There’s no doubt that the Internet has forever changed the way we communicate, and, just like any new form of expression talking with folks brings with it its own new set of red flags. In the last column I wrote on Internet behavior, we discussed how phrases like “I would take a bullet for you” that come out of your friends in the screen are more about manipulation than affection. Today, let’s look at LOL as a form of dialogue microaggression.
The challenge of online communication is that tone is very hard to convey. Well, it’s a challenge for those of us engaging in good faith. If you want to actually have people know when you’re joking or not, and feel bad when your message gets misconstrued, LOL can be a helpful indicator when words alone are unclear. Many a relationship has been salvaged through deft use of emoji, and most of us mean we got a warm laugh out of something when we type LOL.
However, there’s another type of use I’ve found particularly popular with online regressives, reactionaries and other humans maybe not as big on boundaries as their mothers should have raised them to be. A recent example for me was dropping into a Facebook thread where a friend had tagged another friend asking for people to prove to him all feminists weren’t man-hating radicals. Yes, I realize that getting involved in that type of mental quagmire was probably less useful than literally anything else I could be doing with my limited time before I’m rounded up into a Trump camp for reporters, but alas…
So, right off the bat we’re dealing with a guy antagonistic to some basic social ideas such as that patriarchy exists and needs fixing, but whom we were all implored by someone we respect to try to educate. Since I firmly believe it is only possible to ignore the systemic bias against women if you literally never look at statistic, I and others provided them.
The result was a lot of predictable moving of goal posts, construction of straw men and white male fragility, but the LOL stuck out in my mind. He, and other people I’ve interacted with on similar issues, tend to drop LOLs at the end of nearly every comment even if it was obviously not meant to be taken as a joke, almost as if it were a punctuation mark. Why?
A core conceit of the reactionary side of the web is that everything is a joke that the rest of us are just not getting. It’s why “triggered” has become something of a punch line. The idea of offense is seen as proof the person who was offended is wrong and fragile, as if there aren’t things we should be legitimately offended by. It’s the South Park approach to life, acting as if caring about something is automatically deserving of mockery unless, of course, it’s free speech, which must never ever be regulated.
This need to constantly exist inside a joke is the way a lot of people frame the world’s problems as something they don’t have to deal with. As long as everything is just a good joshing amongst friends, then nothing has to be done.
The problem is, not everything is a joke. A lot of people, myself included, take things like bigotry very seriously because they quite literally kill people. If we’re engaged in an honest dialogue about how things like systemic sexism and racism are affecting the world, and the other person in the dialogue just wants to make sandwich jokes, it’s an act of aggression on the part of the person laughing.
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The goal in your average compulsive LOLer is to reframe your object of advocacy as a farce. It’s the bullies insisting to the victim of their bullying that abuse is just comedy. That’s how they justify not listening to you, and, also, their unwillingness to alter harmful conceptions or behaviors. Every LOL is a scream of “THIS IS NOT IMPORTANT AND NEITHER ARE YOU!”
It’s also a perpetuation of really, really shitty comedy. I mentioned the sandwich jokes for a reason. Calls for feminists to get back in the kitchen are not edgy humor. They are barely humor at all, unless you’re unoriginal, spiteful and ignorant. It’s the comedy equivalent of telling an airplane food joke, but the teller thinks it has legs because he assumes the listener just can’t handle his rebellion against the politically correct status quo.
We can, though. Most of us live day in and day out with boorish louts unaware of their mediocrity, spewing toxins into the hivemind and thinking they’re the next Bill Hicks, and one more dude on Facebook hammering LOLs into his pedestrian examples of misunderstanding isn’t going to shift the arc of history. All it does is reveal the commenter to be passionately allergic to anything that doesn’t reinforce his very comfortable worldview.
And to them I have a message that I regularly give my seven-year old: If you’re the only one laughing, it wasn’t funny. Compulsive LOLers are there to reduce all teachable moments to the level of a fart joke so they can walk away unenlightened. Adjust your expectations accordingly.