Over the weekend both Louis C.K. and Bill Maher dropped some wisdom about how the Internet is draining us of empathy and encouraging a consequence-free environment of cruelty and debasement. After spending the last two weeks whining about homophobic roasts and the irony of "clean comedy", it feels good to embrace the moments when funny minds take us into the often unexplored territory of self-reflection. And besides, this territory comes with Louis C.K. delivering an existentialism lecture via a Bruce Springsteen impersonation, and Bill Maher shouting the words, "Fuck you, Betty White!"
"Kids are mean, and it's because they're trying it out," Louis C.K. said on Conan last Friday, explaining why he won't buy his children a smart phone. "They look at a kid and they go, 'You're fat.' And then they see the kid's face scrunch up and say, 'Ooh, that doesn't feel good to make a person do that.' But they gotta start with doing the mean thing. But when they write, 'You're fat' [on social media], then they just go, 'Mmm, that was fun, I like that.'"
In one of the most delicious pieces of irony in recent memory, the clip of C.K.'s anti-Internet rant has gone viral on social media, blowing up everyone's Facebook and Twitter feeds. As of this writing, it has racked up almost 4.4 million hits on YouTube.
While C.K.'s commentary may be the funniest and most accessible example, pointing out that the anonymity and isolation of the Internet has brought out the dark side of modern humans is nothing new. Last October the Columbia Business School conducted a study that determined social media has not only made us fatter and more in debt, but has left us with a dangerously inflated sense of self-importance.
"Think of it as a licensing effect: You feel good about yourself so you feel a sense of entitlement," said Keith Wilcox, co-author of the study. "And you want to protect that enhanced view, which might be why people are lashing out so strongly at others who don't share their opinions."
And before anyone points it out, let me take a moment to acknowledge the hypocrisy of criticizing Internet trolls when not only does my job depend on these people, but I am probably worse than any of them. In the years that I have worked for Westword I've written editorials on why you shouldn't vote, why tipping is a harmful institution, and why cruiser bikes are worse than Hitler. (Note: I didn't actually say they were worse than Hitler, but for the amount of hate mail I got from that piece, I may as well have.)
While it's true that writing a devil's-advocate, hate-baiting essay does tickle a childish desire in me for negative attention, all of those articles were written with sincerity and never designed to piss people off. My goal as a social critic is to arouse conversation on buried topics -- though instead of inspiring thoughtful debate, I've mostly just been inundated with phrases like, "You might as well put a target on your back, you miserable POS!" or "As for you, Josiah Hess [sic], you need to get the hell out of Denver and go find another city to be miserable in."
My inbox and Facebook page regularly contain everything from threats of violence to accusations that I "write like a fifth grader." And that's fine. I bring it on myself. It's what you get when you publicly call a celebrated institution like the Denver Cruiser Ride a bunch of "devolved meat-heads" and "the most unenlightened bunch of Philistines that our city has ever been forced to contend with."
There's no shortage of people deluged by hate from Internet trolls. When reporting on the recent crowning of our nation's first Indian Miss America, Bill Maher reviewed some of the Tweets this beauty queen has endured. "'How the fuck does a foreigner win Miss America? She is Arab. #idiots.' 'Congratulations Al Qaeda, our Miss America is one of you.'"
After noting similar Tweets suggesting that Jonah Hill kill himself, and a bizarre "fuck you cheesecake factory," Maher went on to question why "hate become the national pastime? Technology does have something to do with it. Some people say people were always terrible, we just have Twitter and Facebook now. No, not like this. The Greatest Generation had celebrities, but no one would've thought to send Myrna Loy a telegram that said, 'Fuck you Myrna Loy! I hope Clark Gable gives ya herpes!'"
So what's changed? Bill Maher characteristically asserts that this development is due to income disparity. I prefer Louis C.K.'s poignant observation that "you need to build an ability to be yourself and not be doing anything. And that's what the phones are taking away." Again, C.K. isn't the first to point this out. Best-selling self-help book Don't Sweat The Small Stuff has a chapter titled "Allow Yourself to Be Bored," suggesting that this practice leads to a heightened level of self-awareness, a point reiterated by psychotherapist Michael J. Formica in Psychology Today, stating that "self-awareness is an essential component in the development of empathy. It lies at the core of ego-centric awareness, which is the first step in the development of social intelligence."
C.K. continues along this path during his Conan appearance. Exhibiting that classic gift for insight and storytelling that has existed inside all dark humorists, he manages to have the crowd in stitches while laying down some pretty bleak facts about reality.
Underneath everything in your life, there's that thing, that empty -- that forever empty. It's the knowledge that it's all for nothing and you're alone. It's down there. And sometimes when you're in your car, and that sadness starts to visit on you -- because life is inherently sad -- that's when you text and drive. . . . The other day I was in my car, and Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland" comes on, and it gives me a kind of fall, back-to-school depression feeling. And I was like "uh oh, I'm getting sad, I better get out the phone and write 'hi' to like fifty people. . . . But then I was like "no, just be sad. Stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck."
So I pulled over and just cried like a bitch. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic; you're lucky to live sad moments. And then I had happy feelings because of that, because when you let yourself feel sad, you have these anti-bodies that come rushing in. The thing is, because we don't want the sadness, we push it away with the phone . . . then you never feel completely sad or completely happy. You just feel kinda satisfied with your product -- and then you die. So that's why I don't want to get a phone for my kids.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.