The Internet Is Not a Free Pass

Last week I posted a status on facebook bemoaning the fact that some people on the internet feel that they have a right to give other people random and unsolicited health advice. In response, I got a fair number of people saying “well it’s the internet, what did you expect”, or “you put your information out in public, that means you want people to comment and converse about it.” This was not exactly what I had been expecting.

For some reason, a lot of people seem to assume that because people often behave really badly (harassing, insulting, generally just being offensive and condescending douches) on the internet, that means that we shouldn’t care when people behave badly on the internet. They say that people are anonymous on the internet, so it’s bound to happen. They ask “are you surprised?” They act as if everyone has license to treat you however they choose online, because you have chosen to be in a public space. Oddly enough I’m not really convinced by all these arguments that I should just stop caring and let the assholes run wild.

So there appear to be a few reasons that people seem to think that the internet is and should continue to be a complete free for all in terms of civility and behavior. One is because the internet is impossible to regulate. “There’s just too many of them out there, we might as well give up!” Oddly enough I hear this argument pretty much nowhere in the real world. “There’s too many murders, we might as well give up!” Generally, when a bad behavior is prevalent we take that to mean that we should work harder to get rid of it, not throw our hands up in despair. Even if we can never solve the problem entirely, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best to improve how people treat each other. Yes, it’s entirely true that we may never solve the problem of incivility on the internet, that we can’t regulate it in the most effective ways because of the medium, but we can still do our best.

Another is that the internet is the place of free speech! NO ONE CAN TOUCH THE HOLY SHRINE OF THE FREE SPEECH! So here’s the thing about free speech: you may have the right to say what you want in a public place, but you don’t have the right to say whatever you want in my space, you don’t have the right to say whatever you want without criticism, and you absolutely don’t have the right to be heard no matter what you say. I have the right to ban you, to delete your comment, to ignore you, to criticize you, or to tell you what’s wrong with what you just said. None of these things infringe on your free speech. In fact the benefit of free speech is that it allows these kinds of interactions to happen and we all grow from it. The beauty of free speech is that we can alert people to the fact that they might be saying something absolutely horrible and then argue for our point.

But perhaps the most pernicious myth about the internet is that that’s the way it is, so that’s the way it is. The internet is anonymous and so it will never be improved because anonymity will always lead to asshattery. We can’t do anything about it, and we shouldn’t, we should simply accept it as is. Here’s my problem with that: if we did it for any other problem, our world would become a stinking cesspit of hate and filth and cruelty. It is a huge logical fallacy to assume that because something is a certain way that’s how it should be.

When I mention something that I find inappropriate, I don’t do it just to complain. I do it to illustrate to people who do it that it’s not appropriate. I generally try to explain why I find it inappropriate, and what they could do differently. I expect more of my fellow human beings and I’m willing to tell them so. Even if it is harder to be kind and empathetic online, I believe that we can do it, or at least that we can do better than we’re doing now. There are ways that we can improve how people behave online and when they’re anonymous, and that’s by having consequences for bad behavior. In the offline world, there are absolutely consequences for being a jerk: people stop listening to you, stop hanging out with you, stop dating you or inviting you to parties, they call you out and make you feel ashamed of what you’re doing. We can do all these things on the internet. We can ban those who act inappropriately. We can call them out and tell them we don’t like it. We can tarnish their reputation with their own actions. We can make them unwelcome because they are treating us poorly. Yes, this may take some energy and some time, and there are still places that they can slink off to where we have no power. But we can keep our own spaces safe and kind and healthy. None of this is bullying or cruelty: it’s simple cause and effect. If you come onto my blog and insult me, I will make you feel unwelcome. That is my right.

Anywhere that’s not the internet, our public spaces have rules and expectations. We don’t condone someone running down the street screaming at people and insulting them. We understand that just because we’re in a public space that does not mean that we should accept being treated poorly, and in general we work together as communities to build certain expectations into our public spaces. The same goes for the internet. If we want to claim this new public space as somewhere that we can be safe and comfortable, then we have to be willing to police our own space, demand more from others, and create consequences for those who act inappropriately. For me, that’s calling people out and reminding them that just because you’re online that does not give you a free pass. It’s banning. It’s commenting on bad blog posts. It’s actively engaging where hate and cruelty are happening and saying “that’s bullshit”. We’re still all human beings, even when we’re on the internet, and I still expect all of us to act with the basics of human decency.


P.S. I have no idea why I chose the image I did but it came up when I googled internet.

Staying Calm in a Debate

I’m having a rough day today. I’ve gotten in a number of heated arguments on facebook. These are not my favorite forum. I have a hard time disconnecting, and a hard time not getting emotional about things that mean a lot to me. Like the fact that sexism and racism are institutional things, not individual actions (dumbasses. Figure it out. Calling someone a dick is not the same as years of disenfranchisement, discrimination, beating, and abuse). I’m upset right now because people are playing on my emotions purposefully, while I have always tried to argue in all good faith. I don’t appreciate when people try to fuck with me just to make a point.

So I’ve gotten a bit emotional. I’m shaky. I can barely type straight because my hands are shaking. I don’t like it when people purposefully push me this far.

But I also think it’s important to try to come to some understanding of whatever a debate is about. I like closure. I did actually get to some points of understanding between myself and the people who were not agreeing with me. So despite being really upset, I don’t want to simply walk away from situations that upset me. I know that part of my inability to walk away is that I want to win. I want a conclusion. And I know that others want that too. I should stop. I really really should. It’s not accomplishing anything when I get upset. And it’s not accomplishing anything for me to “feed the trolls” as it were.

So how do I continue to advocate for my own position, defend myself, and stay calm? How do I continue to respect people (which is something I’ve been trying REALLY REALLY hard to do–Shawn, I really hope you feel I have, that’s always been my intent), while also respecting myself and bringing up controversial and critical points from the position of a minority group (either women or atheists?) How do I also listen to other people’s experiences and respect those?

I really don’t know. I think that I may be too sensitive to really engage in a lot of online debate. I think that every individual who wants to engage in activism needs to take a hard look at their own personality and decide what level of vitriol and anger they can take from others before deciding how far they want to engage in debate.

I’m starting to recognize that many times the greatest form of activism is taking care of myself and respecting myself. But oftentimes I don’t feel like that’s enough. I want to be able to pave the way for other people who are like myself have the space to express their opinions and their selves.

So what do you do when you get upset in online debates? I often find that talking to someone else and making sure I’m not crazy (because people love to gaslight me) helps a lot. I also find that having sources to back me up is really helpful so that I don’t have to do as much of the speaking myself. It helps to stay calm when I engage with something else at the same time as I am engaging in a debate, or if I self-soothe at the same time (pictures of kittens are good). What do you guys do to help calm yourself down in a debate? How do you deal with it when you become upset or frustrated? How do you continue to engage in activism or in debate when your fight or flight instincts start kicking in?

Staying calm is really important in my mind. I was spending some time defending the place of mockery in the atheist movement. I do believe that it’s ok to mock certain beliefs (transubstantiation anyone?) but I think there’s a time and a place for it. My family and I had a Holy Saturday celebration this past week in which we made pope hats to be silly about the new pope (some of us also chose pope names and dressed up in Argentinian garb). This was a private celebration that didn’t attack anyone, but did mock a bit of the ritual in the Catholic church. I think it was fine because it was a bonding activity, and it was highly enjoyable for us. When I’m trying to present myself as the face of an activist group or trying to understand another person’s beliefs or explain my own, I don’t find it helpful to use mockery (some people can do this to great effect. I personally don’t like it).

And so when I’m trying to engage in a discourse (which is different from personal and private enjoyment, or simply throwing something out there), I don’t want to get upset, get angry, personally attack people (which I never think is ok), or lose objectivity and clarity of thought. I want to be able to understand my emotions, use them as fuel for my arguments, but not necessarily let them skew my arguments: make sure that each of my arguments fits the facts, and proceed from the facts as best I can. It’s difficult because I exist in a realm of social justice understanding that many other people don’t inhabit. It’s hard to have to try to explain all of the assumptions that I come in with that I have spent a great deal of time thinking about and coming to conclusions about. It’s frustrating when people dismiss those assumptions despite the fact that I have read pages and pages about them. It’s hard to sum all of that up in a few sentences. It’s hard not to get frustrated when people bypass all of the thoughts that are going on in your brain, or assume that you haven’t already thought things through.

If and when I have time, I would like to start a series that addresses some of these assumptions that I hold: these include things like intersectionality, the nature of racism and sexism, how language changes, privilege and power, and other things. I suppose I could have linked to my privilege post already, but I’d like to have a ready set of them to send to people to give the background of my thought processes. Let me know what things you have a hard time explaining to others, and I’ll see if I can provide a cache of basic explanations of a number of social justice concepts that often get misunderstood or subject to ridicule.

In the meantime, I’m going to try to stay out of facebook debates, because it’s started to get triggering to me and I’ve begun to dissociate when they happen because I feel like I need to quash my emotions and that is really unhealthy for me. If people work purposefully to get me upset and I have to force myself to not react to direct attacks, that’s not healthy. It’s not the kind of activism I want to engage. I’m allowed to be angry about oppression that affects me.