In the true crime documentary genre, the hot offering last year was Netflix’s Monsters Inside: The 24 Faces of Billy Milligan, an exploration of the bizarre problems posed by the case of a criminal in Columbus, OH who committed a string of rapes and robberies. While there was unambiguous evidence of his guilt, his baffling behavior since childhood got the attention of a few psychiatrists who diagnosed him with having multiple personalities, or dissociative identity disorder as it’s known today. Legally, he committed the crimes and must be punished. Ethically, he was not consciously aware that he committed a crime so he’d be punished for the crimes of another person. Finally, clinically, he’d be a ticking time bomb without treatment.
Dissociative identity disorder is still being intensely studied, but it’s thought to be a manifestation of extreme childhood PTSD. Young children still forming their sense of self and a personality put into extremely abusive situations cannot integrate a complete identity and splinter into unique, often very focused personalities who may or may not be aware of each other. In Milligan’s case, that abuse came in the form of torture and sexual assaults from, arguably, the real monster of his story: a stepfather who had to be chased out of the house with a knife at his throat, the kind of man well known in the 1970s and 1980s as a rumored domestic Jekyll and Hyde who was nevertheless left alone and never had to face the consequences for his actions.
Now, there’s still intense debate over what DID is and even if it exists as we understand it, and we’re going to leave this debate to the experts. Not because it’s not fascinating or unimportant, because it definitely is, but because this is an exploration of how we came to live in an age of tribalist monsters who’ve either lost their humanity during the pandemic, or used COVID as the excuse they needed to drop their pretense of being decent humans. So instead, we’re going to talk about how we’ve become acutely aware of the fact that monsters like Milligan’s step-father Chalmer live among us after many decades of ignoring them or pretending otherwise, how this impacts today’s children, and how and why we saw all this coming for half a century.
While it’s tempting to start with the pandemic, as ProPublica did in their impassioned piece on the breakdown of civil society in America, the problem actually stretches much further, Thanks to true crime documentaries and the ubiquity of the internet, countless stories about domestic abusers, pedophiles, rapists, and their enablers have come to light. Even 30 years ago there were family omertas of sorts, with monstrous people defended by their spouses, parents, and in-laws because it was “family business” and anyone on the outside aware or suspicious of the abuses and crimes was discouraged from speaking up because it was “someone else’s family matters,” while law enforcement shrugged at appalling red flags, and often still does.
It was a time of rumors and deathbed confessions. Grandfathers who, for some reason, weren’t allowed to watch little girls, aunts who couldn’t babysit, siblings who acted weird around certain family members. People wouldn’t know exactly why until a dying parent, or a strange result on a DNA ancestry test, or, yes, again, a random true crime podcast shone a light into some of those dark corners of their youth. Today, so many horrific tales of abuse are finally coming to light, and the perpetrators are often either long dead or lived long, rich lives devoid of consequences, and now decry these revelations while bitterly complaining that “everyone’s a victim nowadays” in a tone they always used to shame their targets of abuse from coming forward.
Make no mistake, discouraging anyone from speaking up was a crucial mechanism in getting away with abuse that caused truly intergenerational trauma, with now nearly century long cycles of harm and dysfunction partially credited for the explosion of serial killers in the 1970s by some experts. Abused youth who grew up as targets and outlets for parents and guardians suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, combined with the ubiquity of cars, a newly built continental highway system, poor identification methods, lagging communication technology, and maybe a massive dollop of side-effects from lead paint, secondhand smoke, and gas fumes, and you get a mobile army of murderous sociopaths like Billy Milligan or Ted Bundy.
Of course, serial killers and famous criminals are outliers, but the last generations which had a tendency to sweep things under the rug are still with us and the damage they caused is far from resolved. If anything, the last five years have witnessed the social and political equivalents of their rabid banshee with food poisoning shriek against accountability and consequences. Even worse, automation, the pandemic, and globalization have created a new army of monsters and enraged those who ran out of easy targets. Finally having to pay attention to who’s running the things and how, and listen to experts they could once safely disregard, and finding a world that refused to stay still for their comfort or absolve them of their past sins completely unglued them.
Over the same decade that gave us the disturbing exposure of just how much horror has been covered up under idyllic, Norman Rockwell-esque facades to which older generations demand we retreat, the web was busy breeding a new generation of monsters. And the pandemic was the critical event that opened the floodgates at the worst possible time. While this sad and dark chapter of history continues to unfold, it’s hard to gauge all of its consequences, but it’s already evident that the results will be far reaching and felt for decades. The youth of today is growing up with adults not as mentors and role models, but as direct threats to their health, safety, and future, both political and financial.
Even worse, for decades, scientists, engineers, and experts warned of all this at length only to be largely ignored. Their concerns were unceremoniously shoved aside, or treated like freak shows with hosts playing the role of carnival barkers. Come one, come all, see the eggheads in lab coats ranting about how those computery doodads might change the world, and not for the better! Or how widespread genetic testing could unearth horrible secrets or get misused by governments and corporations! Or how pollution may cause the climate to change! Nerds and their toys, are we right folks? Next thing they’ll tell us is that robots will start taking our jobs and not giving them back, and predict pandemics. Whew, what imaginations.
At this point, the scenes were all too familiar, repeated again and again on social media. Usually the video appeared on TikTok or Twitter before migrating to Instagram and Facebook. Framing was often not quite cinematic but the camera was usually steady. The focus of the video was a white, middle or upper middle class Gen Xer or Boomer having a deranged, histrionic meltdown after being asked to wear a mask, or while confronting someone younger and more diverse for the crime of existing in their field of view. Accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers cataloged the exploits of these “Karens” and “Kevins” while periodically naming and shaming the most egregious of the bunch.
While these videos may have been almost amusing in the summer of 2020, as the pandemic went on, these full grown middle aged adults acting like spoiled children suddenly became far more menacing. Rather than taking out their rage and entitlement at random pedestrians and store clerks just trying to do their already difficult — and now dangerous — jobs, they graduated to targeting nurses, doctors, politicians, teachers, and even children. Far from dissipating, their now perpetual temper tantrums fed by social media algorithms, usually Facebook’s, turned into a full blown insurrection, protests against common sense public health measures, and downright terroristic threats against people tasked with keeping civilized society running.
They filled school board meetings demanding bans on protective measures against a still very much raging pandemic, actively contributing to their own and others’ deaths, harassing parents who lost their children to preventable diseases to fill their social media timelines and inboxes with torrents of hate, jeering kids trying to protect themselves and their families, and actively opposing just about any idea to make the world a better place because they do not believe in the basic principles of civilization. They sound as if they’ve lost their minds. Meanwhile, younger generations watching their behavior come away with a very downright poisoned impression of their elders while dealing with loss, uncertainty, and an endless parade of crises.
Videos of Karens and Kevins shrieking at retail workers before retreating to their SUVs on the verge of a rage-induced stroke were soon replaced with clips of them strapped in airline seats, growling like rabid animals, trying to assault people at airport terminals, screaming escalating threats at doctors and teachers while surrounding their cars, and spittle flying into the faces of police officers trying to guard politicians debating pandemic safety measures. It was no longer a funny display of impotent rage from those obviously raised to believe that the world revolves around them, it was a timeline of self-radicalization in an already unstable neo-feudal society unraveling at the seams.
Just about every sociologist or political scientist will tell you that deep, fundamental societal divisions are best fought not by debate, because those divisions are often driven by the core identities of the participants rather than facts, but by finding a common enemy. In 2020, there was a perfect common enemy to unite against. A virus. A force of nature as impersonal and apolitical as it gets. The fact that not only haven’t we united in fighting it, but it served to just drive us further apart, with the American right openly gloating about deaths in blue states and the wealthy demanding sacrifices for the economy, is a profoundly damning indictment of just how broken American society really is from the top down.
The effect this had on the nation is hard to overstate. Countless voters have seen nothing but failure or outright sociopathy from elected leaders. Employees have seen their bosses’ greed and venality during a crisis solidify just how little value is placed on them. Children see adults they’re supposed to trust for every aspect of their lives as walking time bombs that can, and do explode in their faces and at each other. How they’ll internalize this depends on the child and the environment in which they’re growing up, but the extreme ends of the spectrum can see them develop a lifelong loathing and distrust of anyone older, or absorb extreme politics that often lead to full blown fascism and political violence.
Meanwhile, Millennials — many of whom grew up in the waning years of American optimism and witnessed the dramatic decline and collapse of the nation’s basic ability to operate as a normal, civilized society — have had many of their worst fears about older generations confirmed during the pandemic and its aftermath. Help from our elders isn’t coming. If anything, too many of them are outright enjoying the misery of younger generations, and their response to requests for even basic human decency are to laugh in our faces and call us whatever new buzzword wild-eyed propagandists on Fox News are obsessed with that week and made a stand in for all that ails the olds who just want to live in the 1950s again.
While things were not exactly going well before COVID struck, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, unleashing decades of cultivated rage created by grifters and far right populists who wanted to run on fear, superheated by social media, and ignited by the virus. Inmates have taken over the asylum and barricaded the door, screeching about demons which exist only in their imagination and attacking the orderlies who dare try to get them under control, while the administrators are busy telling everyone that we should respect the right of those who fantasize about violence over their paranoid fantasies, and hear them out before resisting their attempts to stab us while foaming at the mouth with rage.
Many have already been lashing out against the limitations of a polite society that chafed them and the pandemic was the final straw, a justification for them to explode against a world order they already hated, allying with far right groups offering them the simplicity of fascism and the crusade against those their feel are less human than them. Others long relied on the silence of their families and victims to entertain their vices, until social media, podcasts, and widespread hereditary and genetic testing would spoil their party, so they also found cover through far right movements whose sole commandment is that might makes right, as politicians snuff out any attempt at positive change because the oligarchs funding them refuse to sign the checks.
Normally, this is the part where we talk about potential solutions but the problem is that there are no simple solutions here because when we try to discuss solutions, we need to start diving into root causes and end up talking about automation, cosmism, and the inevitable breakdown of old philosophies and world orders. We’re bored, angry, tired, working jobs we generally don’t like, or need to be doing, and many of us are no longer shy about taking it out on each other, no matter what it does to society at large. It’s like we’re in the midst of a fever that’s already guaranteed to break, it’s just a question of when, not if.
We’re simply too far along down the road of change to suddenly slam it in reverse. Too many things have already been invented. Too many others are on the horizon. Too much money has been tied up in making yet more robots, AIs, and massive automated platforms a reality in the near future, and should anyone put a stop to these projects, trillions would evaporate overnight, leading to a repeat of the Great Depression as the powers that be realize the economy simply isn’t capable of growing or even sustaining itself because the invisible hand of the market is no longer a metaphor but a very real swarm of algorithms that runs our world.
Ultimately, we want to feel safe, empowered, and like we matter. We want to believe our leaders genuinely care about the public and will choose to follow policies that will benefit us. We want to think that the police are there to help and protect the innocent. We hope that businesses will be good citizens that invest into our nations and communities. And ultimately, we want to be sure that if our politicians, or police, or justice system, or business executives do something wrong or harmful, they will be investigated and punished appropriately. We want a system of transparent accountability in which no one is above the law. It’s one of the three foundational principles of a free, democratic society.
But as the global economy exploded over the last 30 years, aided by scientific and technological advances for which our leaders weren’t prepared, the world’s oligarchs amassed wealth beyond their wildest dreams. As we know from countless scientific studies, even proximity to wealth and power erodes basic empathy, as does the increased isolation and frustration with all too rapidly declining social mobility caused and exacerbated by the misuse of our new tools and the habits they created over the past few decades. And when empathy dies, functioning societies start to break down, especially when they’re being constantly pushed further and further off the edge by outlets profiting off fear, hate, division, and confirmation bias.
As much as we tend to shove science and tech news into their own section, separate from “real news for real people,” at the end of the day, it’s all connected to our daily lives. Failures to plan for the transition to post-industrial economies and the upcoming obsolescence of factory style jobs, a transition discussed in detail for the better part of a century in those “weird magazines the nerds are always reading” and the occasional essays featured in major publications as the fantastical visions of a far future, have led us here. Ignoring scientists warning us about how a new pandemic was imminent got us here. Dismissing experts we hired to identify root causes of problems and how to fix them, and barring them from doing their jobs got us here.
Everything we’re seeing and experiencing right now was identified nearly a century ago and we were given decades of warnings. Scientists and engineers aren’t soothsayers with crystal balls, or the ability to arrange livestock entrails to divine the future. From global warming, to the impact of automation, to vast income inequality, to a new global pandemic, to the limits of economies reliant on infinite growth and assuming infinite resources, all of these threats were obvious and analyzed in great detail since the 1970s because it was self-evident that the world wasn’t ready. Even worse, our leaders weren’t ready, they did not care about us, and they did not want to plan for success. It’s very likely they still don’t even understand what’s happening or why.
And even worse than that, we, typical, everyday people are left holding the burning bag. Of all the things I can agree on with today’s conspiracy theorists and anarchists is that the suburban, white picket fence, two car garage, constant hustle culture lifestyle pitched by Americans as the ultimate aspiration for the Western World is inherently stifling. It eats at your soul and reduces you to a cog in a machine that doesn’t care about you. So many people all over the world are desperately trying to find some source of deeper meaning or a mission in life. This realization, bubbling under the surface for half a century and brought into the mainstream by the wrecking ball that was COVID, is beneficial on its own. But for many millions, it’s taken a dark turn.
As we can graph the world’ seeming descent into madness accelerated by misused technology few understand, and requiring familiarity with science too few seem to be interested in learning, it’s hard not to remember Carl Sagan’s dire words about this exact scenario. He too didn’t have the power to gaze into the future and warn us of our sad fate. He simply understood that failing to plan for the world that was coming would unravel polite society in rather predictable ways and enumerated them. And this is the great frustration of our time from those of us who were trained in science and technology. We kept ringing the alarm bells and offering to help. In response we were told to shut up and go away, often by snide, malicious know-nothings in power.
Now, as The Bard wrote, we see that Hell is empty and all the devils are here, and Jean-Paul Sartre was right when he said that Hell was other people. Every incentive today, from politics, to media, to personal relationships, is negative. Everything is wrong, everyone is out to get us, all of us are always on and always accountable to everybody. (Unless we’re rich and powerful, in which case we can get away with anything.) Sooner or later, something is going to have to give and we’ll have to start listening to the scientists again. We’ll have no choice because at this rate, everything is quickly grinding to a halt, unable to cope with the odd new world in which we find ourselves. The only question is how long it will take us to snap out of this fever dream.