do right

I keep writing about the internet. The internet is fascinating. I love the maps of its trends, its squalls and storms. I love how opinion shifts and changes, and how, Hydra-like, cutting off one head immediately springs two more into action. It’s like the sea, relentlessly enduring despite its different waves.

I love the internet as an objective observer.

At times, and completely subjectively, I loathe the internet fiercely.

Lots of internet communities, on a large (the entirety of Twitter) or a small (a collective of blogging friends) scale are intensely concerned with being ‘right’. I say ‘right’ in quotation marks, because I’m not quite sure what ‘right’ means in that context. I like being right. I love winning arguments, and I love looking things up and feeling vindicated that I’ve recalled correctly. My boyfriend is a maths student. He loves being right. He loves working out a proof and winding up at a logical conclusion – QED. Those are the ways I understand ‘right’ – you could probably more accurately call it ‘correct’.

This isn’t how I’ve experienced the internet’s version of ‘right’. A lot of the time it feels like internet communities understand ‘right’ to mean ‘not wrong’. You are right if your behaviour or beliefs is in diametric opposition to those you consider to be wrong. You are right if your community agrees with you, and you are right if you can score points off an opponent to your benefit and their detriment.

You are right, and you can continually believe yourself to be right, if your thought plan fits with this, no matter how you go about demonstrating it. You can hurl abuse and bitch or gossip about Those Who Are Wrong, and it doesn’t matter how harsh you are or whether your opponent sees it, because you are right and they are wrong and therefore they deserve what they get.

There is no room for grey areas in the internet game of right and wrong. There is no room for understanding or trying to see things from the opposite point of view. There is no room for stepping back and attempting to reason with those who either don’t agree or can’t express their opinions in a way that pleases you. There is no room for trying to educate gently in a culture that demands proof of your devotion to your cause – your rightness – by shouting as loud as you can and looking around you for pleased reactions.

It doesn’t matter the size of the community doing the shouting: eventually any society that demands agreement becomes nothing but an echo chamber. You become afraid to end up the object of derision, and so you give anything the benefit of the doubt. You start defining yourself by what you’re not: I am not a racist, I am not homophobic, I am not ageist, etc. You become consumed by what you’re not, not what you are.

You are considered as bad as the opposition if you give them any quarter at all, and so battle lines become drawn and peace talks look like appeasement.

I don’t see the point. Quite frankly, I have gone from being one of a community like that to being a party of one, and here I think I shall stay. I don’t see the point in being right if the only benefit of my rightness is not being wrong. I want understanding, not demonising.

I’m not saying everybody needs to become a teacher or an Obama figure, bringing hope and change and co-operation and all that. I’m not saying you need to go find a member of the Westboro Baptist Church and invite them for tea. I’m not saying you need to do anything active at all, actually, because quite a lot of the time, I don’t. I’m not an expert on everything – anything, some might say – and often I learn for learning’s sake. Not to educate and spread the good word, but so that I can tuck some bit of knowledge away in my hindbrain and use it to treat someone better or watch how I express myself. You don’t have to be a frontline soldier. You can just be a compassionate citizen. A few more of those would be very good for the world.

One last thing. I have a good friend with whom I have a tacit agreement that when the world gets too stupid or aggravating or incomprehensible, we can email one another and vent and have it go no further. This is a wonderful situation and I advise everyone to acquire such a friend. However, coming out of a day thinking well, I had a good shout with my friend, that’s done something good for the world is delusional. That’s obvious, no?

So why is it not obvious that doing exactly the same thing out loud on Twitter also does utterly squat for the world?

There is no point in considering yourself right if you don’t do something constructive with it. Write something explanatory. Try making peace overtures to your opposition. Try to see where communication has broken down. Just treat somebody better. Even if you disagree with someone, make your point respectfully without hurling abuse.

Then go bitch with your friend. After all, even entirely correct beings like us need an outlet.


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