I remember when computers were novel — back when I used a Commodore computer and stored data on cassette tapes. I remember when being "online" was novel — back when I connected to a BBS with a 300-baud modem.
Slowly, like most of us, I habituated to computers, and then to the internet. This proceeded in stages. First going online was difficult and awkward. Then, spurred by familiarity and by extended metaphors used in entertainment like Tron and Neuromancer, I developed a sense of place on the internet — a sense that, wherever I was physically sitting, I was somewhere else when I was interacting online. Finally that sense of place faded away (for the most part), and being online became something transparent and unobtrusive and mundane, like being on the phone or reading a book.
There's a problem with losing that sense that being online is like being in another place — it allows us to forget that we're not alone online, that expressing ourselves on the internet is not like doodling in our notebooks or venting to a friend in a private corner.
That leads to trouble. Just ask Haaris Khan, a young student at McGill University.
Apparently Khan is not a conservative. He went to a screening of the film IndoctrinateU, a documentary about political bias on college campuses. The film was being sponsored by McGill's conservatives and libertarians. Just as some ride roller coasters to be thrilled, and some go to horror movies to be chilled, Khan went to the film to be outraged.
And was he ever outraged. As he observed his fellow students, and watched the movie, he tweeted his feelings. Here are some of the things he said:
"I've infiltrated a Zionist meeting," Khan wrote in his first tweet, at 6:04 p.m., shortly after the event began. "I feel like I'm at a Satanist ritual."
"Oh man, a Muslim girl just appeared," he wrote in his next post. "I thought, like me, she's a freedom fighter. Unfortunately, she's a co-conspirator. Traitor."
About half an hour into the screening, Khan's tweets turned violent.
"My blood is boiling," he wrote at 6:38 p.m. "I want to shoot everyone in this room. I'm frightened, alarmed, and downright pissed. Never been this angry."
"This experience has hardened me into a soldier for freedom and truth," Khan wrote about an hour later. He posted his last tweet, about bringing an M16, minutes later.
. . .
"I want to shoot everyone in this room," he tweeted at one point during the film, adding, "I should have brought an M16."
Khan is not alone. By that I don't mean there's a horde of potentially violent students out there. I don't know if Khan is likely to be violent or not; not every Internet Tough Guy will ever leave the basement. What I mean is that Khan is like many internet inhabitants you see expressing themselves at political and social gathering places online: he has been conditioned to be incandescently angry that people hold, and speak, views different than his own.
McGill is "investigating" Khan. I think Khan is a shallow, self-righteous, self-important asshole — or, put another way, a college student — but I don't think his tweets were true threats. I'm torn between, on the one hand, being sympathetic to anyone facing an investigation for their expression under Canada's thoroughly repugnant approach to free speech, and, on the other hand, suspecting that as a Muslim accused of bad-mouthing "Zionists," Khan faces very little risk of consequences given the political proclivities of academia and Canada's official censors.
But the free speech issue is not my point. My point is that Khan is now facing investigation and bad publicity because he lost track of what space he was in. He vented through twitter as if he was venting in his head, or in a dorm room to a friend, forgetting that what you say on Twitter is not private, even if you have habituated to it so much that it feels private. The internet doesn't exist only in your head, even though sometimes it feels that way. Moreover, there's a huge delta between how we feel about ourselves on the internet, and how we feel about other people. In other words, even though we sometimes express ourselves on the internet as if it were our private freakout room, when we encounter someone else expressing themselves vehemently on the internet, we tend to treat it as if they were deliberately directing that expression directly at us. That's why people who forget where they are find themselves in a shitstorm.
Khan's not the only one to lose track of where he was this week. Airheaded UCLA student Alexandra Wallace posted an inane and racist rant against Asian students on Youtube, apparently forgetting that shouting into the camera is not the same as shouting into the mirror, even though we're so habituated to the internet that it feels that way. Gilbert Gottfried forgot that even though Twitter sometimes feels like an intimate chat with a trusted friend, it sure ain't.
At this point I'm so used to being online that it feels as if it's always been part of life. But it hasn't. It's still very young. And we're still working out the differences between online behavior and real-world behavior. People like Haaris Khan and Alexandra Wallace are going to keep causing media frenzies while we figure it out.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Free Speech Triumphant Or Free Speech In Retreat? - June 21st, 2017
- The Power To Generate Crimes Rather Than Merely Investigate Them - June 19th, 2017
- Free Speech, The Goose, And The Gander - June 17th, 2017
- Free Speech Tropes In The LA Times - June 8th, 2017
- I write letters - June 1st, 2017