Over the past few days -- not prompted by anything in particular -- I've been reflected on some of the things I've learned from just observing people talking on the internet. Of course, you could say that the internet is a very particular forum where people exhibit very particular forms of behavior. And that's true. But it's also the case that the internet is an unprecedented aggregation of a diverse array of voices, personalities, and speaking styles, and that there is something to be said for taking its denizens seriously.
So, without further adieu, here are some things I've learned, and advice I accordingly offer, as an official Elder of the Internet:
- No matter your ideology, there will always be someone purer than you. That doesn't mean they're right. This includes centrists.
- No matter your ideology, there will always be someone profoundly idiotic who largely agrees with you, and someone profoundly idiotic who largely disagrees with you. Neither fact should be unduly weighted.
- No ideology is immune from having assholes as adherents. Moreover, people who are assholes can and will express their assholery in the argot of their ideology. So a conservative asshole will use conservative rhetoric and language to effectuate being an asshole, while a socialist asshole will use socialist rhetoric and language. Ditto liberals, ditto centrists, ditto nationalists, ditto anyone. Nothing about the ideology will stop them from doing so, and certainly do not believe your ideology is an exception.
- Consequently, I'm dubious that the fact of being an asshole makes one significantly more likely to be attracted to a particular ideology. Rather, I think people adopt political ideologies for other reasons and, "fortuitously", then find that they can still be as trollish and nasty as they like within their confines.
- Virtually everyone is more complex than they appear at first glance. Try to give people the benefit of the doubt that they're not the stock caricature version of the position you think they hold or the identity you imagine they occupy. If you take them seriously, you'd be surprised how far they might be willing to walk with you.
- That said, there are many genuinely bigoted, malicious, prejudiced people out there. You can call them out, or ignore them, or block them, or mock them, or even argue with them. But don't be in denial about their existence. This goes triple for acknowledging the existence of bigots who are targeting people-not-like-you.
- Related: The bigotry you and yours face is serious and should be taken seriously. But you don't need to deny that others are burdened in their own way, and you should be self-critical about one's assumption that they're not. Whether your claim is that "nobody would ever tolerate this if it was said about Jews" or "only when it's said about Jews do people tolerate this", you're almost certainly wrong. They would say it about Jews; they'd say it about other groups too.
- There will never be an "-ism" (racism, antisemitism, sexism, etc.) case that is incontestable to everyone. No matter how obvious it seems, someone will be there to contend its actually fair play (why hello, Councillor "Jews are blood-drinkers"!). Consequently, the whole point of asserting that something is racist or antisemitic or what have you is to do so in cases where someone is contesting it. And the fact that the -ism claim is contested does not, itself, suffice to refute it.
- Resist pile-ons. Yes, accountability is important. And yes, each individual contribution to the pile-on would typically (not always -- see death threats) be proportionate and reasonable if isolated and placed in the context of an individual, face-to-face encounter. But aggregated together, they quickly can spiral out of control, and frequently magnify all the internet's worst qualities.
- Be generous when reading others. Precision can be hard on social media platforms. Try to be precise in your own work. When you inevitably fail (and you will), you'll be grateful when others are generous while reading you.
- The worst thing you can be on the internet is an abusive troll. But the second worst thing you can be is a hack. Practices associated with hackery include cheap shots, indifference to facts, mischaracterizations, ungenerous reading of interlocutors, smarminess, and lazy adoption of prevailing narratives without evidentiary support. Don't be a hack. Perhaps more importantly: if you're a publisher, don't publish hacks. Nobody is forcing you to do it.
- Hypocrisy arguments are almost always a double-edged sword. If you say "how can you criticize A for X when you don't criticize B for Y?", it invites the retort "how can you criticize B for Y when you don't criticize A for X?" Typically, all that's revealed is that both parties to the conversation are hacks.
- There is a huge difference between suggesting that a given piece of art or writing was of such poor quality that it shouldn't have been run (and that the fact of its publication reflects poorly both on the author and on whoever elected to run it) versus suggesting that some de jure authority should have prohibited it from running. The latter is censorship, the former is quality control. Also, the claim that a given piece is racist, antisemitic, etc. etc. is a (subset) claim about its quality, not something that stands apart and separate from it.
- That said, stretch yourself in terms of what you're willing to read or consider. Precisely because personal, private refusal to read or consider something is not censorship, it is in some ways a more tempting and dangerous mechanism for isolating yourself from challenging ideas. It's a fine line between the truth that one need not consider obviously repugnant and unjustified claims (e.g., Holocaust denial) and the truth that one should consider difficult and challenging claims, and only you can police yourself on this front. Take responsibility for your intellectual health.
- Recognizing the diversity and pluralism in other groups is good. Searching high and low for the members of other groups who happen to agree with what you already think about them, and then claiming credit for your diverse, pluralistic reading habits, is not good. It is hackery.
- Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if something you write is widely disparaged and reviled by your target audience, it's not because you were telling some difficult truth or produced a misunderstood masterpiece. It's just because it was bad. Reveling in a hostile reception for its own sake is a bad habit. Reflexive contrarianism is not a good look. Telling yourself that it's all just "people who like being offended" is usually self-serving. And provocation for its own sake is almost always hackery.
- People follow people on social media for all sorts of reasons. Don't read too much into it, unless there's a really obvious pattern. "So-and-so follows X-and-Y who once tweeted Z in 2009!" is pretty much always a hack move.
- Nobody can force you to be an asshole, or a troll, or a hack. Own your choices online. No one is a saint all the time, and far be it from me to discount the joy of a great internet burn. But default towards kindness.