If you see yourself in this post, it probably is all about you.
Technology has moved at lightning speed in the last twenty years, as we struggle to keep pace. The world has become both bigger and smaller than we imagined it – our communities are no longer limited to the people who live on our street or in our towns, but now include people half a world away that we may never meet face-to-face. Our sense of community is defined by the geography of our minds; it is no longer limited, merely influenced by, geopolitical borders. Our understanding of one another is no longer filtered solely through political leaders or a few wealthy businessmen. We can Skype and Google Hangout and MSN Messenger each other any time we like.
It’s hard to hate people you know, personally. And although I believe we all have “prejudice” – some half-baked notion of how things are, according to someone else’s very skewed view of the world – we can get over that if we allow ourselves to give each other benefit of the doubt and keep an open mind. After all, if you judged me by one Facebook post on a bad day, you might think that I was the world’s snarkiest bitch. If you saw one post on my wall on a good day – a day when the kindness of friends and strangers had washed over me and left me feeling about as hard-edged and raw as a teddy bear – you might think I was just the sappiest, most unrealistic little optimist on the planet. Other days, my sarcasm and wry humor would throw you off balance and confuse you; taken out of context, if you didn’t have my good days and bad days to go by, you wouldn’t have the first clue how to respond, because you wouldn’t know me – you would only know one tiny facet of who I am.
The Internet has taken words like “friendship” and rendered them confusing. There are people I’ve known, online, for over twenty years. I do consider some of them to be real friends – friends I know and love better than many face-to-face acquaintances. Twenty years ago, people I knew and worked with scoffed at this: “Oh, these are just people on the computer? I thought you were talking about real people!” They actually said that. I always wondered what that made me. After all, I supposed I must be the figment of someone else’s imagination. I’m now “Facebook Friends” with some of these people, and their paradigm has shifted. For others, their “people on the computer” still includes only close family and friends, and that’s okay – because at least they now see that they’re “real.” They just choose not to expand the borders of their online community.
The potential for friction – the kind that can kindle a “flamewar” (or even, I’m half-convinced, a real one) – is greater than ever, but ironically lessened, too. The more we’re exposed to different people, cultures, and thinking the more we begin to shape our own mental framework and to rework our prejudices. Naturally, those “prejudices,” or PRE-judgments about people, about why they think and act the way they do, turn into judgments that increase in accuracy as we add more data points to our experience. Still, if all the data points are negative, it only cements any negative prejudices we might have held – or destroys any starry-eyed, idealistic worldview we might have clung to in our ignorance. I will openly admit that I struggle mightily with Christianity’s call to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” but I still adhere to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s important to remember that last part – to understand that it has nothing to do with how others actually treat us, but with how we want them to treat us.
The thing is, each of us serves as an ambassador of good will, and at the same time, we provide a model for the way we want people who don’t know us to behave towards us. If we are mean-spirited and hurtful towards one another, why wouldn’t strangers believe this to be an accepted norm? If we are just joking around, we ought to give them benefit of the doubt if new friends try – and fail – to join in with the same spirit they perceive. At the same time, as strangers trying to decide how to treat others, it’s usually a good idea to hang back a little, ask questions, and step in gently – not dive in, yelling “cannonball!” – in until we feel confident that we really understand the rules of the game. Think of brothers and sisters: My mom once said that brothers and sisters can fight like cats and dogs, but woe to the person who tries to step in and break up the fight, because siblings will immediately join forces and turn on the outsider. I think national and ethnic groups are like that, too: big, dysfunctional families that will sometimes seem divided, to outsiders, but are united when they are put on the defensive by outsiders.
One of the freedoms I treasure most – I call it a right, being from the United States of America, which recognizes it as such and protects it in the U.S. Constitution – is the freedom of speech, which has been extended to encompass most forms of “expression,” like art and music, writing and speech, religious worship, even hand gestures, on occasion. Provided we’re not inciting riots, urging people to engage in criminal behavior, or wantonly endangering others, we enjoy a lot of freedom of expression. The very word, “censorship,” is anathema to most of us. But what, exactly, does “freedom of speech” mean?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
In other words, much to my children’s chagrin, I can “censor” them – restrict their right to free speech – within the boundaries of my own home, with impunity. I am not Congress. States, too, have the right to impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on speech, so this “right” is far from absolute, and ought to be guarded with the same sense of personal responsibility and accountability with which we would guard anything that is precious to us, to avoid good and decent people arguing that it ought to be restricted further or taken away. Gun ownership advocates, with respect to the Second Amendment, should take note and act accordingly.
There are many forms of censorship; only a few of them are illegal. Some of them are, unfortunately, necessary in a civilized society. Self-censorship, as “personal responsibility and accountability” – not imposed merely in an effort to seem “politically correct” – is be an admirable thing, particularly when it gives us a chance to pause, to reflect, and to ask ourselves, “Is this really what we mean to say, and does it reflect accurately on who we really are?”
Yes, we’re still going to blurt out stupid stuff, sometimes; at that point, I hope that everyone jumps back up to the earlier part of this thought and tries to give us the benefit of the doubt. To chalk it up to a moment of stupidity and a lack of thought, and not to beat their chests and cry “offense!” or declare war on us and a curse on our descendants over it. The world needs more kindness, and kindness ought to be our first response. By that, I don’t mean “turn the other cheek.” I don’t mean lay down, cover ourselves with a welcome mat, and invite thugs to trample roughshod over us.
Many years ago, I got a nasty email – a review of a story I’d posted online – from an anonymous member of the same site. Now, being rather thick-skinned when it comes to my writing, I didn’t immediately take it to heart and shrivel up in a ball of tears and snot. My first thought was, “Wow, I don’t think this person even read the story.” I crafted a reply, something to the effect of, “Wow, sounds like you’ve had a really rotten day. I don’t know who has kicked you around and made you feel bad about yourself, but I hope that doing the same to a random stranger has brought you some small relief and made your day just a little bit better.” And I didn’t mean that sarcastically.
Within a few hours, I had a reply. It wasn’t anonymous this time, and it was a sincere apology. I had hit the nail on the head. It was a teenaged boy, a high-school student, who had had a rotten, lousy day. Nothing had gone right. And yes, he was taking his frustrations out on someone else – forgetting for a moment that the people on the other side of the screen had feelings just as real as his own. We exchanged a few more critiques – I had sent him one with an honest four-star review after his kick-the-dog one-star review to me – and we got along just fine. I doubt he ever ever sent another anonymous hate-gram after that.
I started writing, this morning, to explain why I continue to be friends with difficult people – people who are sometimes hurtful to my friends. I’m loyal, that way – I don’t just cut friends loose because they’re having a lousy, rotten day and lashing out indiscriminately – so long as it’s just words, not threats or violence. I don’t appreciate it, and I won’t hesitate to censor it here on my blog. This is my “online home.” Facebook is and it isn’t – it’s Facebook. I have to keep reminding myself that my friends are all adults, all responsible for their own words and actions. My friends are welcome to block each other, any time; I just hope they’ll understand, sometimes, why I don’t block the ones they choose to block. Oh, if “difficult” is all you ever are – and all our relationship has ever been or is likely ever to be – if we’re only “Facebook Friends,” I’ll block you without blinking. If you’re really a friend, someone it would break my heart to block, then try not to be mean to my other friends – because abusing them is showing a great lack of respect to me. And if you behave that way here on my blog, I’ll delete your comments without a second thought, but I won’t delete you. You can choose not to be my friend, and I do understand if some of my friends block each other – I’d much rather they did that than to block me simply because I’ve been the conduit for their rancor or because I’ve chosen not to step in at every turn and break up fights between grown-ups.
Sometimes, people just don’t think. Sometimes, they just can’t think past their own unhappiness or anger, or their own prejudice or bitterness. Sometimes – and this includes me – there’s other crap going on in their lives that we know nothing about, and the toxicity just bubbles up, boils over, and tries to kill anything in its path. I think the first step, then, has to be to take away the excuses – to make clear that we won’t be their doormat or their whipping boy – but to also ensure that we’re not part of the reason for their unhappiness, and to show that we actually do give a damn, before lashing out in response. Because if we don’t give a damn, or we are the reason for their unhappiness, we don’t really have any right to expect better treatment from them, do we?