A few days ago, I made a big mistake. Against all my better judgement, I got involved in a political discussion on social media.
The debate itself was relatively unimportant – a rather badly-phrased question about transgenderism. In any case, proponents of both sides of the argument started weighing into each other with increasing viciousness and irrationality. The whole debate mostly descended into a metaphorical shouting match of abuse, hasty conclusions and personal attacks.
I then made the cardinal mistake and entered into the debate, trying to ask for some decency and rational argument. Below is my original comment:
Forgive me, but from my point of view this entire comment thread was entirely pointless, mostly just a mass of jumping to conclusions, insults, and vague nothings thrown at each other (by both sides). If you are not going to engage rationally (or at least decently) with each other, what the hell is the point of bothering?
I will admit that this was perhaps not as well-phrased as it perhaps should have been – it might have sounded somewhat aloof and ‘superior’, though that was certainly not the intention at all. Nevertheless, I was instantly turned upon. Before long, and entirely based on that one comment, I was accused of sexism; arrogance; and a lack of principles. I was even accused of ‘impartiality’, as if that was a bad character trait! When I asked them to back up their accusations with evidence (I don’t mind being accused of something as long as it has some basis in fact) they refused to do so, but simply intensified the attacks. By the end, even my personal appearance (gleaned apparently from my profile picture) was criticised as well – what relevance this had to the debate I am not quite sure. Finally they got bored of insulting me, and I got bored of repeatedly asking for evidence of their accusations, and the whole thing petered out.
I do not relate this story as a way of garnering sympathy, but instead more as an anecdote to the sort of nonsense that gets thrown around in political discussion so much these days, especially on the internet. People get so tribalistic that they cannot even engage properly with dissenting opinions – or criticism – apart from hurling abuse. You will notice that my comment has absolutely nothing to do with the actual debate (over transgenderism) whatsoever – indeed, the people who threw the most abuse at me were generally from the side that I agreed with the most! All I asked for was some more reasonableness – a “conversation” rather than a “debate”, you might say – and I was shouted down. Keeping my cool and trying to be reasonable appeared to simply enflame my accusers rather than placate them.I knew that this sort of thing happened, but I had never really faced it so blatantly on a personal level until this incident. To be honest, I was more bewildered than anything else.
I don’t know what it is. Perhaps people subconsciously (or consciously) like the feeling of being apart of a group and attacking another ‘tribe’. Perhaps it is the semi-anonymity of the internet and the way you can abuse people without much actual repercussion or having to face them in the flesh as real human beings.
In the end, I guess that this whole enterprise showed me was how naïve I still can be. People transform and mutate in ugly ways online. On the internet, even friends become vicious, unpleasant, irrational, and unthinking. The worst aspects of our personalities appear hugely inflated online, and, usually held under wraps in the ‘real world’, are unleashed until they can dominate our discourse. In today’s hyper-sensitive and polarised political climate, discussion that is rational and decent has become rare even in the real world; online, it is indeed an endangered species.