can be seen in most major trends. And, of course, there is going to be behavioural fallout on the way – as you say, uncertainties, unease and behaviours that follow. I hope, as a species and as societies, humanity has learned from what followed industrialisation. But I suspect we haven’t…

      On the other matter – thanks and most welcome, I’ll email you.

  3. I think people love to say [I think this about that]. Simple as that. Before the internet was around, this was not so easy? Moral of the fable: a good (open) listener is hard to find?

    1. I think you’re right. And people take it as a personal insult if ‘their’ world view differs from ‘the other person’s’. What worries me is that social media essentially normalises this conduct, which risks then leaking out into everyday society… losing touch with the fact that kindness, tolerance and good-will are all virtues.

  4. And here I am, writing a post (for a future date) about how few comments I see on some blog posts about writing that seem to cry out for a bit of debate. Civilized debate, of course. As to why people online express their inherent suspicion of the stranger by the verbal equivalent of throwing spears, I really don’t know. I appreciate the comments by others, though; interesting discussion here.

    1. Yes it is. I think one of the problems on places such as twitter (especially) is that even at 256 characters there is no room for nuance, or to outline all of the things that might contribute to the point being made. One of the tactics I see quite often on the naval forums I frequent is that someone will make a point, listing one factor behind (say) why a ship had certain characteristics. They are immediately told they are wrong, actually it was because of another factor. The possibility that both factors (and a lot of others) contribute together seems to be lost on such a debate. I use that as a particular example but there are plenty of others across all fields – life being, inevitably, made up of shades of grey which are certainly not mutually exclusive.

  5. I stay away from Facebook completely, but I do frequent Twitter, and there’s an undercurrent of anger there that seems to be simmering all the time. Apply a match and boom. I find that I’m angry a lot of the time too.

    I agree that this is partly a function of human nature, but I think the online phenomenon is also a direct result of the anonymity of the digital world. Those of us who write books can’t be anonymous, but everybody else can, and that seems to provide a licence to misbehave, or to act out the kind of behaviours they know would get them in trouble in the real world. Hopefully both worlds will settle down, eventually.

    1. Yeah, authors have to wear the flak… I’m on Twitter but try not to interact too much – it’s a pretty nasty environment at times. I think the brevity of the messaging doesn’t help: it’s too difficult to present nuance or the necessary qualifying phrases – everything ends up as simple asserted polemic. Sigh. What ever became of people treating others nicely? Kindness costs nothing.

      There’s definitely a link between anonymity and bad online behaviour – I’ve found a paper on it:

      http://users.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/disinhibit.html

      And it was turned into a meme, even:

      https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/greater-internet-fuckwad-theory

      My own worst experience happened a couple of years ago, when I was targeted by a naval enthusiast who was triggered inadvertently by two words I’d used relative to a warship he emotionally owned. He exploded into a hate-filled, psychotic rage in which he could not be reasoned with; and his sole life-interest was apparently dumping all the abuse, malice and hate he could muster in my direction. I blocked him on Facebook, so he tracked me down on Twitter and began snarking that way.

      I didn’t engage – he presented as a hate-filled psychotic whose sole interest was avenging himself for what he alone imagined others had done to him, and one hesitates to encourage them. But it had a funny side. The guy seemed to think his use of a pseudonym meant he could behave as abusively as he wanted, but he wasn’t as anonymous as he imagined and – via entirely public sources – I’ve since discovered rather more about him than I ever wanted to know (he’s 40 years old, 5’3″, lives at home at an address in Manchester with his Mum, etc etc). Yup, all this was online, openly and in public. Eventually he stopped – and, I gather, got kicked off Twitter for breaching their rules – which I believe is very difficult to achieve.

      1. -cringe- that sounds absolutely awful, Matthew. I’ve had a few people argue with me on Twitter about climate change and/or the role of nuclear power plants in abating climate change, but apart from ‘my facts are better than your facts’ type of duelling, they were civilised.
        I’m glad you managed to track your stalker down coz that’s what he was. Psychologically speaking, I hope he restricts his rage to the digital arena. :/
        Great links, btw. Reading through the first one, I was surprised at how many types of disinhibition there are. The one about it all ‘being a game’ is something I’ve experienced a lot, in MMO’s [massively multiplayer online games]. There, a fantasy reality is created by the game developers and gamers can say and do anything they want. Part of the bad behaviour I’ve witnessed is the anonymity effect, but another part is the idea that its just a game so it doesn’t matter what they do. The worst offenders have no idea that they take themselves into the game and reveal things about their real selves without being aware of it.
        I think the net will end up being regulated and anonymity will be curtailed, but by how much is anyone’s guess.

  6. I tend to agree with the effect of our uncertain and changing times on people, but I’ve come to wonder about another factor recently that might be relevant. Essentially I think Western civilization for at least the last half-century has promoted a view of individuality that is essentially narcissistic. Here in the States that might go along with our glorification of ignorance over expertise, a most distressing tendency, which seems to be a cultural response to the idea of “equality” going back over 200 years.

    By “narcissistic individuality” I mean that, whether systematically taught or absorbed via social osmosis, the idea that the individual is a law unto her/himself without any obligation to others has become if not paramount then certainly prevalent. It’s the dark side of the cult of “rugged individuality,” if you will.

    The solipsist elements of social media exacerbate this. Disagreement in that context becomes a violation of one’s “sacred” individuality, more particularly because of the illusory element of personal control inherent in social media.

    Uncertain times imply a lack of personal control over the issues of daily life. That can raise the level of anxiety one feels, and beyond a certain point, how does one distinguish fear from anxiety?

    Besides, the “dark side” of individuality is that you are alone, even alienated. If we are as tribal as some studies suggest, one effect of narcissistic individuality might be a suppressed fear of being alone. Suppressed fear doesn’t go away, but manifests in another form. Sometimes that manifestation might be explosive. The corollary to belonging in a tribe is fear or anxiety rooted in separation from the tribe. Consider that “exile” from the tribe was one of the worst possible consequences of a personal act deemed reprehensible by the rest of the tribe.

    Any students of psychology/anthropology out there looking for a PhD thesis? Which you can turn into a self-help bestseller? (Raising the question of why “self-help bestsellers” are even a thing!)

    Interesting post as usual, Mr. Wright!

    1. Yes – I agree. I hadn’t thought of things this way but you’re quite right. Somewhere in my personal library (not all of which I have space to shelve) I have Jacob Rees-Mogg’s ‘The Sovereign Individual’, which basically predicted a future (from his 1988 perspective) of increasing ego, narcissism and personal ‘sovereignty’. He was extending the neo-liberal mind-set of his day, which essentially exalted the individual as economically sovereign. As you point out, it’s happened for real in terms of the way social media has exalted the ‘sancticity of the individual’. And disagreement between viewpoints – which should, in any reasonable world, be a point of civil discussion – becomes instead a declaration of war for the reasons you point out. I think this definitely needs investigating… somebody needs to write their PhD on it.

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