There was a time when people could have a civil conversation about hot topics. Sure, there were gooberheads who would rile people up. The apostle Paul ran into a few on his journeys (See Acts 14 for an example or two). The very fact that we have general advice like “If you can’t say anything nice, say nothing at all” and “Avoid discussions of religion and politics” suggests that people at least had an expectation of avoiding vitriol in public.
This is no longer the case, particularly online. There seems to be a trend toward people assuming that “I disagree with you” must equal “I hate you, so you must be destroyed.”
Many people spend more time bashing what they hate than supporting what they love. There is a difference.
All I have to do in some cases is simply like a quote from someone who has a political perspective on something, and I get messages and posts about how the quoted person is evil personified and does nothing more than lie, cheat, and steal.
That, however, is very mild in the grand scheme of things. Simple comments stating an opinion on a hot topic can gather responses as totally inappropriate as threats to harm or even kill the commenter.
What is going on here?
I think it has to do with the anonymity of the internet. I can create bogus profiles with either realistic names or obviously fake names like Rex Karz or Jim Nasium or totally goofy names like TwinkleGlitterGirl. For all the viewer on the next computer knows, I could be a gray-haired granny or a teenager or a big guy with a mohawk. Not even a profile pic guarantees that you know anything about me.
Likewise, I could tell you that I’m hanging out in Austin, Texas, while I’m actually in northern Michigan. I could tell you I’m single when I’m actually married, or that I’m 46 when I’m actually 63. You have no idea.
That anonymity serves a purpose. I’ve twice been in situations that made being able to hide my real identity was a matter of safety. For a while, I went dark on the internet to put distance between me and a not-so-nice guy. Now that I’m publishing books, my name and likeness are all over the web, but for a while, being able to sneak was a good thing.
Some people, however, use that ability to hide their identity as a platform to act like total jerks. Their bad behavior can’t be traced back to them. If their accounts on various services get banned, they can create a new email address and start a new account.
Bullying happens at an alarming rate.
Some people take the approach of “It’s not affecting me, so I don’t care.” Is that any different than the “I don’t want to get involved” excuse? Not really.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do about the bullies. Creating a new profile is easy.
We aren’t completely helpless, though. We can block interaction from some accounts and delete offensive posts. That doesn’t do much for the knucklehead, except maybe take away the audience. We can speak up when someone is being inappropriate. We can support the person who’s under attack.
Sticking our heads in the sand, however, doesn’t help anyone.
A bully is often brave against one and a coward against many. Use that to our advantage.