It’s hard now to say anything publicly (a.k.a on the internet) without receiving almost immediate backlash. One post can alienate you from an entire group of people who previously thought you were, at the very least, worthy of their newsfeed and status updates. It can go from “I don’t agree with you” to “You’re an idiot and I hate you” before you finish your lunch break. It gets pretty intense.
On one hand, I think about how great it is that people are finding their voice, forming an opinion, taking a stand for things they believe in. On the other hand, I think we all need a crash course in forming (and sharing) well thought-out and informed opinions (not just rush judgements) and on how to engage in civil discourse with others who may not agree with us.
I think back to when the people I reached with my opinion were my mostly my classmates, youth group, and family. I knew my audience and they knew me. And that knowing shaped those discussions. I didn’t always have a popular or common opinion, and I wasn’t always agreed with, but I don’t ever remember leaving a heated conversation feeling as if the whole entire world should just burn (as I have felt following heated internet conversations).
I didn’t always say everything I wanted to say, I thought of better points later, I let my emotions tint my choice of words, and sometimes I felt misunderstood or I felt alone in my convictions. But then I went home, I thought some more, I wrote some more, and I saw those people again the next day or the next week. We didn’t necessarily pick that conversation right back up. Who knows how long it would be before it came up again. In the meantime, I continued developing my thoughts (as did they). If the topic were truly important to us, we continued pursuing it in whatever way worked for us (beyond just debating it with one another). No lines were drawn, I wasn’t unfriended or blocked. I wasn’t harassed or trolled. I didn’t feel the need to cast a wide net of disgust across my detractors declaring them immoral and innane. Regardless of how upset I may have been, these were still people I knew and I knew they were more than the thing they disagreed with me about. Likewise, they knew me, so I didn’t feel the need to prove myself as intelligent or of good moral character or of anything else.
I was just me and they were just them and we were just going to keep going to class and having lock-ins and eating dinner together, because we were stuck with one another. It was frustrating, but our disagreements or our inability to see eye to eye didn’t ruin everything between us, because there was life being lived between us.
Maybe we didn’t hang out together in our free time (but sometimes we did), and we probably voted differently, and worshiped differently, and lived differently, but we also recognized that we existed together and not only did that enforce a sense of respectfulness amongst us in regards to our interactions, but it also generated a camaraderie for the shared life experiences we did have.
And the thing about that is that if, in the midst of living our lives with people, we bump heads a little, are exposed to different ideas and experiences and perspectives, then ultimately we are able to better inform our own ideas. It’s good for us. We don’t have to disown everyone that doesn’t get it. That diversity of opinion and perspective helps us grow and learn. It forces us to disagree civilly. It forces us to see the whole person we are disagreeing with, not just the one infuriating thing they said. And when you see the whole person, the person in the context of their own life that intersects with yours, it makes you listen differently.
That’s what’s hard about modern technology. Most of the people I interact with are people that I do know personally, but I also don’t have day to day contact with most of those people, beyond the internet. So, while I know they are a real person, I don’t actually have to see them, speak to them, sit by them, work with them, eat with them. I can block them, unfollow them, ignore them. I don’t know them in that daily-life way and they don’t know me like that either. Much of our life’s information is curated online and I gather ideas about who they are, but I know what I see is just what I am allowed to see. It’s different.
And for those people that I do interact with regularly at work or home or church, it feels like stepping on thin ice to disagree on the internet and then show up in the same room together later on. The internet is a more volatile space than a regular room and there are many more voices chiming in. Whereas before, all the voices would likely be coming from the same room, naturally interconnected to one another – on the internet, your aunt and your co-worker and your college friend and your pastor and your spouse can all chime in on the same thing, not just to you, but with each other.
This can be great or, of course, disastrous. Not only disastrous, but disastrous with an audience. Fun times, internet, fun times. And then you’re left to smooth things over, if possible. Also, whatever point you were trying to make, it’s likely been blown out of proportion or, completely forgotten in the wake of the train wreck that followed.
It doesn’t have to be that way, I’m sure. Of course, we don’t have to take a public stand on every hot button issue either. Or perhaps, we can take a stand without having to publicly debate our conviction on every hot button issue.
I’ve seen some people say nothing all the time, playing it so safe that I’m not sure they even have thoughts or opinions at all.
I don’t really know how to do it, but I think we have to live life together better on the internet. .
Maybe we spend too much time asserting our opinions, and not enough time developing them.
What if we asked more questions? What if we considered more options? What if we entertained an idea other than our own for even a moment? What if we questioned our own ideas, their origins, their implications? What if we were allowed to change our mind? What if we sifted through enough information and entertained enough ideas while developing our opinions that we felt confident enough in them to not respond defensively or emotionally when questioned about them?
What if, even when the issue matters deeply to us, we didn’t take it personally when someone disagreed? What if, even when the words someone else used to describe us or label us were unfair and untrue, we didn’t turn around and do the same to them? What if we didn’t feel the need to prove our point, or our intellect, or our moral character in one well-designed argument because we knew that we lived a life that reflected those things?
What if we were thoughtful in how we engaged in discussions, knowing that all the people on the internet are actual people?
And, for the love, when we see someone blatantly trolling, what if we just followed those wise wise words “don’t feed the trolls” and left it at that?