Rob Bell, Rebecca Black and the Internet Hate Machine

Michael Geertsma

We have something in common, you and I. You may not realize it yet, and this may come as a bit of a shock, but we're part of the same hate group. We're large, powerful, angry and effective. We have causes - millions of causes - that we’re passionate about, at least for a moment. My causes aren’t the same as your causes. I may even hate your causes, but in our division there is strength. We all hate something, and we’re all taking out that hate in the same place. We are the Internet, and we are a Hate Machine.

Rob Bell and Rebecca Black are two recent examples of Internet Hate Machine carnage. They have nothing substantial in common, other than shared initials and victimhood. Bell is a pseudo-famous Christian pastor, author and speaker, best known for his mega church and Nooma video series. Black is a 13-year-old girl who wasn’t known for anything before unwittingly becoming a viral video star.

Somehow, both managed to get on the wrong side of our angry Machine. It’s not hard to do, because anything can set us off - and just about everything does. We hate Democrats, Republicans, Christians, Muslims, atheists, homosexuals, homophobes, rich people, poor people, jocks, nerds, celebrities, athletes, musicians, movie directors, journalists, dictators, presidents, Helvetica and Comic Sans.

Rob Bell made the mistake of writing a book with a provocative title: Love Wins. That title, and a short promotional blurb from his publisher, gave some people the impression that Bell might possibly be hinting at the remote chance that he’s considering becoming a Universalist. As a collective, the Internet made up its mind: Rob Bell was no longer a Christian. Another pseudo-famous Christian pastor, John Piper, tweeted our rallying cry: “Farewell, Rob Bell.” We were unified.

Except for those of us who weren’t. Some, myself included, directed our hate towards the haters, judging the judgers. We might be part of the same Machine, but that doesn’t mean we can’t disagree. Which is good, because we always disagree. I fired a sarcastic shot on Twitter:

“Love that Rob Bell is being crucified...over a publisher's synopsis of an unreleased book. Glad Christians never rush to judgment.”

Far be it from me to miss an opportunity to fuel the Hate Machine.

The Rob Bell fervor died down quickly, because that’s how the Machine rolls. Our hate isn’t committed to a cause and it rarely accomplishes anything. It’s about being heard, being first, being important and about being “right." We don't care whether Rob Bell is, in fact, a Universalist. Never mind the facts; only opinions matter - the angrier, the better.

So it was no surprise when, a few weeks later, we turned on Rebecca Black for making the egregious error of recording a silly song with her friends. For a while, we pretended it was the song we hated, sarcastically quoting the lyrics, recording absurd parodies, “ironically” buying it from iTunes. That was just a front. It wasn’t the song that had offended our Machine, it was what the song represented: a rich, spoiled girl whose parents would do anything to make her famous. Aided by our short memories - which conveniently forgot about our own 13-year-old selves, who, like Black, had dreams of fame, who believed we would be rock stars or movie stars, whose parents fed our dreams with karaoke machines and acoustic guitars and home video cameras - we lashed out.

For years, I’ve fumed about the Internet’s celebration of ignorance and unrighteous hate towards anything it disagrees with. Yet I hypocritically engage in it, because I love the attention. My Rob Bell tweet brought me more "publicity" (both positive and negative) than all 900 of my tweets before it. I felt appreciated and clever, and those feelings fueled my addiction to the Hate Machine. I’m not proud of the hypocrisy, but I’m not alone in it.

Christians are as guilty of Internet hate as any other group, and it’s not hard to understand why. It’s an instant way for us to find out who else “gets it” (and, more importantly, who doesn't) and it fosters a powerful bonding experience by creating a common enemy. The immediate validation is an irresistible force.

But it’s time for us to take a new path. Because if we can't engage people with love - even online, even when we're angry and even when we're sure they're wrong - then what are we doing here?

Topics: Online, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, News & Politics, Social Trends