Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

I Disagree!

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.

15 replies to “I Disagree!”

Internet outrage has become more than just expression. It has turned into a juvenile popularity contest where one tries to outdo the other. I read an article about the movie Love Actually the other day. I simply couldn’t think of a single movie that I’ve seen that had the power to elicit such a strong reaction from me. I could taste the writer’s adrenaline through the screen. The only defense that I can think of to deal with such things, is to refuse to engage. There are times when something upsets me, but I don’t turn to the internet with a flailing cudgel. Just step away. Go for a run. In the case of the Love Actually person, maybe a cold shower would be more appropriate.

The Internet is overrun with bloviating gainsayers. They can’t leave a comment box empty nor let any opinion stand “uncorrected.”

The abuse is very ritualized, if you notice. Almost always it starts with an extreme straw man, a completely contrafactual description of the victim’s position, statement or behavior. Look at the comments under the stories you linked. “If Phil Fish can’t stand a little debate…”

This is the one thing that makes me wonder whether I will ever have the guts to push the publish button. I can handle abuse in person, usually to the great chagrin of the abuser. But online, you’re pretty helpless. That’s why I don’t participate in any social media whatsoever–no FB, no Twitter. I loathe the thought of starting just to promote a book.

Really good points there, Hugh!

I think the story in John 7 about the adulterous woman illustrates the inverse to the point you are making, which is something people on the conservative side of things should really think about more. Moralizers are as essentially off as immoralizers, where often anyone who has a problem with doing the one thing is secretly practicing the other.

I wrote about abuse for a workshop I was doing recently. I referred to Russell T. Davies’s book ‘A Writer’s Tale’ in which he ranted about young writers being destroyed by comments thrown onto the internet by various people – always writing under pseudonyms of course. It seems writers in particular are easy targets for nasty comments. I have yet to see the seriously bad stuff written about artists or musicians. Is that because everyone who can write thinks if they can do a shopping list they must be able to write a book? People seem to accept that musicians and painters have to study for years to become accomplished but writers . . . How many times have I heard people say ‘they know they could write a book if they wanted to’? I’ve had reviews by trolls who don’t even get the names of characters correct and don’t seem to understand I write novels rather than polemics!!

What is it Wordsworth said? “On that best portion of a good man’s life, His little, nameless, unremembered acts, Of kindness and of love.”
Hate talks loud. Violence talks loud. That’s what they do. I’m no banner bearer for the internet or social media, they’re just tools, like any other. Yeah, it gives the bullies a wider range of weapons. It also gives good people more opportunities to do good. But most of the time good doesn’t talk loud. Most of the time we don’t notice it happening. And that is a reason to hope for us. Because as dark as the world seems sometimes, good is the norm. It’s not shocking. It’s everyday, ho hum, the rational, gentle path of least resistance. It’s the bad that shocks us. When it doesn’t shock us any more, when the good things that happen are the things that are reported on the news and gossiped about- that’s when it’s time to really worry. Because then it won’t be the norm any more.

For now, good is quiet and goes unnoticed. There is no doubt that kids (and other people) are suffering from bullies, online and off. But how many more kids who had been ostracized and beat down have connected with each other online and realized they aren’t alone? That there’re people all over the world just like them and that above all else they don’t deserve to be treated badly. How many more years would it have taken for politics to change in places like Burma and Egypt and even China without the effects of social media? How much slower would organizations like Amnesty International work without it? How many victims of natural disasters around the world would now have the relief they have received? But it’s so easy to forget those things in the face of something bad. Just like it’s so easy to forget a hundred compliments in the face of one insult.

We can’t make other people be kind. We can only change how we react to unkindness. It’s hard not to give an insult more weight than it really merits, but that’s all that we can do. The mask of anonymity is very loose though. It’s not real. Someday, our kids/spouse/parents/siblings/friends are going to know what we’ve said and what we’ve done, even online. If, someday, all that’s left of us is the tiny trail of information and messages we’ve left behind online, will it be something that we’re proud of? Is this something I’d want my descendants to see in two hundred years? Is it something I’d want my kids to find out about in twenty? Karma or justice or Newton’s third law, it’s all the same in the end.

You wanted secular examples. Well, if I remember, whether wrong or right, Paula Deen’s fans rallied around her. But maybe that’s not compelling enough, so here are a few more: in 1943, some police severely beat some nonviolent protesters in India. It ignited a large series of riots against the police and Gandhi went on a hunger strike to stop the violence against the police.

Courtroom and prison guards do it everyday, defending convicted criminals from retribution at the risk of their own lives (yes, they are paid, but there are less dangerous lines of work). Think about those guards in Nuremburg or the Hague. It’s not popular what they do. Or Daniel Pearl who died trying to understand why Richard Reid did what he did.

The examples are out there. But good does it’s work quietly. It’s not bright or flashy or shocking. No matter how loud hate yells, no matter how dark it seems, Good and Love are the normal, natural way we live our lives, on and offline.

It’s the mocking that bothers me. I was in a forum where I thought we could share a bit about ourselves – warts and all, strong opinions and all, in order to get to know one another – but my words were taken and twisted and my positions ridiculed. Needless to say, I left the forum. It seems we (me included) often want to challenge and change people instead of understand them.

Interesting debate. One that is close to my heart and seems to have been with me my whole life.

I grew up in Northern Ireland during the troubles. Several school friends had fathers in the police. Their views were polarised. If something bad had happened, there was generally a discussion in the morning before class. Even if I agreed with them, I can’t leave discussions one sided. Especially hate filled ones. Invariably I argued a view opposite to theirs and this could make life very difficult believe me.

At university I did a philosophy course and it opened my eyes. No matter how deeply I felt my view was right, someone would present an equally valid different view.

People need to be right and to hear others say it about them. We form closed groups of rightness and there is bullying in the groups to ensure it speaks with one voice.

This is a survival trait.

So far it has worked well for humanity and gave us the edge over other homo species.

It may be starting to work against us. The social changes brought about by the internet have given decisiveness a voice like never before. The results will be many, but those who want a good time and like social media will withdraw from places of abuse and bullying. Those that will ultimately thrive will be nicer place where disagreement is fine.

This WILL change everything eventually.

I think the process could be speeded up in a few ways that I’m not discussing as I’m in the middle of 2 novels about them :)

One point though, philosophy could be introduced at an earlier age. Disagreeing, doubt and respect for others opinions would be icing in that cake.
Gareth

In my therapy practice I’ve noticed huge issues with social media and texting. As someone who is totally addicted to her smartphone I understand some of it. However, married couples who only fight via text are becoming quite common. It’s scary.

Bullying is prevalent on FB and other sites. However, I believe there are more good than bad people in the world. I also see people standing up for others online. That brings hope.

Many of the arguments on social media are silly. “Obama did this”, “It’s Bush’s fault”, “This kitten is cuter than your kitten!!!” etc…

However, the power of social media to spread the word about bigots, racists, and any one else who spews hate is a pretty handy tool. It makes it harder for them to hide.

Sometimes, it is used incorrectly or on false information, something you are acutely aware of, Hugh. But often it can be self correcting. When people were saying bad and incorrect things about you, many, myself included, stood up to try and set the record straight.

It’s funny to see who is remaining neutral, or above the fray, in this particular dust up.

Very well said, Hugh.

I’ve had similar thoughts when perusing online; I’ll read an interesting article, think of something I believe worthwhile to add to the discussion, and scroll to the bottom to leave a comment. What I see there is often so much hate-mongering, that I decide against leaving a comment, not necessarily in “fear,” rather, I don’t want to invite that type of negative energy into my world.

I am recently engaged, and when I think of my future with my fiance, I see us having a family with children. But it terrifies me to bring up children in a world that is so ridden with hate and cyber-bullying. I can only focus on what I can do – which is to love and teach respect and self esteem, and hope it’s enough.

What would our world be like if we spread love and encouragement, rather than hate? As John Lennon famously said, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

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