“I was intrigued by an acquaintance’s statement online, so I joined the conversation and added my perspective, only to receive ad-hominem attacks by another commenter. My acquaintance didn’t even respond. Is it me, or is respectful, logical, intellectual exchange no longer possible?”
All it takes is one glance at the online comments under the average YouTube video or web article- which are often unmoderated- to get an eyeful of more pointless, racist, sexist, homophobic, and crude language than you ever wanted to see. The number of people trolling (joining conversation threads with the only intention of spewing ugly words and hurting others) is large. While there are many reasonable and reasonably kind people online, it only takes one troll to shift the energy of a conversation towards the uncomfortable or even abusive.
On the other side of the spectrum, many people don’t want to engage in actual dialogue online. They may feel fine posting articles or making comments that put forth debatable perspectives, but if anyone shares a contrary perspective, they will not engage or may even delete your comment. (Believe me, I’ve seen it happen.) So, how does someone who appreciates intellectual discourse and wishes to be engaged with others by sharing thoughtful and respectful dialogue get his or her intellectual and social needs met? If you haven’t guessed it yet: NOT online! Here are some tips for recovering from your mistaken attempt at online intellectual discourse.
Remember: What You See Online is Not Representative of Reality
As an intellectual person, you value respectful discourse. You may even be sensitive to others’ words and intentions, which is why you are drawn to talking things out: to make sure everyone is understood, to break down barriers to communication, and to find the common ground where many parties can find agreement. And then you witness the underbelly of our society: people spewing hateful words, for no beneficial reason, derailing actual dialogue. This can be demoralizing. A resilient way to respond to this situation is to accept that some places are dark and negative, and you have no obligation to go to those places. Avoid them, if that is better for you. I would propose that this is better for all of us, but for various reasons some people are drawn to the dark and negative and intentionally go towards them.
Another resilient response is to recognize that there is a disproportionate quantity of negativity online because the negative, trolling individuals are making their voices heard, while those who are conflict-averse are not posting at all and those in the middle are getting shut down by the trolls. Additionally, one troll can be accountable for great quantities of vitriol. In this This American Life podcast, writer Lindy West talks about her experience with online trolls and discovers that one person was responsible for several- apparently different- troll attacks that she sustained. The podcast is definitely worth a listen.
Accept the Limits of Internet Dialogue
Now that you have experienced first-hand the limits of internet dialogue, it may be easier to accept those limits. The unmoderated internet is, at its worst, wide open to being co-opted by trolls. People who want to have intellectual discourse have no control over that (aside from heavily moderating the comments made by guests to a given website.) Besides the troll factor, the difficulty in ascertaining tone and intention behind typed statements prevents the genuine understanding that could be possible between people speaking face to face. This is not surprising when you consider that even speaking face to face about contentious topics with someone you know well is fraught with potential misunderstanding and communication breakdown.
Your thoughts- no matter how well-considered and reasonable you consider them- have a high likelihood of being misunderstood and negatively interpreted if you toss them into the ether of the internet. It is silently- and silencingly– frustrating to be pedantically told how you are wrong by someone who then puts forth a position that is intellectually inferior to your own. When you think about it, do you really want to engage a stranger in mutually trying to educate each other through written text, in a forum that is visible to and available for further comment by anyone with an internet connection? Probably not. That, unfortunately, is the nature of the internet: people who don’t know the experiences or education of others, interpreting their black-and-white words through one’s own flawed, limited perspective, and then critiquing others’ knowledge/logic/intention/decency. Any expectation you have for compassionate and intellectual dialogue is misplaced on the shoulders of the person in front of the computer at another node of the internet.
Get Your Intellectual Stimulation in Person
So, you now know that the dark side of the internet is not (entirely) indicative of the intellectual decline of the human race, and you know that you can’t expect the internet to provide the understanding, rational, intellectually curious dialogue you wish to have. How do you meet your need for thoughtful intellectual discourse? Look for places that foster face-to-face dialogue. Mainstream, generic culture does not bring us into places where we can have meaningful discussions. Most people are neutralized in their non-work time by television, passive internet usage, and substance use.
If you crave real interactions and talking about serious issues with other people, you need to connect to groups of people that meet for some common objective. Groups of people where you are likely to have meaningful conversations with other members would include activist groups, church / spiritual groups, debate clubs, poetry slams, Toastmasters clubs, and other places where people meet to either look deeply into things or to develop the art of communication.
Hostility on the internet does not have to silence you; turn your attention to places and communities that celebrate dialogue and cultivate understanding. Help build those communities, help bring in other people who, like you, are engaged thinkers looking for their tribe.
Important skills you are strengthening:
Share Your Experience
What have you learned about self-care through internet dialogue? Where have you found good outlets for intellectual inquiry? Please share about it in the “comments” section. The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count! Don’t worry: I monitor the comments.