Why No One Wins Online Dogfights
I honestly do not know when I stopped reading comments on my articles on The A.V Club but I suspect it must have been between five to seven years ago. As a writer, you ache for feedback and approval and praise and validation. Yet at a certain point the comments became too toxic and nasty to be worth even skimming. You want your work to be the inspiration for an ongoing conversation, but it’s impossible to have any kind of a reasonable conversation with people who think you’re a piece of shit hipster trash because they disagree with the way you wrote about a particular season of 30 Rock. It’s impossible to have a smart, substantive exchange that begins with one party angrily writing, “Fuck you!”
That sucked, because for a couple of years when someone would criticize one of my A.V. Club pieces and accuse it of being mean-spirited, or sexist or homophobic in a respectful way I would generally answer and try to explain where I was coming from, what my thinking was and why I felt they had mischaracterized my argument.
When I did this, something strange and miraculous would often happen: the person criticizing me would listen to my reasoning and we’d come to some kind of understanding. Sometimes I’d end up making a Facebook or Twitter or even real-life friend out of someone I initially knew only as someone who had a big problem with my work, and over time I’d completely forget the semi-acrimonious way our relationship began.
At The Dissolve and later Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place I had/have the unimaginable luxury of being able to read comments because for the most part people are nice and polite and take the time to actually read what they’re commenting on instead of interpreting any opinion that deviates from their own as an unforgivable personal insult.
I love the commenters here but the level of discourse on social media is a whole different ballgame. This Sunday, for example, I was at a party with my wife and baby and found myself sucked into a super-nasty Twitter war with a shitty comedian who decided that as a truth-bomb-hurling Speaker of Truth it was his job to cruelly mock trans children as brainwashed, mentally ill puppets of the Politically Correct establishment.
It was actually the second time I’d gotten into a social media conflict with this particular asshole. The first time around I assumed that he was a decent but confused dude. This time, however, he was firing hot at any and all comers, and if people like Paul F. Tompkins aren’t able to break through his toxic self-absorption and repellent wrongness, then there was nothing I would be able to do.
The impossibility of the situation did not discourage me from writing some very personal, intense things in response to what I saw as his very personal, very intense and very wrong attack on the children of my friends and trans children in general. I got angry at him. He got angry at me. Mothers were insulted and empty physical threats made, and at the end of the skirmish I blocked him on Twitter and felt terrible about letting my mood get ruined by the ignorance of some dude I have never met and, God willing, will never meet.
In order for their to be a civil conversation online both parties need to be willing to concede that they might be wrong, and that people who disagree with them might be coming from a good place. To cite a more recent example, when the A.V Club posted my I Am Cait My World of Flops piece, someone on Twitter chastised me for “dead-naming” the reality show’s title star.
When I saw that Tweet I honestly didn’t know what “deadnaming” meant, and I certainly did not spend 16 hours watching good-hearted, overwhelmed souls try to raise Caitlyn Jenner’s consciousness, particularly regarding trans issue, so that I could cluelessly write something offensive. I tweeted that to the woman criticizing me and she agreed that I did not mean anything negative by it.
I was willing to be vulnerable and concede that I might be wrong. I listened to someone with a legitimate concern and learned something in the process. I’m never going to dead-name (or refer to a trans person by their birth name) again and I’m grateful that this woman was willing to hear me out.
In these over-heated times, we’re increasingly unwilling to admit that we might be wrong and other people might be right. The gulf between me and the comedian whose tweets enraged me is too vast for there to be any kind of true understanding, just as the gulf between Trump supporters and people who find him repellent on every level is too vast to be bridged. And that sucks because there was absolutely nothing to be gained from that kind of empty, hateful online scuffle and a lot to lose.
So I’m going to commit myself once again to staying above the fray, to going high when they go low, to put things in Michelle Obama terms, because when you let yourself get baited to that degree, you end up losing no matter what. It doesn’t matter how strong your argument or might be: the only way to win is by walking away preemptively before you allow your anger to turn you into someone you don’t want to be.
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