I originally wrote this post back in January 2016 and never finished it. Things are obviously far worse now. Internet lynch mobs and more got me thinking about this post. So, I’m publishing what I wrote at the time and adding some retrospective commentary at the end. Read on.
I was talking to my friend, author Christa Faust, about the never-ending parade of Internet asses who continuously shower others online with obscenities, insults, and threats. We’ve all experienced someone saying something online they’d never dare to say face to face. It’s usually inexplicably vicious or socially unacceptable. I mean, if a guy at a party started shouting at a woman that she “deserves to be raped,” he’d probably (unless the hosts were even bigger jerks) be told to leave and universally condemned by the other party goers. But online, that happens constantly with perhaps condemnation but rarely expulsion.
Christa asked me if I remembered The Invisible Man — not just the H.G. Wells novel, but rather its first movie adaptation of the same name directed by James Whale in 1933. It’d been a long time since I’d seen that film, so I rewatched it and found it’s a prophetic look at how people act when they’re “invisible.”
Claude Rains’ character is a scientist named Jack Griffin who, at the movie’s opening, is already under the effects of a drug he created that includes an ingredient called “Monocaine,” which had been used experimentally as a bleaching chemical. He is totally invisible when he arrives at a village inn and starts abusing the people there. As his violence escalates against men and women both, we learn from a speech given elsewhere by Dr. Griffin’s old employer, Dr. Cranley, that Monocaine was once injected into a dog and, not only did it turn white, it went “raving mad.” And even though dozens of people have experienced the invisible man’s terrors, the police chief thinks it’s a “hoax” or in their imagination. He blames the victims for getting hurt.
Because he suffers no repercussions for his actions, the Invisible Man realizes the power he has. He thinks he can make people “grovel” at his feet. He wants to “put the world right” — and by “right,” he means doing whatever it is that he wants. Just after he strongarms his old science colleague, Dr. Kemp, to become his “partner,” he then the kills a policeman.
Suddenly, now everybody takes the whole “invisible man” thing seriously. After someone — an authority figure — has died.
The Invisible Man runs off and kills a lot more people. Everyone locks themselves inside in their homes, terrified that the Invisible Man is going to hurt them. We learn from Dr. Griffin’s girlfriend, Flora, about how sweet he used to be. How deeply in love they were. But now that he’s invisible, he’s a homicidal maniac.
Obviously every Internet troll isn’t out there killing people. Ask them, and they’ll insist they’re just “reacting” to something someone says or “expressing an opinion” when they disgorge a cataract of insulting, hateful, abusive verbiage. It’s as if they’re not talking to real people, just screennames.
But online, every single person is the Invisible Man. He or she feels empowered by the invisibility — that is, the inability to see people face to face — and wants to “put the world right.”
I don’t think Vint Cerf, Steve Crocker and the other folk who engineered the early Internet knew they were essentially developing Monocaine. I think they believed they were building a powerful tool that enabled unprecedented communication. And, boy, did they. It’s also enabling the sickest, most virulently racist people to find each other and feel empowered. It’s enabled people who were otherwise shamed into keeping quiet by this passé thing called common decency to start letting their ids ejaculate into the public drinking water.
So, that’s what I wrote. It seems quaint in retrospect that back in January 2016 all we were worried about were the “invisible men” being hateful on the internet when in the meantime they’d found each other and were championing their quite visible, Twitter-loving hero: Trump.
It’s not to say there aren’t people of all political stripes engaging in the “invisible man” behavior, because they most definitely are. Internet lynch mobs of every persuasion are driven by the Monocaine buzz when it comes to “putting the world right.” Data-starved people are ruining other people’s lives via doxxing and death threats, not to mention just plain old harassment, and they’re totally okay doing so because they feel justified and sufficiently removed. But it’s mostly people of a particular political stripe that are engaging in domestic terrorism — shooting up a pizza restaurant due to an Internet conspiracy theory, killing black people in a church, bombing a mosque in Minnesota, shooting Hindus in a Kansas bar, murdering Sikhs in Wisconsin, just to name a few. The invisibility is emboldening these folk the way it did character Jack Griffin to “put the world right” IRL.
We can no more take away the Internet than we can roll back anything else to the 1950s. Nor would we want to. But we’ve got to be aware of when we’re personally under the influence of “Monocaine.”
The question is: Would we admit it, much less stop, when we are?