An Unsmiling Concentration on Self

People have been debating cosmological and theological points for thousands of years (sometimes violently) but the Internet has introduced something new.  It has made it possible to argue in an extended way without face-to-face interaction, and to do so anonymously.  In the past pamphleteers and book authors sometimes published under pseudonyms because of the personal threat that their work might bring.  The Internet has now made anonymity commonplace.  In so doing it has mostly removed any real consequences for abusive behavior.

We all probably have co-workers, acquaintances, and occasionally relatives (hopefully distant) who appear to lack any apparent sensitivity to other people – they habitually interrupt conversations, respond without listening, and demean people with whom they disagree.  But there are limits to the bad behavior.  I am less likely to insult you if what I say is going to result in social ostracism or in a fist to my nose.

The Internet has removed the threat of the fist.

At the extreme is the full-on internet troll.  A study on trolling recently appeared in Discover Magazine:

– Discover Magazine

A scientific analysis of internet trolls finds that yes, they’re actually sadistic psychopaths:   Why do internet trolls do what they do? Here, scientists used online surveys to learn more about trolling personalities.

The referenced study concluded that, “…cyber-trolling appears to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism.”[1]  What struck me when reading the study was a bar graph showing the high correlation to narcissism.  This seems to me to be a necessary precursor, and probably a more significant element.  One would hardly engage in sadistic behavior without it.

The correlation brings to mind a quote from the original preface to The Screwtape Letters.  CS Lewis remarks in it the literary representation of “…the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of Hell.”[2]

But the fundamental problem with the study’s conclusion is the conspicuous absence of any definition of what “everyday sadism” might be in actual everyday life.  It might be a bit different from what is seen online.  My intuition is that most trolls probably lack the testicular fortitude to actually serve their crap up in person, particularly when the recipient might serve up some real blow-back.  This probably applies to a whole range of misbehavior that falls far short of full-on trolling, which brings us full circle to the discussion of the effect of the lessening of personal consequences.

Of course everyday life might not look like much at all.   There may be far less perceived need for direct social contact when interest groups of similar mind can huddle online.  In everyday life we have far less control over our interactions with people, which can force us to adjust our behavior in order to get along with them.  This is not the case online.  Regardless of who we alienate (consciously or not) we can always find someone else to connect with.  Relationships become completely disposable.

Which means that, in addition to removing the threat of the fist, the Internet has also mitigated the threat of ostracism.

There probably aren’t very many people that start out in troll mode — I suspect we get there by degrees.   It might start as our insistence on the last comment in a heated discussion on a topic about which we have strong opinions.  It slips into derision and name-calling.  We soon cease to think of the correspondent as a person whom we would never have the guts to abuse in public.   Because all we see is a screen persona it is easy to lose track of the actual human being on the other side of the interaction.

I am not a believer in Karma (in any metaphysical sense) but I do think there are ways to enmesh ourselves in Hell on this side of the grave.  The bad behavior eventually comes back at us — fewer and fewer people find anything attractive about our company, either in person or online.  And we are well on our way to that unsmiling concentration on self Lewis was talking about.

You would think behavior in “Christian” social media venues would be better but it is often not.  We simply ignore Jesus’ rather direct comments on derision (Matt 5:22).  And we risk becoming like Ebeneezer Scrooge’s dead business partner, Jacob Marley, who forged link by link the chains that bound him.

"Scrooge" (1951)
“Scrooge” (1951)




[1] Erin E. Buckelsa, Paul D. Trapnellb, and Delroy L. Paulhusc.  “Trolls Just Want to Have Fun.” Personality and Individual Differences 67 (2014) p. 97–102.

[2] C. S. LEWIS.   The Screwtape Letters, Omnibus Edition,  MacMillan, 1962.   Retrieved from