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Anonymous Malice

by Bill Meacham on July 7th, 2013

Originally printed in the May 2013 edition of Humanity & Society.(1)

Last week my daughter drove over a bent signpost in the road, and it flipped up and smashed a hole in her car directly under her seat. It ripped the car up, but fortunately she was uninjured. Then I found out that teenagers in her rural area sometimes leave booby traps like that on purpose, just for laughs. Imagine my outrage!

What puzzles me is that they don’t even stick around to see the results. (If they did, they’d probably quit doing it.) What kind of society do we live in that fosters such anonymous malice? I can understand walking around with a chip on your shoulder and getting into a fight with someone who pisses you off. Even if that person is merely a trigger and not the real cause of your anger, at least there is some personal connection, another human being at the end of your fist. But to set an anonymous ambush? The perpetrator has no connection with the victim, and in fact deliberately avoids connection. What is that about?

Systems theory offers a heuristic clue: the problem contains the solution. Perhaps the very anonymity is not only the symptom but the cause. Humans need contact with other humans. We are, as ethologists say, obligatorily gregarious. We need close, warm contact with others as much as we need food and water. If we don’t get essential nutrients, we suffer; and if we don’t get them long enough we become deformed. Likewise, if we don’t get close, warm contact we become socially deformed; and that deformity plays out as malevolence that, in its very anonymity, contains a hidden cry for help.

Research tells us how social and political structures exacerbate or mitigate the isolation that causes such harm. But it does not tell us how to open our hearts and hear the inchoate cries of those who feel compelled to lash out to assuage their own pain. Could I enter imaginatively into the lived experience of the perpetrator, and reach out to that person with compassion? Could I put aside my outrage—or at least deal with it in other ways—and see that person not as my enemy but as a fellow member of the human family? If I could, it might begin to heal me and to heal hurtful social structures as well.


(1) Meacham, Bill. “Anonymous Malice.” Humanity & Society, May 2013, vol. 37 no. 2, pp. 192-193. Online publication as of 25 May 2013.

From → Philosophy

One Comment
  1. Jeffrey Stukuls permalink

    First, well written and I’m glad your daughter is uninjured by the event.

    I agree that this is an anonymous call for help. And, at some level, it does seem like a closeness to other humans cause. The word isolation holds a more potent explanation, as it can be either objective or subjective. In other words, the perpetrator could be objectively close and integrated into society – friends, family, organizations, etc – and therefore not seem isolated. Yet, their internal, subjective experiences could be entirely different. They could, in fact, feel especially isolated within that closeness if they feel misunderstood or do not feel like they can open up their interior experiences to others. (Yes Bill, I’m doing my best to use your language here…) Such a feeling of isolation, of suffering within an apparently socially supportive setting, could very easily generate such an anonymous, destructive occurrence. Such booby traps are not much different than setting land mines.

    What’s especially sad about it is that the common understanding of who we are, our sense of self as individuals, easily allows for this to occur. It is hard to blame the person who suffers, in fact, as they are confined to the societal understandings handed down to them through their upbringing, education, and interactions with society. If they really knew better their actions would be different.

    If only we all recognized being a fully integrated, single system as who we are then we would always be acting toward our common best interest. Any interior, subjective suffering would be recognized as needing solving just like any exterior, objective suffering. May we get to this realization sooner than later!

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