Online Harassment and Fear of Self


My son and his friends used to play a variation of freeze tag where an extra variable was the “hot lava”; if you stepped on the playlot woodchips, you “fell into hot lava” and were frozen until someone could untag you. This was in addition to the chance of being frozen in the ordinary way by getting tagged by “It” no matter where you were. If the person who was It stepped on the woodchips, she or he was frozen for five seconds and everyone else had a chance to escape. The kids put down pieces of wood, jackets, other toys, whatever they could find to make islands of safety in the “lava.”

This seems to me like a really useful metaphor for social media and online harassment of people, particularly (but not exclusively) women and minorities. You think you’re come to play ordinary freeze tag and then, once you’re in, you learn about the hot lava and the many many many place where you aren’t actually safe. Meanwhile if It steps in the wrong place, It only has to wait a while a few seconds. It will claim that being frozen for a few seconds is fair because the game couldn’t continue if It is frozen. It will claim that the other players have lots of places to go and friends to help them and they just have to avoid the lava. Of course, It is still allowed to tag them if they’re on an island.


It’s hard to know where to start talking about online harassment and hostility. Do I talk about the vile racist tweets made on a Muslim-American writer? Do I talk about women game designers receiving rape and death threats that they fear enough to leave their homes? Do I talk about the woman whose anonymous book reviews have been called toxic and vicious and who is now getting blowback since she’s been outed? Do I talk about misogyny and racism issued from people in many subcultures? Do I talk about the vitriol exchanged on any topic (you name it)?

There will always be some people who harass, threaten, stalk, or otherwise intentionally hurt others online. Nature abhors a vacuum – someone will always be there to fill a vacated spot and continue to spew hate and venom. We can only work to reduce it. Some harassers are probably genuine sociopaths under DSM-V criteria, incapable of feeling empathy. Some of them are young risk-takers, still experimenting with being in the world, who will grow out of it when they realize that there is actual pain on the other end and it’s not just a game. But I think most of the determined harassers are people who are very very frightened. They are so frightened they don’t even know it and have internalized it. It comes out as hate.

Acknowledgment of this fear is what I see lacking in most discussions about online harassment. The conversation turns into what to do about the trolls, not why are they trolls in the first place. They are objectified as soulless hate-mongers who need to be eradicated or barricaded off. There’s little talk about what (besides actual mental illness) leads people to be so angry in the first place.

I should say clearly here that I am not intending to diminish a victim’s sense of powerlessness and defilement. I am not saying harassment is okay. I am not saying people should not take social and legal means to stop harassers.

But solving the problem of one individual harasser, whether by blocking accounts or by sending him or her to jail, doesn’t solve the problem of harassment overall.


The world is full of instability and danger. Norms are constantly changing, leaving nothing to grab hold of. There’s no easy way to get off the spinning carousel.


The world is full of loneliness. Humans are social animals gifted and cursed with self-awareness, with an “I” that is fundamentally single. This is scary.


Online, you don’t have to wait for a reaction, which is an interaction, a strike against loneliness. You know you aren’t solitary. In real life, you go to a shitty, stressful job where you have to work work work fast fast fast for hours at a time, but when you leave you can get online and have power yourself. It’s heady. The insane speed at which American life is lived, in physical life and on the internet, also provides instant gratification and a sense of efficacy.


The world is full of noise. Noise covers up the terrifying silence, the sense of being alone. It hides the danger.


But speed and noise and constant interaction keep you from experiencing yourself. Coping mechanisms address symptoms, not root causes. There’s a reason prophets go out wandering in the wilderness: in stillness and silence and solitude, they gain self-knowledge and authenticity that is difficult if not impossible to learn in daily life. And self-knowledge is usually uncomfortable.

It’s also a crucial part of what makes us human.

We have created a culture that helps us hide from ourselves. Is it any wonder that this internal contradiction sometimes expresses itself in hatred of anything that threatens to strip away that protection? Harassing someone is just one way of holding down the fort that has been built with so much effort. It’s much easier and more comfortable to deride the people who make you start to question your beliefs or who in their otherness make you aware of your singularity than it is to listen to them and go down that difficult path. Hate is safety.


This isn’t where I expected this blog post to go. It certainly doesn’t have any practical applications for people who are being harassed online. I’m not expecting victims of harassment to suddenly turn the other cheek and love their enemy, nor am I expecting harassers to go to a meditation retreat. Most of us are not saints or prophets; we have our breaking points. Further, online harassment should not be ignored. It should be taken seriously and treated as the assault crime that it is. Remedies for victims need to be more immediate, more accessible, and more permanent.

But yelling “These assholes need to stop!” isn’t having much effect either, because social and cultural forces much larger than social media are in play. The only way we’re going to reduce hate in the world is by making the world safer for self-discovery and self-knowledge. This is a group effort, and a long-tem effort, and a difficult effort. Changes need to be made in how human beings grow up perceiving the world, in how we listen and relate to each other, in how we exercise our own agency, in how we rank what we value. When we can, we should forgive more, shame less, and try to be truer to our own best selves.