When you write on the Internet enough, your skin becomes thicker; if you didn’t have a backbone before, you’ll grow one pretty fast if you want to stay in this business. Audiences will personally attack you from time to time, your words will be misconstrued, and your intentions will be misunderstood. And when you get it wrong, as you will once in a while because you are human, you will more or less become virtual roadkill. The mobs of unidentified individuals that may spontaneously arise to “discipline” a writer or a commenter, is the consequence and privilege of anonymity on the Internet.
On Sunday, like a lot of people, I read Kate Menendez’s piece on privilege. It was clear as day to me and anyone who remotely comprehends privilege theory, that Ms. Menendez’s understanding is at best, misguided, and at worst, completely distant from reality. I had debated that night whether I would write a response. But as soon as I saw the nature of many of the comments that she was receiving, I concluded that it would not be the right thing to do, at least not right away. As I write this late on a Monday night, there are 969 comments on there, most of which are negative.
I can understand the frustration of some of the people who comment. I certainly agree with a few of the comments I saw. But I cannot agree with the relentless way in which that comments section has essentially become an Internet mob that is personally attacking the author. It reminded me of Tessa Schoenrock’s piece on What It’s Like To Be A Pretty Girl and L.E.J. Woods piece, I Hate Being A Pretty Girl. In both of those comments sections, the mob mentality that ensued was quite disturbing.
I don’t want to pretend to be a saint because I have not always been proud of some of my comments on the Internet, even in this audience. When I re-read articles I may have commented on, I become rather ashamed that I so easily dismissed that there was another human being on the other side of the article. And maybe that is something that is easily forgotten in this detached space that is the Internet. That article you’re reading, that comment that you’re responding to – another person wrote that. A person, who despite whatever differences you may believe you have, breathes the same air that you do, and is capable of feeling all of the same emotions that you feel.
One of my favorite New Testament passages will always be the story of the near-stoning of Mary Magdalene. Jesus, in his infinite compassion reminds us all that firstly, none of us are perfect. And secondly, to always have consideration for others, especially those who may find themselves so publicly humiliated by the majority. And whether you believe this story as a matter of faith or know it as a fictional story, it is worth remembering. Because our society is a herd mentality. As my parents would often quote, “We give the dog a bad name and we hang it.”
I was verbally bullied and made fun of as a child; something that in some strange way I have been grateful for in my adulthood. It’s strange because even years later, remembering some of those hurtful words would make me feel nine years old all over again. Rarely did any of my peers say or do anything to stop it. I guess you could say I learned what it’s like to be the victim of a herd mentality at a young age. But the memories that are not as vibrant to me are when I treated other people with a lack of love; when I was the one name-calling and making other people feel less than what they are. I was also part of the herd sometimes. And this is what we do on the Internet when we don’t have enough courage to walk away from a hurtful comment. When we don’t have the temperament to share our responses to people we disagree with, in a way that is helpful. When we participate in this space in ways that essentially makes another human being a caricature, we become part of the Internet mob culture.
We ought to be critical about things; being in academia, I often am. I write a lot of my discourse on aspects of public culture through the lens of critical theory. I find myself in disagreement with people all the time as part of my vocation. But when it’s all said and done, whether a person is in front of me or typing in some unknown space across time, I have to promote that we all respect each other’s dignity even when we disagree. Because when we strip other people of their dignity – which is what Internet mob culture does – we strip ourselves of our dignity too. And no matter how passionate we may feel about a subject, no matter how close it hits to home, when we do not respect the individual that we oppose, and when we do not come from a place of sincerity and love in our disagreements, our efforts are always futile.