On Having Nothing Nice to Say

Within the last week I’ve read about a leftist creative writing professor writing nasty things on Twitter and the ensuing right-wing demand that she be fired or punished, as well as about a feminist journalist in Canada who was vilified and professionally ostracized by other feminists because she wasn’t feminist enough for them. If you don’t want to be terrorized by a mob, don’t take a political stand on anything, because whatever your stance, and whatever your attitude or intentions, there will always be an opposing mob ready to terrorize you online. That’s one lesson to be learned from a social media environment amplifying political vitriol that oft was thought but ne’er so poor expressed. There are other possible lessons to learn, though, both about how to evaluate social media nastiness and how to respond, or not.

Perhaps because I’ve spent my life avoiding angry fanatics, or perhaps because I’ve been academically institutionalized for most of my adult life, or perhaps just because I’m a big white guy who people don’t mess with in person, it’s hard for me to imagine that the online vituperation so common in social media is at all representative of how people behave in person. Do people rant and vent and treat people so awfully online because they’re awful people, or does being isolated from the physical presence of human beings flip off some empathy switch that keeps most of us from being awful people in person? Based on my own experience, I usually assume the latter.

I’m hardly immune to the immediate desire to respond when criticized or attacked, especially if I think it’s unfair criticism. To take a non-political example (if such really exists), a review of my book on libraries and the Enlightenment committed a typical sin of book reviewing by reviewing a book I didn’t write and had no intention of writing; that must have been easier to review than the book I actually wrote. My first impulse was to write a response saying exactly that. My second, and better, impulse was to ask myself why it mattered to me what this person thought or said. Five years later I still remember that review, though. Someone else derisively dismissed a complicated and inconvenient argument from the book instead of attempting to refute or argue with it. Again, I was tempted to respond, but after that treatment I couldn’t take seriously anything the critic said anyway, so why bother to respond? If criticisms of my work are fair and reasonable, I should try to learn from them; if they aren’t, the critic isn’t intellectually or ethically worthy of my engagement. Either way, it’s usually best to remain silent.

Criticisms of my work are rare, mostly from lack of interest I assume, but like most librarians I read things about libraries from librarians that rankle me. Recently I read an essay from last year that I generally agreed with. I could quibble, but it made some good points and the author created a good ethos. In contrast, one of the comments was arrogant, irrelevant, and smug, from someone who’s work, from what I can tell, doesn’t warrant such a grandiose self-assessment. Should I have responded? This post was inspired by that question. What would have been the purpose or consequences if I had? An arrogant, self-assured librarian finds out that another arrogant, self-assured librarian isn’t impressed? The virtual presses don’t need to roll for that.

Aggressive political opinions provoke me as much as they’re probably intended to provoke their audience. My initial reactions are as conditioned by temperament and perspective as everyone else. Sometimes I consider joining the chorus, to express empathy or contempt, and a couple of times during the Presidential election season I did, but there’s really no point. Political arguments are mostly people without shared premises talking past each other about their differing conclusions. Even if people understand the premises behind their political conclusions–which is doubtful–the premises aren’t objective facts that can be logically argued from; the premises are themselves conditioned by our temperaments and perspectives. You might change someone’s mind about politics through empathy, but probably not through argument.

These days online political discourse can become so toxic that engaging in some of it is an exercise for fools or masochists. When the very idea of civil discourse is mocked, as it sometimes is, disengagement becomes the only rational recourse other than shouting; one can’t civilly discourse with those who have abandoned civil discourse. Mockery and ridicule have their place, but if those are the only possible responses I usually see no point. If someone wants to attack me instead of engage in discussion, there’s nothing I can do about it, and I might think, as per Epictetus, that if they actually knew me well they would find much worse things to attack me about.

There are both rational and humane justifications for not engaging either unfair critics or just people with whom I strongly disagree. We could ask the following question about any political, religious, or otherwise contentious disagreement: is there anything your opponent could possibly say to make you change your mind about whatever the topic is? If not, why would you believe that something you say would change their mind at all? And if that’s unlikely, why respond to them? I suggest the answer is more determined by your ego than by a desire for truth, reason, or enlightenment.

One of my less positive attributes is an uncanny ability to find and probe people’s psychological and emotional weak points. Just ask my old friends, I’m really good at it. In fact, I asked some old friends; one said he thought it was my superpower, another said “poke, not probe.” However, it’s a skill I prefer not to exercise, and I try not to usually, even though it can be an easy skill to exercise online. Since nobody ever wins an argument, what’s the best case scenario if I concoct the most devastating takedown of people I might argue with online? That they’ll change their minds? They’re more likely to strengthen their commitment to their beliefs. That they’ll praise me for enlightening them? Never happen. That I’ll change my mind? Not impossible, but unlikely. Thus, it’s irrational to even join the discussion if the purpose is persuasion or enlightenment.

What’s the worst case scenario? That something I write will make them angry, either with me or themselves, perhaps? Or depressed? Maybe they’re ranting because they just had a really bad day and I’m making it worse. Maybe their life just plain sucks and my pointing that out isn’t helping things. Maybe they’ll take that anger and express it on someone they know instead of the faceless stranger who couldn’t care less about them, because anger seeks a target even if the original target is absent. If the best case scenario is that nobody learns or changes their mind and I waste my time, and the worse case scenario is that I make them angry or depressed and they make someone else’s life miserable because of that, the humane and the rational choice is to remain silent. My own irrational anger is likely to hurt no one but me, but my stoking someone else’s irrational anger could have broader consequences.

It could be that lashing out at strangers online just makes some people happy, at least in the moment. Studies of trolls suggest this. In the long term, such behavior is likely a sign of psychological or emotional disturbance that leads to or emerges from misery. To drop into humanistic psychology talk, joyful, self-actualized people don’t feel the need to attack everyone who disagrees with them, and they certainly don’t want anyone to lose their livelihoods over political disagreements in a heterogenous liberal democracy. The opinion of strangers online doesn’t matter to them. But misery, as we know, loves company, and if I’m miserable I want to make others miserable, whether I’m “correcting” the opinion of some political miscreant for being insufficiently conservative or feminist, or joining an “incel” community and viciously attacking women.

What if instead of joining in a hostile social media melee, we instead thought about what doing so says about our character? If we disagree with someone, are we sure we’re right? How can we really be sure? Are we practicing intellectual virtues of caution, open-mindedness, or epistemic humility, or moral virtues of prudence, moderation, benevolence, or justice? Are we acting as the sort of people we would like to see more of, or only like the sort of people we would like to see more of if only they already agreed with us about everything? Is our egotistic arrogance really justified, and if it’s not should we malign strangers online, or listen to them with charity and either engage or ignore them as appropriate? If you answer these questions one way in private but act in a contrary way online, what’s wrong with you and how can you fix it?

In addition to asking questions of ourselves, we could pick role models from various wisdom traditions and try to emulate them. What would Socrates, or the Buddha, or Jesus, or Zhuangzi do? What is the wisest and most skillful way to respond to others online? On the other hand, if you think it’s better for you and the world to vent your spleen on social media about everything that angers or irritates you, if you want to give your ego and sense of entitlement free reign over your good sense or character, you have an excellent role model in President Trump. Others of us might ask, what would Trump do?, and then do the opposite.