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People have always been ignorant and weird.

Ryan Broderick, writing at Garbage Day about some goofball who had gone viral on TikTok and was getting piled-upon:

I think most people are extremely weird and don’t know it. And the deranged content they were unawarely posting to their friends and families on Facebook 10 years ago, is now going on TikTok in the form of a video that features their face. When they post that content, it attracts other similar weirdos, but also a ton of attention from people who aren’t the same kind of weirdo. And that attention is often terrifying because, unlike getting yelled at on Facebook for a bad post, people are yelling at your face and the words coming out of your mouth. So, you either have to double down or cave and apologize.

This post is an older one—from all the way back in August!—but this point he makes is a question I have often wondered myself. Is everything crazier now, are people dumber or more extreme than they used to be? Or have people always believed and shouted about all this nutty stuff and we just didn’t hear about it?

The conclusion I have come to is that both are true.

I do think that people have always been this weird and crazy. I remember flipping through the TV channels as a kid sometime in the mid-1980s and running across what turned out to be a half-hour Lyndon LaRouche campaign ad on one of the local channels. We didn’t have cable and there were only six channels to choose from, so I watched the whole thing. I don’t remember much about it other than that he was quite keen on how a mission to Mars would save the country, and also that even then it was clear to me—as a kid—that the guy was a nutbar.

My freshman year of high school, I had an English teacher I thought was great—she had us reading books like A Wizard Of Earthsea, and the classroom discussions were always really interesting and engaging. I loved the class and looked forward to it every day. It was probably my first experience of school being a place to explore ideas and work through them as a group. Then one day, she started telling us about how there was a lot of evidence that raised questions about whether the Holocaust really happened and started going through all of it right there in class. It was, of course, all the usual antisemitic bullshit you hear now in any extremist forum, and I vividly recall the understandably aghast looks on my parents’ faces as I related to them what we learned at school that day1.

When I got on Usenet in the early 1990s, the first thing that struck me was how cool it was that anyone (including me) could post about anything. The second thing that struck me was how many weirdos were on Usenet, posting about all kinds of crazy stuff. Even back then, it didn’t matter what the discussion thread was about—some rando would come crashing in to start shouting about the Denver airport of the NAFTA superhighway, or posting about the already ubiquitous MAKE.MONEY.FAST.

So, yeah—there have always been crazy people, and even seemingly normal people have always believed all sorts of bizarre and offensive things.

I think what is different now is that these people can spread their crazy ideas and find fellow travelers at a scale and speed that would have been unimaginable even twenty years ago. If you love Lyndon LaRouche, you are no longer limited by how many grubby flyers you can hand out in front of your local post office. If you’re a Holocaust denier, you are no longer stuck with only the class of twenty-six high school students you have each semester. Your get-rich-quick scam is no longer dependent upon how many letters you can mail out or how many ads you can buy in the back of Popular Mechanics.

Now you have the entirety of the Internet with whom you can exchange your ridiculous, ignorant, and hateful ideas, and the platforms on which you do that will gleefully spread your garbage to as many susceptible and like-minded people as possible because it’s in their financial interest to do so. They will shove your garbage into everyone’s feed and the more outrage it generates, the farther they will spread it.

  1. It is still shocking to me to think that this actually happened. To the best of my knowledge, there were no consequences. She continued to teaching at the school for at least the three following years, and while I never asked anyone about it, I have to imagine ours was not the only class where she brought up Holocaust denialism. And to be clear, this was not a “There are some people who think…” sort of thing, or a theoretical discussion. She was straight-up teaching it. ↩︎

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