There are many wonderful things about the internet, but it can also be a vast breeding ground for group hatred.
"Hate," my mum used to tell me, "is a very strong word."
This was usually after some sort of whining about not wanting to eat zucchini, or being teased at school. "You don't hate people," she would say about the latter.
At the time, I thought she was being restrictive. Now that I'm all grown up, though, I use the word very sparingly, and think very hard before I use it.
But the sentiment itself is something that I increasingly see spreading across the internet like a vast blight — not just in obscure, poky little forum corners, but on mainstream social-networking websites, and from popular bloggers, journalists and politicians. Humans have a long history of polarising into opposite camps over issues, but the internet and anonymity give that a global scope and place to thrive, much like bacterial culture in a Petri dish.
In the last two weeks alone, I have seen a US Republican representative declare that easier access to women's birth control is on a par with acts of war. I've seen religious rights groups declaim against gay marriage, as though letting two people who love each other formally cement that love would end the world. I've seen memes that are racist, sexist, homophobic. And I've seen.
It's possibly a real problem with the internet. Every tiny, little grain of hatred that anyone has ever felt can be vented anonymously ... and you can guarantee that no matter how vile that opinion is, there is always going to be someone who agrees with it.
That's not just true for hatred; now, anyone can connect with people who share their passions and interests, no matter how strange, and that feeling of belonging is impossible to overestimate.
But it also leads to vast echo chambers, with people bolstering and validating each other's hatred, confirming those awful, racist, sexist, homophobic opinions as morally superior and creating a groupthink environment — that is, when the basic desire to be liked, admired and part of the group leads to a lack of mental flexibility — a place where there's no room for deviation.
Groupthink, studies have shown, is dangerous. It narrows our creative scope, as we struggle to quash any ideas that deviate from the group's values. It means that we become so convinced of our own rightness that there's no more room to learn and grow. And, at its most extreme, it is used as a form of control for cults.
Social networking, while good for many things, is a fertile breeding ground for groupthink. Think about it. Have you ever tried to disagree with a friend's post, where everyone else is patting each other on the back for having the "right" opinion? I have, and I get dogpiled. On one notable occasion, I got called all sorts of names for daring to suggest that people treat others with respect.
I can, of course, see the irony here. I believe I'm right, but in my own defence I've yet to see an argument in support of hatred of an entire demographic that convinces me it's a good idea.
There's another interesting study that's worth looking at, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1999. "How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments" (PDF) found that unintelligent people are convinced of their own infallibility, because they're too unintelligent to know that they're unintelligent.
So, maybe I'm wrong, maybe there's a perfectly justifiable reason for hating on people who are different to you. In fact, if anyone has one, I'd love to hear it. Do note the qualifier "perfectly justifiable".
As an aside, on Monday, Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott made a promise to Australians: if elected Prime Minister, he will repeal the laws that prevent public racist hate speech. This would mean that every entitled little jerk with an awful opinion could spew their bile everywhere, for all to see, consequence free.
"I hate Tony Abbott," I told my mum the other day.
"He's a d***head," she replied.