How Do I Cure My Online Rage?
What would I like for Christmas? How about some small bit of my lost humanity?
It was a reader (of course) who accidentally let me understand I’d misplaced some of my soul. I’d co-written a column about last week’s Senate Torture Report — for publication elsewhere — in which I suggested that torture is evil and that the United States has a moral duty to be better than it was in the first frenzied, terrifying days after 9/11.
My reader disagreed.
“Hope the next flight you or your family take is not forced into a building,” she wrote, “but if it is well what goes around comes around.”
Friends, I’ve been insulted so many times through the years, as both a straight reporter and as an opinion writer, that my skin is usually nice and thick. When somebody sends me hate mail, I pick the juiciest quotes and post it to my Facebook page for the amusement of my friends.
This time, I snapped.
“You are a horrible person to wish death on my family,” I wrote. “Kindly go to hell.”
I pressed send. I felt good for about a half-second. Then: Enormous regret.
Understand: It wasn’t fear of getting caught. The problem was worse: I used to expect so much more of myself.
So what went wrong? In real life, conservatives are some of my best friends. (Yes, I know how that sounds.) I grew up in a conservative town, attended a conservative college, am friendly with people who have written mildly hagiographic biographies of Ronald Reagan. I agree with all of these people on very few things — sometimes we argue vociferously — but mostly I know that, no matter what else, people are usually much more than the sum of their political opinions.
That’s the real world. So much of my life, however, takes place someplace else: Online.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the Internet. It’s a marvelous invention. One that helps me make a living, and one which — since I remember the pre-Internet era quite well, thank you — has opened my personal and intellectual horizons far beyond what I might have expected, growing up in Midwestern farm town in the 1980s.
On the Internet, the old joke goes, nobody knows you’re a dog. Sometimes it seems that very quality has enabled us to start treating each other like dogs, constantly. Rarely do we become more than the sum of our political opinions — or whatever opinions we choose to brandish — and rarely do we remember that others are the same.
I don’t have to tell you. You’re on the Internet. You’ve seen how the expression of a mild opinion on Facebook becomes cause for all-out battle with noses (virtually) bloodied and friendships (oh so realistically) sundered. Everyplace has become the the Philly.com comments section, every person who doesn’t agree with you seemingly dark and dangerous and irrational.
I’ve come to hate political conversations on the Internet. Just despise them. Every now and again, they’re about exchanging and debating ideas. More often they’re about escalating the volume until it GETS TOO LOUD AND PAINFUL TO KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING. It’s an endurance contest, not a dialogue.
And that’s before race enters the conversation.
You? You are probably a very nice person. On the Internet? You might be one of the worst humans who has ever lived. The same (I admit) may also be true of me.
When my reader wrote, then, I responded not like I would like to respond — remembering that, in all likelihood, she is a daughter and a wife and a mother, or might like to be someday, and is somebody who naturally fears terrorism and what it might do to her family (as am I!) and thus somebody acting from impulses I understand, even if I disagree with the resulting opinion — and more like the web-fueled rage machine I’ve lately become.
Shame on me.
The holidays seem as fine a time to take stock of how one lives one’s life and how one will change. How to stop being an Angry Internet Guy? It might take spiritual practice — a return to church, maybe a few minutes of meditation each day, something to remove myself from the flow of information and argument and to center myself in the community of real human beings.
I don’t know how this is going to go. But I know there’s a difference between being righteously angry and reflexively rage-filled. I’m pretty sure I’ve spent too much time on the wrong side of the line lately. This Christmas, I’d like to try to change that.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.