Sunday, June 14, 2015
The Internet is a wonderful invention, capable of delivering knowledge about anything we might ever want to know about, as well as entertainment from games, video, music, right through to the obvious porn and cat photos. But I think it’s also encouraged the development of a coarser, more self-centred society, something I think of as the Age of Mean.
I was exposed to this on Facebook last week when I challenged the casual homophobia of people commenting on the Page of a company that sells a grammar checking programme. Seriously. The Facebook Page posts all sorts of stuff about grammar, books, writing, and authors, and in the context of the last three, they posted a couple things celebrating LGBT Pride Month. The second post in particular drew the attacks.
Some of the complaints were tired and boring (“where’s straight pride month?”), but many were declarations that they were “unliking” the page (well, that’s what they meant; many of them were unaware that’s what one does: They thought the page moderators had to “remove” them). Some of them, however, went on to lecture us all about awful and disgusting LGBT people are, and how us gay folks are “shoving it down their throats” (bigots seldom say anything original).
There’s one thing about all this that’s unusual: It was on Facebook. We see comments like that every single day on mainstream news sites whenever LGBT topics are mentioned, however bland and boring they may be, but those commenters hide behind the anonymity of nicknames. We don’t even know if the comments are real or made by some sick bastard who gets his (it’s usually a male) jollies from riling up and upsetting people.
But on Facebook, most people use their real name—identities that are checkable for anyone who’s so inclined. So, when people say horrible things on Facebook—and they do all the time—it’s the virtual equivalent of saying it loudly in the middle of a shopping mall or something.
Why would anyone do that? Why would they say hateful things “out loud”, publicly, in a way that can be linked directly with their real identities? Have we really descended so low that boorishness is now acceptable behaviour?
I think we have.
The Internet Age encouraged this with its reliance on fake names and fake identities that allowed people to be horrible to other people without consequence of any kind (apart, maybe, from being banned from a site. Like they cared). But the fact that people are now willing to publicly own their bigotry suggests we’ve moved to a whole new level of awful.
Over the years, I’ve known plenty of conservatives, even some religious conservatives. While few have been actual friends, I’ve had cordial relations with them all (including, at one point, a fundamentalist preacher who was a next door neighbour). PEOPLE can find ways to coexist, but when reduced to pixels on a screen, it seems, we cannot.
I have seen far too many times that, for example, rightwing Christians have moved from negativity to fiery outrage in one jump, and only because a LGBT person (or an atheist) has dared to stand up to them. It doesn’t matter how muted the response, or how respectful the language, people on the far right in particular see dissent as attack and respond with all the fury they can possibly muster. And then they add some more.
We’re also seeing this grumpy self-centeredness spread to real life, as we see people openly saying things like, if people can’t afford a house, they need a better job (that was a government minister in Australia). We hear people say, if people are poor and struggling, it’s because they drink, smoke, gamble, are lazy—anything other than the fact the system is stacked against them.
We also hear people unquestioningly and blindly buying into politicians’ declaration that “we all” have to do with less, that “we” can’t afford good government services, so “we” have to accept reduced services and less infrastructure maintenance. This happens in many countries. And that’s without even getting into the fact WE accept that WE have to put up with all this so that the rich can have more and more and more tax cuts. We LOVE giving our money to the rich, apparently, even as WE get less and less in return.
Maybe there’s a clue in all that. Everyday people have to give up more and more and get less and less, and it makes them resentful, bitter, and angry (usually without acknowledging the true cause of the misery). So, maybe all that gives people a hair trigger. Maybe all the negativity we have to deal with in life makes us more negative as a consequence. Maybe on the Internet we’re merely having a perpetually bad day. It doesn’t have to be that way!
We need to stop and rethink what we say and do—not just on the Internet, but it’s a good place to start. Before we post a comment, we must ask ourselves: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? (which was NOT from the Buddha, by the way). I have often failed at one or two, never all three. But maybe that mantra, combined with remembering the graphic above, can help me avoid getting into future futile Internet fights.
We may be in the Age of Mean, but we can easily fix it if we choose to—IF we choose to.
The well-known cartoon at the top of this post, "Duty Calls," is by cartoonist xkcd. Publication is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.