Disagreeing is becoming a strange thing, isn’t it? The more connected we become and the more social media binds millions of voices into a tsunami roar, the more powerful our disagreements can get. I’ve watched friends “un-friend” each other on Facebook over mild disagreements that got out of hand. Sure, it’s not much different from olden options like walking away from a conversation in a huff or slamming a phone down in anger, except that the disagreement and un-friending are much more public and far more permanent. That political rant that received 82 comments and lost a couple of friends? It just showed up in your Facebook “2013 Year in Review!” You don’t have to rely on fuzzy memory to relive all you regretfully said. You’re still saying them all the time. Forever and always. There’s not even a scab to pick.
I’m obsessively fascinated in how technology, society, and the individual affect one another. I ask my wife about her therapy all the time in order to gain insight into the digital natives. I don’t want to hear anything that might identify an individual, just general stuff — like how is texting and social media affecting the travails of puberty, adolescence, high school, and college? What I find out is that kids are quick to whip out their phones in sessions and repeat, verbatim, an offending text, a bit of bullying on Facebook, or that forever Tweet that will not die for it is given a regular transfusion of bloodtype RT+.
Kids have surely done the unthinkable and have killed themselves over bullying in the past. I know I wanted to die in middle school. I was terrified of a kid who tormented us daily. My stomach knots up thinking about the guy. But now, these people just have more tools at their disposal. And they no longer have to be the biggest kid in the group. Just the most sociopathic. The most cruel. The most connected. The most tech-savvy. Those with the most friends. Those with the most time on their hands.
Every year, I read about another kid who killed him or herself over a shared video or a campaign by classmates to drive them bonkers. I don’t seek these stories out, so I imagine what I’m seeing is the tip of the iceberg. And for every one that goes to this extreme, there are tens of thousand of other kids who are just miserable. Not just kids, either. We’re all susceptible. We now have tools at our disposal now that allow us to reach out across time and space. Time, because our touch is eternal. Space, because we all exist inside the same internet, whether as avatars, anonymously, or fully ourselves. How we touch is up to us. Many share hugs and high-fives. Many others reach out with virtual fists.
There are plenty who decide to pull away from this level of connection. I’ve seen a number of celebrities decide that they can’t handle the abuse. Lauren Goodger gave up an acting career because of the hate. Anne Kirkbride left Twitter completely. Mary-Louise Parker said she might quit acting because of online abuse. Phil Fish gave up work on the sequel to his masterpiece video game because of it. There have been too many cases involving authors to list, and it got so bad on Goodreads that the website had to take drastic steps to try and clean it up.
For anyone hoping I might stop writing because I can’t handle bad reviews, I hate to disappoint you. That’s not where this is going. I do find it fascinating, though, that some people can shatter dreams and that this can make them feel a little more whole inside. I’ve had some friends email me this year in tears over campaigns to ruin their careers. Several fellow writers have had bullies put a lot of time and energy into 1-starring all of their books, including those that aren’t even out yet. (The same has happened to me, but I’ve gotten to the point that I laugh it off). All the power these days is now with the faceless crowd. There are more of them, with more time on their hands, and nothing to lose. Also: there’s no recourse. Just more potential fallout, all stemming from our interconnectedness and the power of disagreement.
An article in today’s New York Times got me thinking about this topic. I was reading in the paper this morning about the guy from Duck Dynasty, who has been kicked off A&E for homophobic and racist comments in an interview with GQ this month. People who disagree with what he said are calling for others to stop watching the TV show (on Facebook, at least). Weirdly enough, the people who agreed with what he said are also calling for a boycott (to protest him being kicked off the show). Everyone wants everyone else to stop watching. They seem to be disagreeing so hard, that they agree on the ultimate course of action!
We have entered a new era of disagreement. Retribution is swift and meted out with nuclear force. Paula Deen felt it this year. Orson Scott Card. Duck Dynasty guy. I’m probably missing a dozen other examples. Hell, there were at least two people who wore offensive Halloween costumes this year who paid heavily for their transgression. Both of these people posted pics on social media. Their identities were found out, their employers notified, their jobs taken, death threats rained down, their mailing addresses shared, until these people had to remove themselves from social media altogether. I was just as disgusted as anyone by what these people wore and what some celebrities have said. But I’ve been even more disgusted with the pitchforks and the brutal public beatings we’ve handed out in order to “get even.”
There’s certainly room to revoke free speech somewhere. I don’t know where that line is. Inciting hate and violence are bad things and should be taken seriously. Countering that hate and violence with even larger doses of hate and violence doesn’t seem like the answer (or a good example). It often feels to me that we could simply share what people have said and allow others to make decisions based on that knowledge. Or we could choose who to support and who not to support based on political views without wishing actual harm on the person. Death threats and ruining careers feels overmuch.
The best thing I’ve read on the subject came from Michael Foley’s AGE OF ABSURDITY. Michael has this to say:
At the level above the individual is the demand for recognition of group identity. Here, attention-seeking, entitlement and complaint combine in the increasingly common phenomenon of taking offence, where some powerful group decides that its right to appropriately reverent recognition has been violated and that it is due retribution. The beauty of taking offence is that the threats of the bully can be presented as the protests of the victim so that the ego can bask in virtue while the id exults in aggression. The arbitrariness is also appealing. Anyone can decide to take offence at anything and this ever-present potential creates a climate of fear satisfying to bullies.
This feels familiar. I know how much fun it can be to pile on, especially when you “know” that you’re in the right. People have been stoning one another long enough for the wise council of restraint to sit there in our books for thousands of years. But now our stones can travel farther, faster, and last forever. They can strike again and again. It gives people joy to watch them hit. And friends are lost; kids kill themselves; dreams are abandoned; the mighty and powerful are torn asunder. And we feel justified for doing so.
This is a new affliction with very old roots. We are the same people that we have been for thousands of years—technology is just giving our base impulses new outlets. Yes, we can spread joy, and pictures of puppies, and e-cards, and hugs, and ASCII <3’s. We can click “like” all day long in support of the wit of others. (The Zuck was wise not to offer a button for its opposite). But what should we do when people with a public platform disagree with our sensibilities? I’ll tell you right now that I’ve suffered more than two years without a Chik-Fil-A sandwich. But I’ve never once asked others to do the same. I don’t want to throw a stone, but I don’t want to be friends with this person, either. Is it enough to turn our backs when we disagree? Or will we only be happy if we can get everyone else to turn their backs as well? Is it the urge to in-group and out-group that drives us to destroy others? What is the solution? I don’t pretend to know. I do think it’s worth talking about and being aware of, so we can at least understand what we’re doing.
Maybe Steven Hughes is the sage of our times. What he has to say about boy bands is spot-on:
There is some place beyond offense where real harm is perpetuated on groups that deserve our defense. Where does this line lie? And how do we retain our civility when someone crosses it? And what happens to us when someone else draws a line well beyond where we stand while claiming to have just as much right to do so?
That large flat rock feels so good in our palms, doesn’t it? We can hurl that rock so far these days, that nobody will ever see where it came from. We are hidden in the far bushes. We can tear down others without threat of recourse. We can tickle our egos and sate our ids at the same time. And none of us will dare rush to the defense of those being stoned, because then their sin becomes our own, even if we disagree with them! Especially if we disagree with them. Has any man or woman ever been brave enough to do this? To throw themselves across the victim of a stoning and risk being subjected to the same abuse, even if they agree that the original act was a sin?
I’m an atheist, so I can’t think of any famous examples. Maybe someone can help me out.
Merry Christmas, everyone.