We have all become aware of bad behaviour online, and from that, we have learned that our neighbours, who we always guessed were tolerant, joyful, and open-minded, think quite differently than us. Given cause to reflect on our own public and private behaviour, we now wonder if we appear as bigoted and thoughtless as those we see in the chatrooms and message boards. In The Island of Doctor Moreau, H. G. Wells makes perhaps too apt a comparison between us and monkeys, as the tellingly named Prendick grows exasperated with the monkey’s intellectual posturing enough to dissect exactly what it is about the monkey that infuriates him:
The Monkey-man bored me, however; he assumed, on the strength of his five digits, that he was my equal, and was for ever jabbering at me—jabbering the most arrant nonsense. One thing about him entertained me a little: he had a fantastic trick of coining new words. He had an idea, I believe, that to gabble about names that meant nothing was the proper use of speech. He called it “Big Thinks” to distinguish it from “Little Thinks,” the sane every-day interests of life. If ever I made a remark he did not understand, he would praise it very much, ask me to say it again, learn it by heart, and go off repeating it, with a word wrong here or there, to all the milder of the Beast People. He thought nothing of what was plain and comprehensible. I invented some very curious “Big Thinks” for his especial use. I think now that he was the silliest creature I ever met; he had developed in the most wonderful way the distinctive silliness of man without losing one jot of the natural folly of a monkey. (H. G. Wells The Island of Doctor Moreau)
Some of this reasoning is eerily similar to that we hear around us in the electronic world. Ad hoc methods of distinguishing us from the animals with which we share our inheritance—such as posturing before the superiority of our five fingers—are rife online. Likewise, we have all met people who use google to supplement their own questionable knowledge of history, etymology, and physics, and jabber about what they have cut and pasted as though it is their own. We steel ourselves before entering the comment section of a scientific article on changing climate, for instance. We know that the forum will be a fertile ground for conspiracy and google PhDs, as well as vitriol and questionable mental health. Most often, like Wells’ monkey, posters to such sites forget crucial context or other information and thus end up promulgating the nonsense which most accurately represents their mental processes.
People who post such items are similar to a student I had fifteen years ago when I taught in the United States. He liked to visit me during office hours and discuss “Big Thinks.” For example, once he made the statement that no moral system exists without religious underpinning, although his statement was much less coherent than that. I suggested Utilitarianism, and he asked me, “What is that?” I told him it was a logically derived moral system that didn’t owe its ideas to superstition, but to really be sure of what it was about he should read John Stuart Mill’s “Utilitarianism.” Since I hadn’t read Mill in ten years or so at the time, I was worried that I might misrepresent the philosophical system with my own fuzzy recollections.
My student had no such misgivings. He went on to tell me that he didn’t like to read, and asked me to summarize the ideas for him. I asked him how he gets his information and he told me it mostly came from movies and online videos. As you might expect, I was horrified. “If you like to discuss ideas and yet you have no grounding, then you’re wasting your time. You come from quite a poor education system,” I said. “You will have to read every day just to catch up to the rest of the world. Then, if you want to talk about philosophy, you will need to read even more.”
Once I became aware of his deliberately recalcitrant ignorance, I stopped explaining his “Big Thinks.” Instead, I recommended books. I’m not sure what became of him, but likely if you search diligently, you will find him online in the comment sections of newspapers and political sites, airing his opinion under YouTube videos and on people’s blogs. He might even now, if I may use the phrase, be haunting reddit and 4chan like all the other fourteen year old self-proclaimed geniuses who do the undercover work the police neglect, and whose opinion is in “some kind of competition here to see who can be the rudest” (Ani DiFranco – “Little Plastic Castle”).
Like the monkey on the island, the internet user has mastered humanity’s unique predilection, in that he or she has learned to inflict their lack of reasoning ability on their fellows, and they aren’t troubled in the least about another’s misunderstanding. The looks on the faces of their interlocutors are their own affair, the samurai of the comment section has decided, and that does more than anything else to convince them of other’s ignorance and his or her triumph. Online, our monkey nature blossoms in our persistence, in our obstinate delivery, and in our insistence on being heard.
Where are the creationists now that there is proof of our biological and constitutional connection to the monkey? All this time they’ve been intelligent designing their way through the scientific record, looking at their hands and eyes. They need to look online at their own behavior, as well as that of their equally silly compatriots, although that will scarcely support what they have already decided is true.