The Internet Is a Hard Place to Be Human: Toward a Better Internet Discourse
As a writer I have issues with tools that reduce us, with anything that asks us to measure ourselves in absolutes. I think of personality tests like the Myers Briggs—I’ve never once tested the same way on it, and it’s not because I have some multiple personality disorder. It’s because, like most humans, I am a walking contradiction. I love talking to people and consider myself outgoing, but because I’m an introvert I can only do it so often and for so long. I’m unbelievably opinionated (shocking, I know) but I’m also shy and extremely uncomfortable with conflict. I’m a misanthrope who worries about hurting people’s feelings. I’m ruthlessly scientific, an avowed agnostic who doesn’t believe in what I can’t see—except when, say, on a plane, and my magical thinking reflex kicks in. I’m not so easy to categorize and neither are you. We don’t make a lot of sense—our internal logic isn’t sound, and our clockworks stop and break down more often than they don’t.
So the internet is a treacherous place for people like me—that is to say, for all human beings.
Last year the internet seemed extra terrible. (Do we say that every year?) It was, of course, the pundit-proclaimed Year of Outrage. But I don’t think outrage was the problem. Of course we were outraged. Sometimes outrage can be clean and clarifying, can burn fiercely as sunlight through a magnifying glass. Outrage can be necessary and can be a catalyst for change. Terrible things happened last year, injustice after injustice was brought to light—and so our outrage was crucial. Insisting on safety and justice for rape victims was and is crucial. Demanding that black lives start mattering was and is crucial. Shining a light on torture, as practiced not abroad in mythic chambers but right here at home by our own government, was and is crucial. Outrage is complicated, of course. It’s catching, which can lead to a mob mentality, but it can also coalesce and converge and force the media to shine a spotlight on something like, say, #Gamergate.
No, outrage wasn’t the problem. The terrifying part of the internet isn’t the outrage—it’s the online tendency to ally oneself so rigidly to this camp or that camp that it becomes as much identity as belief. The self-righteous digging-in of the internet debate. We don’t listen—or if we do, it’s only with half an ear while we plan our next riposte. Complexity takes too much time to consider, and doesn’t reinforce our biases in the same satisfying way, so we don’t bother with it. We condemned Dubya but we make the same snap judgments—are you with us or against us? We don’t care if you could get there later, or if we could meet you halfway, maybe, at least in understanding if not in conviction. It’s all now or never online. This is how we end up with debates we can’t win, like with the anti-vaxxers. Research shows that despite the dangers of vaccine denial, it is now almost impossible to change an anti-vaccination proponent’s mind on the subject—because their erroneous belief in the hazards of vaccines are now so closely woven into the fabric of who they consider themselves to be. The internet has contributed greatly to this problem, allowing camps of anti-vaxxers to congregate and exchange faulty information and build a false infrastructure around alternative medicine and against science.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that something based on binary code would lend itself to binary debates. We lose so much complexity online, and that’s a problem because we are complex creatures. So many more of our problems, I think, could be solved if we simply took the time to acknowledge that. Toni Morrison, in an interview in O Magazine said, wisely:
“This is the time for every artist in every genre to do what he or she does loudly and consistently. It doesn’t matter to me what your position is. You’ve got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it. This is about being a complex human being in the world, not about finding a villain.”
Change is hard. Really insanely hard. Humans resist it to the last. So it is unsurprising that rather than buckle down and figure out solutions to difficult problems, we opt instead for public shows of remorse or guilt or blame, without moving on to the next stage—as if awareness or finger-pointing equaled action. We flaunt our hair shirts publicly, in think piece after think piece, while wearing self-satisfied smirks. Like the flagellants of the Middle Ages, our public penance signals our surety in our own salvation. We choose to act as less than the complex humans we are, understanding and facing contradictions within ourselves and others—instead jumping from one hot take to the next, always making sure to declare our allegiances and draw our lines in the shifting online sands. We pretend to be immovable, fixed, clockwork humans that will run precisely and neatly. We refuse to consider other people’s feelings, the messy blood and guts that spill despite the ones and zeros, the deep irrationalities that clog up our gears and gum up the works. We pretend to be right, always. We pretend to be perfect. We do not eat our own—we seek to turn them into automatons instead. The internet, faceless and immediate and receptive to the loudest among us, has made this possible.
And yet, the internet has also given us so much that is good. It’s given us information, has alerted us to injustice, has allowed us, from across great distances, to come together and make our voices heard—all voices, including those that have been oppressed throughout history. It’s a godsend for those of us not great at articulating our thoughts in the moment. I’m terrible at in-person debates. I tend to stumble and pause and search for the right phrase. But online I can take the time to say what I mean, in the best way I know how to say it. I can search for evidence to back up my points and I can see if someone more artful, cleverer, has already given me the words I need. I can pause, and take the time and space I need to respond to a comment, or question, or counterpoint. All without having to utter a sound. (My fingers are so much surer, so much more stalwart than my vocal cords.) The internet is a wonderful place for me to be with others, to be more myself and also part of a larger conversation.
But wouldn’t this amazing tool be so much more useful if we let ourselves be more human on it? We have so much information, and so much certitude, but so little poetry in our conversations. Poetry allows for moral complexity—it acknowledges the cracks and bends and breaks that pure information does not. Could we find poetry in our online chatter if we only we opened ourselves up to more people, even those with different viewpoints? If we acknowledged more sides than two, and stopped issuing purity tests—if we saw that sometimes those we deeply disagree with on one issue can be our staunch allies on other issues? If we could see that being right doesn’t mean cutting ourselves off from debate—from the long work of educating the other side(s) instead? As Hannah Arendt said, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” Could we head evil off, cut it back, with more understanding and less screaming?
If we could see that we are never, none of us, not one of us, always completely and totally right. That even our binaries are just like us—imperfect, flawed, human. That extremes on any side can always lead to chaos, to terror, to violence. (Revolutions often turn dogmatic at some point, no matter the political direction they drive in.) That hardness begets hardness—creates a vacuum where no pity or love can live. It’s too easy to be hard on the internet—it’s too easy to be rigid and unforgiving. It’s too easy to demand immediate allegiance in others, too hard to do the work of changing minds. Malcolm X, in a speech in 1963, said “Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”
If I see an injustice, an imbalance, something deeply hurtful to me, I speak out. I have to. A lot of introverts wouldn’t, but it’s too painful for me to hold things in. Instead, I give voice to my thoughts, but then I spend hours, days, weeks—months, sometimes—regretting having spoken up or worrying what people might be thinking of me. Long after anyone has remembered I said anything at all, I’m still obsessing over how I might have handled things differently.
So I have always admired people who could speak and not look back. At the same time, I suspect people like that might also be the worst people on the internet, the trolls and bullies of the digital world. I wouldn’t want anyone to be as obsessive and neurotic as me, but I wonder if there isn’t a happy medium somewhere in between. To find a way to argue, and to question, and to dwell a little in that doubt—to worry more about the humans on the other end of the ones and zeros—might that not lead to real and lasting change, and not just the brief swing of the pendulum before the next internet crisis unfolds? I’d like to see more questioning, more doubt—or rather a different kind of certainty, what Charles D’Ambrosio calls “the echo of a precarious faith, that we are more intimately bound to one another by our kindred doubts than our brave conclusions.”
Or maybe I’ll let poetry have the last word. Alice Notley, on what I think is hard logic without human compassion:
Having dedicated whole
regions to the destruction
you inspire, the
logic will be to go on doing it
doing it. Having proceeded by
of your per-
you will perceive your continued
as an excuse to go on. having
as you have. And so one continues.