For some of us, the Internet is a kind of petting zoo - a gentle place where we seek solace and encouragement, high fives and "you go, gurl"s. We post our inspirational quotes and Successories-style memes and coil into a furby hug-pile of the like-minded and coo like Tribbles.
For the rest of us, the Web is a hostile environment where we go to dispute each other - a site of pajama pants blood sport in a colesium of hollering. I am very definitely one of these - I relish a good dust-up, I am prone to getting swept up in the truculent thrill of the skirmish, and I am naturally inclined to framing things in extremes. In fact, my show WRITE CLUB is predicated on the notion that opposition - in addition to providing a framework that is entertaining and fast-paced, urgent and involving - is a valid and productive organizing principle for one's ideas about the world. After all, when you're compelled to articulate WHY you believe as you do, if serves as much to reveal your own convictions to yourself as it does to make them known to your opponent.
In the last few weeks, I have had two experiences that have me thinking on this topic.
The first was a flame war on stupid facebook. A guy who hosts a storytelling show and I had what I took to be a disagreement on the subject of cultural sensitvity, cultural appropriation, and abuse of privilege. He took it to be an assault on him personally. Or, like, I don't know, a missle strike on his a bassinet filled with slumbering puppies or something. He lashed out. Calling me, among other things, a "cunt." While this represents a pretty significant lapse in decorum, obviously. and is an assertion that lacking in novelty or specificity, and demonstrates a pretty severe degree of tonedeafness and lack of gender sensitivity, taking place as it did on the wall of a mutual female friend, it was IN NO WAY GERMANE TO THE ARGUMENT WE HAD BEEN HAVING. I won't name him here - some of you know him, some will not, but it honestly does not matter.
The other incident was when I posted a couple tweets excoriating the NRA in the wake of the shooting in Oregon. Like you do. When you're gripped by depondency and the bleakness threatens to overcome. If it's of interest, my twitter handle is @writeclubrules and you can scroll through the horse shit yourself if you want - it's honestly not pertinent to this, though.
In order for contentiousness to prove fruitful, though, there a number of rules that must pertain:
- Stay on topic. An argument is not a stand-in to enact your revenge upon your childhood bullies; it is not the chance for you to demonstrate your exhaustive command of the many inconsistencies in several plotlines on Deep Space Nine; it is not your opportunity to re-fight squabbles with your ex.
- There are limits. The scope of every subject - even a thorny, complex subject - is not infinite. Whatever injustices done you do not necessarily have a place within the context of an argument. When you are disagreeing about a subject, you are not fighting for your life, or even your own sense of worth.
- Keep your response proportional. If I say "that assertion is bullshit," do not fire back with "FUCK YOU," if I devote a hundred words to expressing an opinion, do not return fire with a shrill 9,000-word manifesto.
- Remain as fair with your opponent as you are with yourself. Forgive them where they misspeak. Permit them to finish a thought. Hold them to a comparable standard of evidence-providing.
- An attack on your ideas does not represent an attack on you. Your beliefs - even your most inviolate, most deeply held and cherished beliefs - do not constitute a phantom limb I'm attempting to hack off, or a ghost baby I'm trying to snuff out. They are ideas. Mine are different than yours. I'm happy to have a drawn out and heated discussion on the points of friction between our differing ideas. But if you expect me to jump the conceptual rails and have a name-calling fight to the death in the underbrush of insult, then forget it. That is not interesting. It never ends well. And it leads no place. And when taken far enough, it contributes to how goddamn disspiriting things can become.
- Answer the fucking question. If I pose a question in the course of our dispute - aimed at refining a point you've made, clarifying a belief you have, amplifying an assertion you've made - do not JUST go thundering along to your next REASON WHY MY DISAGREEMENT WITH YOU SIGNALS THE END TIMES. Part of my disagreement with you has to do with my inability to understand your position. If you remain unwilling to clarify, why in the shit would I come around to your view?
- Bloody face prints on a brick wall. Gun Guy From Texas, Storytelling Guy With Hurt Feelings Because You Felt Like I Was Calling You Stupid, Or Something: I am unlikely to change you. You, in turn, are not likely to change me - my convictions have been five decades in the making, and I am stubborn as fuck. But there is value, I believe, in the civilized exhcange of differing views. Belief is the accretion of layers of input, so though I will not pivot to your view of things right now, I may one day do so. Also, since most internet exchanges are publically visible, maybe the spirited exhange we have might attract the attention of somebody who's more on the fence than we are and who will find clarifying something we have said.
But no good comes of the reductive, shrill, persecuted response to somebody who does not believe as you do. If I express an opinion - even a strongly held one, even if it is expressed provocatively - this does not mean I have called in a drone strike on that basket of sleeping puppies, nor does it mean I have enrolled as the foot soldier of tyrants. All you achieve but unleashing the rhetorical equivalent of the Doomsday Device is to reinforce the sense that the internet is just this teetering heap of the disgruntled, who are as infantile as they are persecuted, and whose brittleness is only matched by their pugnacity.
Bunch. Of fucking. Babies.