Over the last five months or so, I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with online “dialogue” that feels suspiciously like fighting. As I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of policing every single word that I speak or write in order to achieve some Platonic ideal of non-offensive communication. It would be impossible to please every person in existence, and by attempting to satisfy one person I will inevitably alienate another (often from the same circle). I would much prefer to make a mistake and have someone point it out to me than try to read minds ahead of time.
There’s no shame in being told that our words have hurt someone, even if it was unintentional. If someone is upset or angry and points out the flaw, that’s an opportunity to grow, learn, and (hopefully) deepen a relationship. I hesitate to use the word “blessing,” because some find the connotations offensive, but I do consider it a blessing when someone corrects me, even using strong language or statements. Ideally, it’s proportionate to the offense (that is, a tweet for a tweet or a blog post for a blog post) and a critique of my words, not my character or my presumed intent.
I’ve been going over and over in my mind what exactly has been so upsetting to me about many recent interactions on social media. After all, I’m rarely directly involved, and even when I have been, no one has told me that I’m doing anything wrong (aside from one very snide and hurtful exchange). Yet something about it has been triggering panic, sadness, anger, and desperation like I haven’t experienced in years. I tried considering it from a workplace standpoint–if tensions on the job are high, it creates an unpleasant work environment even for those not involved in the situation. Twitter may not be my job, but as a stay-at-home mom and writer, it can be like a “workplace” among fellow bloggers. That doesn’t fully explain why it was so painful to witness, though.
I tried unfollowing several people regularly involved in these controversies, but it hasn’t helped so far. I would have to unfollow about 200 more people in order to feel completely safe from any and all triggers. I’d be left with mostly famous people and my local grocery store chain, which–let’s face it–isn’t all that interesting (sorry, Wegmans). It’s impossible to escape disagreements, and it’s impossible to be the “perfect” blogger. So, if the problem isn’t who I’m following (and can’t be resolved by unfollowing), then what is it?
This morning, it struck me. The specific way of pointing out flawed ideas brings back my childhood in vivid detail as though I were living it over again.
Allow me to explain. There are two different ways in which people engage with posts and ideas with which they disagree or even find offensive. This is what happens in the first situation:
- Person 1 makes a statement or comment people disagree with.
- Other people reply that it was a Bad Thing to Say, sometimes even with strong language or harsh words or anger against the original statement and the person posting it.
- Person 1 either apologizes or doesn’t, takes down the tweet/post or doesn’t.
- Discussion may or may not ensue around the original statement or the arguments against it.
- Life goes on.
Here is the second version:
- Person 1 makes a statement or comment people disagree with.
- People passive-aggressively tweet or write blog posts about how terrible Person 1 is.
- Person 1 feels personally attacked and fights back.
- Other people jump in to defend both parties involved.
- Nothing gets resolved, tensions remain high, people distrust anyone still friends with either person/persons involved.
- Life goes on, but people are unfriended or unfollowed because of their involvement or refusal to get involved.
Sadly, this happens more frequently to women. It’s particularly bad if the person who makes the original statement is already part of a marginalized group–for reference, see what has happened pretty much every single time a black woman speaks up publicly about an important issue. I really don’t know how to say this without someone feeling like I’m “calling them out” personally. I’m trying to point out the difference between telling someone their words or actions were offensive and making bold statements about that person or their character.
Why this is so upsetting for me personally is the name-calling and the fault-finding in regard to a person’s humanity. I spent years being told that I was ugly, worthless, stupid, and deserving of mockery. Is it any wonder that it hurts to see anyone using the same language and then justifying it by saying, “I have a right to be angry” or “This is a healing step”?
We also need to stop saying that everything someone says is justified because of their personal history or even because they are right. Being right doesn’t justify verbal violence. Would we be okay with a person pulling a gun on someone else because they’d said something offensive? I doubt it. Yet we’re fine with someone pulling a verbal gun because it “isn’t as bad.” I am going to tell you that anyone who believes verbal assault “isn’t as bad” because you don’t die from it has not spent a childhood being verbally abused. They probably also haven’t been subjected to rape threats in the comments section of a popular blog, either.
This is absolutely not about anyone’s right to say that something was offensive or in poor taste or triggering or otherwise upsetting or harmful or even that we just plain didn’t like it or don’t agree with it. It’s not about tone-policing or suggesting that anger isn’t healing or holy. It’s about how name-calling, passive-aggression, mocking people rather than ideas, and assigning motive to people is not a healthy way to interact with the world. That’s very different from telling anyone not to be angry or not to express their anger, and it’s not even asking people to “just be nice.” Niceness is not required in order to attack ideas instead of people. “That’s a shitty thing to say” isn’t especially polite, but it sure beats “You are a shitty person for saying that.” It’s also a lot better to say, “That statistic you cited sounds like someone pulled it out of their ass” is also kind of rude, but it’s much better than, “You ignorant ass, smart people know that’s not true.”
I’m not going to spend 2014 grinding my gears on this issue. Although it’s not my preference, I’m happy to thin my social media to close friends, celebrities, and the grocery store. Either way, I’m taking myself out of this completely. Follow me or don’t; be my friend or don’t. All I ask is that if you step away, you extend me the courtesy of not talking about me behind my back, sending me manipulative emails through my blog, or tweeting thinly-veiled mockery of my personhood. After all, that’s the same respect I’ve already given to you.