Toxic Emissions

A while ago a colleague sent me a message on Teams, asking me for a summary of information on an issue I’d briefly discussed in an article a few days earlier. I wondered how long she needed it to be, and she said one PowerPoint slide. I pointed out that with such a tight limit there wouldn’t be room for anything more than what was already there in the article, to which she responded “that’ll be fine”.

I was irritated. You didn’t need or want any more information than you already had? Then why even come to me? Why not just copy and paste it yourself?!

Childish perhaps, and obviously I didn’t say anything. I put the slide together and sent it to her with my compliments. End of story. However, I screenshotted the conversation (no names obv.) and sent it to a friend with whom I like to commiserate over various irritations. Dunking on our respective colleagues for being idiots is a regular bonding activity for us, online and the few times a year we manage to get together1.

We exchanged a few messages and I noted how I felt it so natural, appropriate and satisfying to say some harsh, mean things about my coworker. Had she seen our conversation I imagine she would’ve been upset by my honestly quite vitriolic comments, and by the low opinion of her I apparently had, once the mask was off.

That would’ve been a mistake, however, because I don’t in fact have a low opinion of her. Nor was I seriously angry and when we made small talk the next day at work I didn’t fake any of the friendliness.

The two attitudes seem incompatible, yet they were both perfectly genuine.

Noticing this made me think back to a time when I felt hurt myself, being on the other side of the situation. Once at uni we were supposed to write papers on the business of technological innovation and the class was going to discuss their first drafts together. I arrived a little early to the seminar room and happened to spot a print of me and my collaborator’s effort on top of a stack on the teacher’s desk. There were some comments scribbled on it, obviously meant for the other of the two teachers running the class. Out of curiosity I couldn’t help but glance at the front page, and I saw a comment saying something like “What? How could you even write such a stupid thing?!”.

I quickly went to my chair and sat down, not exactly brimming with confidence. In retrospect it’s true that what we had written wasn’t good, but that’s not the point here. The point is that when we discussed it later, the teacher was kind and helpful and offered constructive criticism. Do I think she really kept thinking we were total idiots and just pretended to be kind and helpful? No I don’t, and she gave us a glowing review of our final work. Like with my own reaction towards my colleague I think she was being genuine when helping us, and I also think she was being genuine when angrily mouthing off to her colleague.

We have opinion-generators, not opinions

It’s not that we simply self-censor when we’re with others. The very process that generates thoughts is affected by the context. When me and the wife watch TV we often make comments about people’s appearance, comments that would be hurtful if heard by the person. But we don’t mean any harm and intend no real disrespect. The same goes for the cab driver that one time who said he didn’t like the resort we we’re going to because it had “too many Germans”. He was quite, and I believe honestly, apologetic when finding out that one of our party was German.

It’s not that our real opinion is “in between”. It’s that there is no one single “real”, canonical opinion we hold. There are different facets of us that come out in different contexts, and we might say that instead of an opinion or attitude, we have an opinion/attitude generator as part of our self.

There’s nothing weird or inconsistent about such a generator giving different outputs depending on context, even seemingly contradictory ones. Like different narratives that describe the same reality from different points of view, the generator’s outputs all real but partial2.

Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.
— Walt Whitman

The good

This is alright. We can ~pretend we look down on people or objectify them behind closed doors. It’s really relaxing and freeing to not have to model all people in all three dimensions and with full empathy turned on all the time.

We can let our hair down a little when in a safe environment and play with those baser feelings we might not be so proud, of all things considered, but do enjoy in the moment. We can indulge in gossip and objectification the way we indulge in wild nationalism and tribalism in the context of sports3.

It only turns ugly when it spills over and generalizes, i.e. when thoughts and attitudes acceptable in some limited and walled-off contexts becomes a feature of the whole you, and affects how you behave even when it’s not harmless.

The bad

Thats are other risks. Even if we keep our indulgences few and limited and thus ourselves from becoming true assholes and bigots4, there’s always a chance that what we say escapes and finds its way to the wrong place.

We often view such slips as revealing something important: “oops, now we got to see what X really thinks about Y”, but by now you understand that I think this is needlessly cynical and pessimistic. It’s just normal for us human beings to say a bunch of shit about others that we don’t necessarily mean. At least that’s true if we interpret “really mean” as “stand behind regardless of context and without qualification, and accept the full implications of” which I think we should5.

It’s also normal for us to not quite appreciate this fact, so we overinterpret what others say about us when we’re not there, if we overhear it. Even if we’re aren’t really assholes and bigots, we’ll certainly look like we are if all someone hears from us are those leaked little indulgences.

The Ugly

When boundaries between social contexts become more porous, such hurtful leakages become more common.

Ponder what’s going on with social media:

  • We have a global system of interconnected platforms where millions of people self-sort into cliques determined by attitudes, personalities, values, tastes, and politics.
  • This system records in persistent, written form a lot of what would in a more natural environment be temporary and fleeting, unlikely to escape its context.
  • A lot of this recorded chatter is for bonding and/or venting purposes, like the conversation I had with my friend.
  • Very different social milieus, contexts and situations are often just a click away.

The natural, obvious consequence is that the system will expose us to other people’s disparaging and objectifying talk about us (or people like us) a lot more than used to be the case. And it’ll sound and feel much harsher than it’s really meant.

Twitter is the worst offender, no doubt. I have an unhealthy relationship to it, because while there are great things and great people on it, there’s also so much dunking6 and other recreational disrespect going around. It’s “quote tweet” function is a tool almost tailor made for talking shit about people behind their backs, to their face7. It’s the number one thing you’d invent if you wanted to make users more anxious and belligerent8.

Furthermore, seeing examples of others performatively looking down on people like ourselves is threatening. Feeling threatened make us fearful and upset, and when we’re upset we want to vent, we want to feel better about ourselves, and we want to bond with others who might support and protect us. The resulting venting and bonding produce the same kind of toxic emissions that caused them in the first place. And around and around we go.

Social media has connected situations and contexts that were separate for good reasons, and by doing that it has also, largely inadvertently, exploited a vulnerability in human nature and social organization to create a system of escalating feedback loops that lead to ever-intensifying hostility, anxiety and paranoia among its users9,10.


With more traditional social arrangements such loops would die down, like natural nuclear decay in uranium atoms safely dispersed in bedrock11. Pack’em tightly together, however, to get a self-sustaining reaction, and wow, you can turn the heat into electricity! (i.e. turn the engagement into revenue). But if you don’t know what you’re doing it might blow up in your face and poison the shit out of everything.

I’m sure everyone knows what they’re doing though.


  1. He’s a political science postdoc and some of his anecdotes has contributed significantly to me losing trust in academia as a bastion of competence. ↩︎
  2. We can produce a kind of “complete” opinion in the sense that that we’re willing to stand behind them regardless of context and interpretation, but they tend to sound like bland media-coached politician-speak (because that’s what bland, media-coached politician-speak is designed to be). See also: policy documents. ↩︎
  3. Or dogmatic traditionalism in the context of holiday celebrations and food. ↩︎
  4. By “bigotry” here I mean “reduce a person to a single characteristic and denigrate them based on it”. ↩︎
  5. To assume that what we say when we think ~nobody can hear us as “what we really think” is a mistake. While such reactions are more spontaneous and more reflective of the “base” parts of ourselves, there’s no reason to think those parts are the most real. We’re all less inhibited and more spontaneous when drunk of our asses, but I for one don’t think of that as the most genuine me. ↩︎
  6. I’m especially bothered by stock phrases like these“Funny how…”“I love how…”

    “Imagine believing that…”

    “I don’t know who needs to hear this but…”


    They have the exact function of shitting on people who “aren’t there”. But often they are. ↩︎

  7. Screenshotting instead of quote tweeting is somewhat better, but it’s still quite likely that the dunk it makes its way to where it can do damage. ↩︎
  8. I don’t mean to say I never quote tweet myself, but I try to avoid doing it in a mean way. That’s not always easy. It’s definitely tempting to “turn evil”, get an alt, and just run wild with dunking on things and people I think are stupid and bad. I don’t do it, because I genuinely think it’s a sin and would make me a worse person. ↩︎
  9. It gets even worse because social media’s been dragging the rest of media into the gutter with it by sharing and signal-boosting professionally produced shit-talking. It doesn’t even have to be all that direct, sometimes the same sense of threat and disrespect can be activated just by being talked about and clearly not with (i.e. objectified). ↩︎
  10. I don’t know if our social norms are evolving to deal with this. There are no obvious signs, apart from (maybe) the expression “hot take”. Part of its function seems to be to invoke an understanding that we don’t necessarily mean everything we say, and that these thoughts are spontaneous and emotional and thus not meant to be taken too seriously. ↩︎
  11. This nuclear power metaphor is probably not helpful to anyone but it’s an absolute delight to me, so it stays. ↩︎

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2 thoughts on “Toxic Emissions

  1. Emotional connotations aside, there really is a difference in predicted future behavior between an X who never thinks Z, and an X who sometimes thinks Z but keeps the thought and its expression within some bounds.

    This isn’t as cynical as “in vento veritas”, but it is important.

    Liked by 1 person

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