Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Age of Mean

There’s only one thing more boring than Internet fights: Someone else’s Internet fights. So, I won’t tell you about one I got caught up in last week, except briefly, as an example. Internet fights are only one example of our new Age of Mean.

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.


Jason Peaco said...

I agree with you on this.

Many years ago when I first moved into my house the area that I moved into Brookland was being considered for being classified as an historical district. If neighborhood is deemed an historic district in DC, then there are certain rules about what can and cannot be done to buildings. It is sort of like a home owners association but for an entire neighborhood as opposed to just a single development.

I was confused by what I was reading. What you could and could not do was really not all that clear to me. There was a local list serve and I posted what I thought was a pretty basic question. That was simply hey I don't understand this can someone help me out. In fact I think I said just about that then posed my question.

Wow was I slammed. I was pro-development. I wanted to see twenty story apartment buildings built in Brookland. I wanted the integrity of the neighborhood destroyed.

My response was no all I wanted was information. I said obviously this was the wrong place for that. I said because of the reaction I saw no reason to continue on the list serve.

I got a couple of half hearted apologies from the people who slammed me. A few people said I shouldn't let a couple of people scare me off. But this was a basic information question. I could not for the life me figure out how people how I stood on the issue one way or the other by the question. I even asked friends and co-workers about it. They didn;t get it either. I figured I didn't need this type of grief so I quit the list and have never been back.

That was a good 12 years ago and I would say discourse has only gotten worse.

rogerogreen said...

I decided this was true some years ago. Boorishness is acceptable, and it's not just the anonymity (as some have argued) that has allowed it. And I am officially bored by "Where's 'white history month', a variation on the theme.

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

You won't be surprised to hear that very thing was mentioned. I was a little surprised to see people ask why there was no "Black Pride Month", apparently unaware of Black History Month. Mainly they said it was "divisive".

I think the fact that people were quite willing to say openly hateful things on Facebook suggests that anonymity alone isn't the reason, but I do think it got people used to being jerks, and conditioned the rest of us to expect it. Maybe.

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

In some cases, that's exactly what the jerks want—to drive people away. I don't know that's what they were trying to do to you, but at the very least, they were trying to shut you up.

In political contexts—where I've encountered this behaviour the most—it's usually done by people who can't win an argument through normal, rational means, so they try to bully people until they go away. I've been the victim of that many times, most often from leftwing LGBT folks, oddly enough. But, as you might imagine, it didn't exactly work on me. :-)