Saturday, February 1, 2014

Be Kind

Today, while reading Facebook, a rather asinine and mean-spirited thought came into my head. Although it is not a rare event that such a thing should pop into my cranium, it is rare that I don't try and dislodge it immediately. But today I let it sit, to fester a little, and to germinate into something more than the original idea. Today, I played with that mean spirit, and it taught me something.

What did it teach me? That the world is much too harsh, that people are much too calloused, and that we are all too hard on each other. Many of you I am sure have read an article or two by some opinion blogger ranting about someone else's comments, or read their tirade against the growing following of some new fad or movement. Perhaps some of you have read it and rage was stirred within, directed at the author. Maybe you read it and wondered how on earth those people could possibly think that way.

Then something incredible happened: you closed your browser and moved on - or so you think.

Recently I have started to consider the impact that social media has had on my soul, and the verdict is mostly negative. What I derive from these sites is ultimately up to me as I make the choice to click on and read these articles, but that isn't to say that there aren't some factors that lead me to read these things. To say that anyone else is to blame is a lie, but to say that I am unaffected by the behavior of others is also a lie. Social media is, at its core, a platform to help spread ideas, information, and opinions in an anonymous and almost consequence free way.

And that is, ultimately, the problem. People can be so unkind, and when there are no tangible or physical consequences other than some words on a page, they become instantly emboldened to do as they please. This freedom is like a drug, imbuing them in a very real way with a sense of their power to express their inner most thoughts or feelings. In a very real way, social media cuts off the mask and reveals the darkest demons of the soul.

Of course this idea has been talked about countless times, both in major news publications, websites, and even insignificant blogs like mine, and ultimately it is an issue that needs to be addressed individually and not collectively. Anonymity is a beautiful thing afforded by the internet and should not be regulated. It is up to each user to do what is right with that power.

But this post is not on the anonymity of the internet. Indeed, let me get back to the angry social blogger. The first of these angry bloggers probably started their rants long before social media was even a buzz phrase, but their medium gained real momentum and meaning as sites like Facebook gained a user base. Suddenly you had angry people say angry things that could be read and shared by seemingly genial and kind people on Facebook who happened to share one or two of the opinions in an article written by said angry blogger. Readers didn't even necessarily have to agree with all of it because the angry blogger was good at wrapping his ethos around a central point while also taking stabs at many other things they didn't like. Those who read it were, for the most part, willing to ignore the ethos because the overall article validated their viewpoint.

What happened next probably could have been foreseen, but ultimately nothing was, or could, be done about it: people started to become increasingly more polarized by the rants they read on Facebook. Suddenly, almost without warning, the anger in these blogs became the new accepted norm. Someone couldn't write a seemingly balanced blog without someone else trying to tear it apart in the comments section. Users of social media would post an article for others to read with a few choice comments attached. Often these comments were polarized, emotionally charged one liners meant to invoke others to read and share in their opinion. While not a bad thing in and of itself, the word choices led to only further the polarization of opinion.

That is when we started to accept that we should read these articles just so we can stay informed about the "relevant" issues of today. While it is true that many of these angry blogs are indeed commenting on meaningful ideas and are furthering sometimes worthwhile agendas, the acrid tone in which they are written only serves to further distance themselves from an opposing view instead of trying to reconcile with that view. Such dissonance in public discourse doesn't serve their intended purpose and ultimately is the cause of the deadlock we see in much of the political world.

But it also serves a second, more subtle and sinister purpose. It may not be the intent of the writer, and probably isn't even considered, but their words have a profound affect on any who read them beyond the topic they discuss. In essence, they are shaping the way we think, we feel, and we discourse. Study after study has been conducted on the power of words in influencing the mind, and so it is a moot point to try and refute the fact that what we read will influence how we act. If we read anger, we will think angrily.

Social media is a great tool, for good or for evil. Lately I have felt like more evil than good has been flooding my Facebook page, and I have been trying to push back against it. My experience today showed to me that I am currently failing. I am ashamed to admit that I saw someone post online that they have been drug free for the past six months - quite a great feat for someone who has fallen into such an unfortunate habit. But, almost instantly, as though the angry blogger voice that has taken root in my heart, grabbed his megaphone and shouted sarcastically,

"Why do we celebrate this accomplishment of his? We should be proud of those who have refrained their whole lives, not celebrating those who finally got their act together. I should comment that I have been drug free for 27 years (which is my age) and no one cares."

How pompous and arrogant, and it is something that I would not have ever thought just a few years ago. But does it sound familiar? This deplorable thought of mine is simply swimming in that same biting, angry, and unproductive logic of the angry blogger. Instead of remembering the parable of the Prodigal Son, I remembered the fact that people are responsible for their own actions. Instead of remembering the joy in repentance, I remembered the fact that people who do drugs are perpetuating a societal ill that I totally disapprove of. The angry blogger has won; he has taught me to polarize myself to just one aspect of an idea instead of examining it from every angle. There is no fairness in my thought, only anger and self-righteous indignation - trademarks of blogs whose ethos is marinate with malice.

What leads us to keep reading these things and thinking this way? It is the emotional cocaine of the internet, this promise that we can think these things and feel the thrill of making a poignant statement and see its impact almost immediately. We yearn for that little like button to be pressed, validating our snarky and witty comment, no matter how derisive it may seem. Maybe Obama is a communist, but calling him the next Hitler doesn't even make sense (Hitler was diametrically opposed to communism). Yet how many times have you read this from your conservative friends? It makes us feel good to be so polarized and see those deceptively-addictve likes come in.

What ever happened to the idea of being kind? Hopefully I will allow kindness to prevail in my thoughts, but so far acrimony is still my opiate.