What the internet has done is speed up the cycle and the volume. But there’s nothing new here. I was at Berserkeley in the late ‘60’s, the most interesting time and place to go to college, ever. When things on campus were, er, interesting, I’d go home on weekends to my home in southern Alameda County, only 15 miles away. But very conservative and more than a bit Bircher. And I’d try to explain to people what the students were thinking. Then I’d go back to campus and try to explain to students what outsiders thought of them.
And the results were fascinating. In both cases, people refused to understand. I don’t mean it was too complex for them. I mean they’d come up with objections so specious it was obvious their sole purpose was to block understanding. A common theme was “Don’t they see that…?” as if explaining how you feel will influence how someone else feels.
For depersonalization of The Other, it’s hard to beat “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds:
And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there’s doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
The song starts out with houses made of ticky tacky (not an unfair description of California tract houses), but by the second verse, the people are ticky tacky. For perspective, imagine how Reynolds would have reacted to a song that equated inner city dwellers with rats and cockroaches.
Back in the really bad old days of TV, Indians in Westerns didn’t even speak real languages. The actors just mouthed random syllables, known in the trade as “hugga mugga” talk. Most of what passes for religion on TV or film is theological “hugga mugga” talk, spewed out by the Great Big Random Buzzword Generator (see the Clooney version of Solaris or the film adaptation of Sagan’s Contact for some primo examples). And that’s true of pretty much everything non-believers say about religion. Case in point, the ridicule heaped on Donald Trump for saying “2 Corinthians.” Now it’s entirely possible that Trump thinks those books have something to do with leather car seats, but the people who ridiculed him showed their absolute ignorance of religion. If you spend any time in a conservative church, you’ll hear people say “2 Corinthians” all the time. My experience with atheists on line is that if you say they’re evil and headed for hell, they’ll smile indulgently and pat you on the head. If you point out they’re theologically ignorant, that’s when the real venom comes out. Nobody gets angrier than a phony who gets called on it.
There’s absolutely nothing new about demonizing people you never interact with, and if anything, it was easier back when you only knew people by what you saw in the newspapers or the TV news. I used examples from the liberal side of the house because most of the commentary these days on how the internet has screwed up political discourse is coming from that direction. To the alt-right, of course, the internet has finally created a tool for neutralizing media bias. Just Google some variation on “the MSM won’t tell you...” to see it in action. But the Right is just as facile (and then some) at demonizing people they don’t know. Get off the internet, visit a Christian bookstore, and read a few descriptions of non-believers, who are, of course, all haunted by a central emptiness. Then ask yourself if you actually know any people like that. I sure don’t. Then again, most of the conservative believers I know aren’t dour, sexually repressed pickle-pusses, either.