I bet you know the feeling well.
You’re sitting at your computer trawling your daily litany of internet-check-in and networking sites, be them a flutter of tweets or tumblr-fulls of diggs and books of faces. There’s a link from someone who you suspect doesn’t share your opinion on something, be it the existence of g/God or the thickness and regionality of pizza. You know it could change the pace of your day, but you click anyway, only to find a disagreeable slice of vitriol that seems, despite its electronic anonymity, to attack the fiber of your being.
Then, it happens.
Your eyes cross, and your vision blurs. Your mind is racing, stringing sentences and ripostes together faster than your 4G network. You don’t want to respond, and thus “sink to their level,” so you get up and make coffee. But, you get distracted again and end up pouring coffee on your hand for way longer than your brain would like. “That’s it,” you say, probably out loud even. “I must say something. Justice must be upheld!” Before you know it, you’re slinging so much mud and/or being e-lynched that you don’t even recognize yourself by the end of the day.
What does it take to change a mind?
Okay, a confession: the “you” up in that intro should probably be “I.”
Last week, when Chris Stedman’s interview with artist and progressive Christian Derek Webb hit the Huffington Post (and subsequently, right here), there was a fairly unsurprising firestorm of comment diarrhea, most of which quickly turned into the typical “my side is better” rhetoric that, if you could hear it, would sound like a toilet flushing.
Through one tweet or another, I found my way to this blog post by Frank Turk—a Christian and self-proclaimed pyromaniac hellbent on bending hell out of the internet. As described above, I did everything I could do undo what I’d read, due partially to what the post said, but mostly what was in the comments below. Among many things, Webb was accused of seeing himself as an untouchable, pope-like prophet, and members of the LGBT community were flagrantly called, “fornicators.”
I figured that, in my desire to see my role as an interfaith activist grow, I should step out and speak my mind, but with sensitivity. Perhaps I could be the lone commenter that would build a bridge. How noble! How wise! How…incredibly naïve and prideful.
The very first time I commented on a web forum, I was sweaty and anxious. I was a freshman at Gordon College, and it was also the first time in my life I’d used anything beyond the dial-up email account my family shared. The site was called Everypoet.com (which, though mired in zwinky ads and horrific fonts, is still going strong), and it allowed anyone to submit their poetry for critique, the caveat being that for every one poem submitted, the author had to comment on three others.
The results were always the same: I’d rush through some kind of inane, unhelpful compliment so I could publish whatever over-enjambed piece of schlock I was calling art. I’d click “submit,” and then start to feel heat pulse in my temples and armpits. I could hardly do homework, call my girlfriend or think about meals. I wanted comments, and I wanted them now.
When the comments (all two of them) would pour in, I never ceased to be surprised at how hurtful, callus, and uninspiring they were. But my reaction was to throw up three more vague comments on to someone else’s poems so that I could rush through and “publish” more of my own work. It never occurred to me that we—the neutered-but-nice and the poison-tongued—were all stuck on the same desperate mobius strip in search of validation and our place in the world.
Almost ten years later, I don’t think much has changed save for advances in cascading style sheets and spam filters. I’ve rarely been active in forums where something is actually accomplished, or a mind is changed. As always, commenting online leaves me sweaty and anxious. The blogosphere has given us two things: the horrible word “blogosphere,” and the ability to add one’s voice no matter what the subject. The pluses behind the anonymity offered by such ventures are best seen where the subjects aren’t all that immediately important to society as a whole. A gay, militant atheist and a straight theist fanatic can both comment on the same recipe for pasta fagioli, and even exchange pleasantries concerning tips on how to reduce the carbs.
Without the application of labels, neither party would think to call the other “delusional” or a “fornicator.” No—this kind of juvenile king-of-the-hill name-calling is reserved for when we eschew the personal in favor of the political. Or, in other words, when the subject matter appears to be a matter of life and death. That focus quickly shifts to where “being right” is the ultimate prize in the battle for self-validation, even if the opposition will never actually say those coveted words: “Oh, now I get it. You are right."
Another confession: I am not right. And I recognize that this sounds like fake humility in order to gain the reader’s empathy. In a way, I guess that’s true. I am wrong, and I want you to admit that you’re wrong too.
What does it take to change my mind?
The most prevalent course of action Turk takes in his comments section against his detractors is to invite them for an hour-long, unedited interview. He asked it of Webb, and has since asked me, as a result of what I’ve written. One of his big reasons is that we can’t sit and have a cup of coffee, so this is the next best thing. I happily and proudly laud his desire to shake off the shackles of internet reductionism.
So, why do I not feel guilty about ignoring this request? Is my silence my answer? Clearly, I’m not the aspiring intra-faith guru I thought I was. To his blog-viewers, and possibly to Turk himself, this looks like fear that I will be either overwhelmed, proved wrong, or both by such a discussion. And perhaps writing a piece about it over here, where a straight, gay-friendly Christian like me is in good company, I look like I’m just retreating back to my own peers so that I too can get a majority of validation in the comments section.
But that’s not it, and it was never “it.”
We’ve gone about internet discussions the wrong way. Instead of focusing on the pains that make us human, we’re focusing on talking points, pregnant epithets, and snarky quips. In entering a 2D forum, we’ve happily rescinded our right to the third dimension, and become nodding cheerleaders for causes we can’t ever know the last word on.
The internet offers us a medium where we can finally be colorblind. But instead, we find ways to not only judge books by their covers, but to knowingly create our own frail cloaks instead of owning the lyrical depth of our personalities.
So, please: consider how you treat the comment section below, and not because I’m seeking to have the final say in a controversial conversation, or even expecting comments at all. In fact, I expect to be wrong about things I've said. I recognize how melodramatic this sounds, but what if the comments were about the pain that has formed our search for joy and connection?
My father died when I was four. At precisely the moment I was starting to attend church and Christian school where I learned about eternity, I was introduced to death. This paradox of ending/never-ending has informed my brightest lights and my darkest nights. It is why I believe that, as Mark Slouka once wrote, every period is just a comma in embryo. The muscle of our mind is meant to flex—that is, to change.
What does it take to change your mind?