Many toys for babies are designed to be loud. A baby moves, and suddenly there’s sound! Bells or jangling rings or stuffed animals that drink batteries to sing!
These toys delight! (Well, they delight the baby. Parents often find them aggravating.) These toys make a baby feel powerful.
With these small hands, I can change the world!
And, crayons! And paint! Oh, the apparent joys of non-toxic fingerpaint! As the baby moves, the world retains a visible memory of that movement!
The world remembers me! My presence here: it matters!
My eldest is now in second grade. Like most second graders, she has recently discovered that she is hilarious! She can read a joke in a book and then tell it to people. She can tell those jokes again and again and again and they are funny every time!
My younger child is now in kindergarten. Because her older sibling is telling jokes, she wants to tell jokes also. And her jokes are hilarious, too! She knows that they’re hilarious because she tells the same jokes as her sibling. One after the other, they tell me the same jokes.
Each time I say, “Hmmm, I don’t know, _______, what do you get when you cross a sheep dog with a rose?”
And each child in turn is hilarious when they tell me that it makes a collie-flower. Or that the cheese that isn’t yours is nacho cheese. Or that …
All the jokes that my children tell are funny (to them), but a certain genre is particularly loved. Yes, the knock-knock jokes! Because a knock-knock joke isn’t only a chance to feel hilarious – knock-knock jokes are power.
You can see the realization dawning: if I say “Knock knock,” people have to say “Who’s there?”
Knock-knock jokes are like sorcery. Like a form of puppeteering. Knock-knock jokes allow a child to control everyone around them!
But, oh! The moment when people decide that a particular child is too old for knock-knock jokes – when friends and family fail to respond with “Who’s there?” – must feel so disillusioning! Suddenly, a font of power has been wrested away! The child will have lost a way to control the people around them!
Eventually, this sense of power fades. Or rather, we grow older and become jaded. Inured to the sense of empowerment that children’s toys and knock-knock jokes once gave us. Being able to alter the world with a crayon no longer feels enough; we want to do more than make red marks on stray sheets of paper.
Many people age into these evolving expectations gracefully. Recognizing the increasing amounts of work and effort needed to change the world in meaningful ways. When an adult makes art, we expect rather more from their creations – the blobby monsters drawn by a child might seem less impressive if they’d been made by someone in their thirties. Children reap praise by building a fort from cardboard boxes; a grown-up might be expected to build a house.
Sometimes, though – and this is especially common among men – the world doesn’t make people feel as powerful as they think it ought to.
I was supposed to be master of my domain, and instead you’re talking back to me??
And so they attempt to wrest a sense of power from the world around them with violence. They find ways to circumvent their gnawing fear of being ignored.
When I say “Knock knock,” people have to say “Who’s there?” When I whistle and shout a lewd comment at a woman, she has to cringe!
Ah, right – aggrieved men don’t just wrest a sense of power “from the world.” Unfortunately, men are often given the false impression that power is synonymous with power over. And so their sense of power needs to come at the expense of someone else: someone perceived as weaker, lesser, lower in their imagined hierarchy.
By harassing a woman, a man might feel momentarily powerful again.
As Jacqueline Rose writes in On Violence and On Violence Against Women,
The aim of harassment … is not only to control women’s bodies but also to invade their minds. … Harassment is always a sexual demand, but it also carries a more sinister and pathetic injunction: ‘You will think about me.’ Like sexual abuse, to which it is affiliated, harassment brings mental life to a standstill, destroying the mind’s capacity for reverie.
Power: the sense that our actions will be noticed. For our 45th president, leading a nation was not enough: he wanted for people to pay attention to him. He kept shouting into the insatiable maw of social media; he needed to watch television news to see evidence that people had noticed his latest shout.
But not every aggrieved man has a bevy of journalists to amplify his inane blather. “My I.Q. is one of the highest,” “Windmills are the greatest threat to eagles,” “The concept of global warming was created by the Chinese” – lots of men say this sort of thing, yet still they go unnoticed! Which makes them feel powerless! It’s very unfair!
But there’s a solution: interject oneself into the world in a sufficiently awful way, and then it’ll be impossible to be ignored!
In Culture Warlords, Talia Lavin describes how it felt to immerse herself in the internet worlds of white supremacy and hate. In some ways, this might feel like a silly project: isn’t the goal of internet trolls to feel powerful by being noticed? By intentionally studying them, isn’t Lavin giving them what they want?
In a passage describing her observation of a flame war between pagan white supremacist trolls and Christian white supremacist trolls, Lavin writes:
While researching that religious expression, it was easy for me to get bogged down in who’s drinking goat blood for Satan and who thinks a cone-shaped Crusader helmet is an extremely cool fashion accessory and who’s climbing mountains to sacrifice to Odin in hopes of awakening the white race.
Sifting through the details, and observing the nonstop, puerile nature of their speech, it can be easy to wonder precisely what the point of decoding all this hate is. Isn’t it just hate? Aren’t these just losers pontificating and arguing on the internet?
The thing about hate, though, is it metastasizes. The thing about channels that are filled, twenty-four hours a day, with stochastic violence – testosterone-filled megaphones shouting for blood – is that, sooner or later, someone is going to take them up on it.
In many ways, a person who has studied martial arts for decades is just as dangerous as a person with a gun. Either person, if they felt sufficiently threatened, could cause someone to die.
But there’s a difference: the power from martial arts is earned. During long years of training, a person learns not to feel threatened. Having put in the work, they’ll feel powerful and so learn to control that power.
Whereas it’s trivially easy to buy a gun. There’s no impetus for psychological growth. You’ll be left with the same weak, scared, angry person – now suddenly more dangerous.
Boorish men. Internet trolls. Self-appointed militia men asserting their Second Amendment right to feel powerful without effort. They’re like aggrieved children, furious if you’re not responding to their knock-knock jokes.
You have to notice me!
Harasser, internet troll, attention-starved man with a gun: in the modern world, this might well be a single individual. Which is why Lavin’s journalism matters: these men’s hate speech can lead so easily to physical violence.
The hateful internet troll who murdered 49 people in an Orlando nightclub (while wounding & traumatizing many others) was checking Facebook during the act. As though the only way to be noticed – to feel any sense of power – was to be awful.