Humour, Nihilism And Entitlement
Why "edgy" humour pervades online spaces and so often turns to sexist abuse
Laughter is a powerful part of our social behaviour. We don’t just laugh because something is funny, we laugh to strengthen the social bonds with those around us. As explained by cognitive neuroscientist Prof. Sophie Scott:
People are laughing to show that they like the person they're with, that they’re part of the same group as that person. They can often be laughing to show that they understand what was said, or they agree with what was said, or they get some reference, or they see some allusion to some other reason why something else might have happened. […] People are laughing to get other people to join in, and to share their laughter and to show that they agree, they understand, they recognise.
Given the power of laughter as a social glue, being able to provoke laughter in others can be a highly desirable trait. One theory is that humour serves to signal genetic fitness. A quick wit demonstrates a certain level of cognitive ability, generous humour demonstrates empathy, playfulness, agreeableness, and ability to strengthen bonds among groups.
aesthetically judged qualities such as musical talent, humor, and creativity involve complex cognitive functions that require successful resistance to mutations and parasites during development. As such, these qualities may have been sexually selected and are attractive because they indicate cognitive competence and underlying genetic fitness
It may be that this desirableness is what leads to a more competitive edge to humour among men. In some studies it seems there is an entrenched sexist bias to the way we perceive humour. That is, when men say they like a good sense of humour, what they mean is they want someone who laughs at their jokes:
women prefer mates who make good displays that “make me laugh,” whereas men prefer mates who evaluate them positively and “laugh at what I say”
Humour can thus contribute to non-violent reinforcement of status hierarchies within groups. Depending on attitude, jokey put-downs can be a display of anything from familiarity to dominance within male friendship groups. Either we let ourselves be the butt of a joke because it shows trust and recognition - or we make others the butt of a joke to take them down a peg if they are taking too much attention.
However, there can be a darker, cruel edge to humour at the extreme end. Marking someone as a target for mockery powerfully strengthens in-group connections, with those joining in with the bullying laughing along in relief not to be the target, and to show their affiliation with the bullies to prevent becoming a future target.
There is again a reinforcement of gender stereotypes in these dynamics. Creating laughter can be perceived as dominance, laughing can be submissive. By equating masculinity with dominance and femininity with submission, stereotypical gender roles are subtly reinforced by these more aggressive displays of humour.
Humor production during courtship could be interpreted as a sign of dominance and laughter in response to a sign of submissiveness (Owren & Bachorowski, 2003; Weiss et al., 2011). Accounting for gender (i.e., masculinity/femininity) or gender ideology (e.g., ambivalent sexism) within individuals might better account for this particular sex difference during courtship. In as much that some females prefer more masculine males and some males prefer more feminine females, they may display and reinforce humor behaviors (i.e., production by males; laughter by females) to fit those gender roles.
Note that “gender ideology” here refers to the individual’s beliefs and attitudes to sex, sexism and gender more widely, not “transgender ideology” or “gender identity ideology” as it is sometimes used in recent years.
So taking as a broad base that aggressive, mocking or cruel humour has historically been associated with reinforcement of male status hierarchies in particular, how has this played out with the transition of human interaction to online spaces, where feedback is shorn of body language, and the restrictions of immediacy?
Trolling Is A Art
Trolling in modern use has come to be a catch-all for abusive behaviour generally, possibly through the misconception that “troll” referred to some sort of grimy monstrous netizen who occupied the dark spaces under bridges.
But trolling in its earliest incarnations was originally used to mean “fishing” - putting out a post as a bait and hoping for a response. The best trolls were subtle, funny, intentionally crossposted to newsgroups where they would create the most friction between responders. The humour lay in being in on the joke, in not being the one who fell for it. Sometimes even as simple and pointless as a deliberate misspelling or grammatical error, to provoke a pedantic correction.
The only winning move with trolls was not to play - but someone always did. Someone always rose to the bait, and so the troll would always have someone they could feel superior to. The troll would in some sense have defeated a gullible rival, have proved themselves intellectually superior, and in some sense gain status, even if only in self-perception.
On Usenet, the more subtle and maddening the trolls were, the more grudging respect they earned when people took the bait. But the disembodied and male-dominated spaces became a crucible for a level of sarcasm and ironic detachment that went far beyond their origins. Each step, from Usenet to SomethingAwful to 4Chan to Reddit and every other branch along the way further honed and concentrated and made pervasive the low-effort, shorthand ironic detachment that now exemplifies online humour.
You can “win” in these places by being genuinely funny, or by being shockingly unpleasant and making fun of anyone foolish enough to take you seriously. Increasingly provocative posts whose true intent was hidden beneath multiple levels if irony, if indeed there was one at all, and if you cared enough about it to try and discern what that true meaning was, you had lost. If it offended you, you lost. If you gushed over it, you lost.
Is someone sharing a picture of a swastika an actual nazi, or laughing at the idea you might think they are one? Do they actually like the idea of god-emperor Donald Trump, or are they trying to get a rise out of you? Are these message boards really fertile ground for far-right extremism and recruitment, or is the idea of a report taking this threat seriously something to be mocked? Caring enough to even ask the question is to have risen to the bait, and lost, and granted the troll some sense of status. The line between truth and reality becomes nonexistent in the pursuit of recognition for ever more extreme behaviour.
Rage and Entitlement
The problem is that none of this status is actually real.
None of it translates into any real-life advantage or disadvantage. There is a disconnect between the sense of being high status in disembodied spaces online -where there are virtual rewards for low-effort edgy humour and ironic detachment and in-jokes and trolling and being provocatively abusive and racist and sexist and homophobic and feeling superior to anyone who takes it “seriously” - because none of that matters out in the fresh air.
Where maybe in our ape-like past, male displays of violence - and latterly linguistic sparring - were tied to a need to be an appealing potential mate, now such imagined power within the virtual hierarchy has precisely no effect at all. Whatever sense of entitlement men already have to women’s bodies and consequent bitter resentment over lack of access is multiplied many times over in this environment.
So perhaps it is worth bearing in mind that many of those posting abusive or trolling messages and laughing at those who are foolish enough to be offended by them are simultaneously streaming pornography. Ready access to a continual stream of objectification, degradation and abuse of women fills the gap where society fails to conform to their own sense of deserving access to women’s bodies.
If you wonder why some abusive troll’s spelling is bad, it might be intentional to wind you up and demonstrate how little effort they put in to insulting you - or it might be because they’re typing one-handed.
At the same time, long gone are the days when online spaces were near-exclusively male, but the majority still remain male-dominated, and so the assumptions about how things work, what is or is not acceptable, what language can be used, all start to experience friction when the supremacy of the default male point of view is challenged. After all, what currently exists has emerged “naturally”, so any male dominance is surely merit, right? Moderating language or changing modes of behaviour to foster women’s fair participation is a threat to the “natural order”, and more importantly the way status and power work have worked to men’s advantage in the past.
It is hardly a surprise that women so often become the object of the hatred of men online. Women, continually reinforced as sex objects via pornography, but whose real-world behaviour never complies with this fantasy, who don’t appreciate that this objectification is a compliment. Women, who unfairly withhold sex from these oh-so deserving men while expecting them to move aside to allow their unfair advancement into men’s rightful domain.
Real Virtual Rewards
Simultaneously, over the years technology has shifted from providing the information that users actively go looking for, to continuously serving up the information the platform believes will keep users engaged.
In so doing, these platforms have tied some visible metric to status - followers, likes, retweets, karma, verified - all indicators of numerical value that place one person above another in some virtual pecking order. These are part of systems that ensure popular content becomes more popular, increasing engagement, shoving the posts more likely to be noticed in front of the eyeballs more likely to notice them.
Social media functions less like one-way publishing platforms and broadcast media of old, or even the more interactive response chains of public forums, and more like an evolutionary fitness landscape for memes (in Richard Dawkins’ original sense of the meme as a unit of cultural information).
The numerical weighting and social boosting properties of these platforms provide an environment in which every isolated piece of information - every tweet, every gif, every emoji, every trending topic - becomes part of a hyper-competitive sea of memes, whose worth is determined by their ability to survive. A darwinian approach to culture and knowledge where “merit” is not a function of truth or value to society, but of ability to grab attention.
Because of the disembodied nature of the medium, we cannot signal our affiliation to in-groups through anything so simple and transient as body language and laughter, but must give concrete replies in kind. The visible weighting of those memes that attract the most attention - the likes, the retweets - affects those modes of response too - the gifs, the image macros, the dunking quote-tweets, the cry-laughing, multi hand-claps. Specific memes are rewarded numerically, and with affirmation from the followers, which are themselves rewarded numerically, signalling the “best” modes of engagement and response, and so on. The fitness landscape creates a complex and dynamic feedback loop, recursively ensuring the dominance of certain kinds of attention-grabbing behaviour.
So now the age-old verbal jockeying for dominance with humour and bullying plays out in these spaces in a far more tangible struggle for status. The joking-but-not-really put downs and wind-ups and outright abuse are all given immediate, visible, numerical metrics of success. Rather than being restricted to the imaginings of the troll, or the backslapping within an inner circle who are in on the joke, the medium itself will elevate any content that successfully engages an audience, regardless of how toxic it might be to our society.
Gaining kudos for minimal effort carries both more value, and less risk. Should someone take offence, well they lose for being triggered by something you didn’t really mean and put no effort into. If you gain plaudits, just imagine how much more praise you could have got if you actually tried - which of course you didn’t, because only a loser would actually try. And so on. Memes that are deliberately shoddy and crude, repetition of low effort humour, reaction gifs, “jokey” abuse and threats, demands that people kill themselves, all act as a continual attempt at gaining approval and status while maintaining a pretence that nobody cares, nothing is true and nothing matters.
Tendencies towards extreme behaviour are amplified and rewarded, creating an incentive for others to go further. Meanwhile our unconscious cognitive biases override our conscious, rational behaviour in the race for immediate group approval - and to avoid the group punishment for not responding in the correct mode - making us highly susceptible to conspiracism and disinformation. Believing what we know others believe, what the number of likes and retweets and congratulatory replies tells us must be true, overwhelms our critical faculties.
In this survival-of-the-fittest information landscape, time and again what is produced among men across the political spectrum is an aggressive, nihilistic, sexist tribalism.
That a sizeable enough number of “edgy” teenage gamergater trolls went from sharing far-right memes to online “transactivism” a few years down the line is a bit of an open secret, but one which is confusing to people on the outside who make the mistake of viewing these as polar opposite right-to-left ideological shifts.
However, once you realise that there is no actual coherent ideological commitment to any of these positions, and that they all stem from the same underlying behavioural incentives, the links are obvious. Conservative opinions on gender, an entitled view of masculinist hierarchies as the natural order, and a toxic mix of frustrated envy, objectification and entitlement, make it far, far easier to see women as a group of sexualised stereotypes, and noncompliant women as justified targets for impotent rage.
This is why it is so easy to draw comparisons between the abusive trolls of the alt-right, the incels, the gamergaters, the denizens of /r/the_donald, the men-going-their-own-way, the pick-up-artists and the TERF-hating transactivists. Why the memes and the grammar and the targets are all so very similar.
Because if men are going to strengthen social bonds with other men and reinforce their in-group with anything from mockery to toxic abuse, then there is no weaker and more reliable out-group to pick than women.