My recent forays into the comments sections of Instagram and Twitter and Facebook have been jarring and brutal.
Ignorance. Cruelty. Ignorance. Hatred. Racism. Ignorance. Bullying. Misogyny. Ignorance. Misogyny.
Did I mention ignorance?
And don’t get me started on the spelling and grammar.
Was it always this bad?
I don’t know if it’s the discourses around the pandemic or Trump or the Black Lives Matter movement or Cancel Culture or simply that I’ve started to notice it more: humans can be breathtakingly horrible to one another online, and it makes me afraid for the world.
Being an outspoken, intelligent woman with an opinion, I have waded bravely into “discussions” around subjects I feel strongly about, trying to convince and educate with carefully thought-out, coherent arguments (and impeccable grammar), only to see the discussion disintegrate into nasty argument based on personal insults and – you guessed it – ignorance.
The worst thing is, I find myself occasionally lashing out and hitting back.
During our COVID-19 lockdown I wasn’t worried as much about the virus as I was about the breathtakingly ignorant and harmful opinions scrolling across my screen. Then George Floyd was murdered and the “All Lives Matter” brigade was out in force, demonstrating once again how many people in this little broken world of ours have not one single clue.
Time and time again I typed lengthy, considered responses, pitching arguments based on logic and clear reasoning, trying to make people see sense.
I might as well have been trying to hold back a tsunami with a teaspoon.
All I got for my efforts was unpleasantness and insults and more ignorance. And then I would snap and fight back. This wasn’t doing my mental health any good at all.
I remember going to bed one night and lying in the dark with my heart racing and tears in my eyes, despairing over the amount of hatred and stupidity and ignorance in the world and the futility of trying to counter it.
I started asking myself why people were so very ignorant and so very horrible to one another online. A culture of the easily disposable, shallow journalism, clickbait, instant gratification, loss of community and genuine connection, and the mask of anonymity offered by online platforms all contribute (which is ironic, given most of the lunatics hiding behind their keyboards are no doubt the ones screaming that masks threaten their civil fucking liberties, or make their dicks fall off).
Jane Wakefield of the BBC wrote in 2015:
The internet acts like a kind of digital-fuelled alcohol, freeing us to say things to strangers that we would never dare to say if we met them.
And Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik wrote recently in an opinion piece:
Being piled on online is nasty, but it is broadly a function of how social media in particular and the internet in general has enabled bullying for the hell of it. Sometimes human beings are unpleasant, and certain platforms are designed to bring out the worst in the them.
The despair overwhelmed me that night in my bed because I felt helpless.
There was so much awfulness and pain and hurt and ignorance in the world, and I could do nothing.
But then I realised I wasn’t helpless at all.
My mistake had been thinking that I could change the world (or at least a tiny bit of it) by arguing and “educating” online. I thought that by setting out my reasoning clearly and logically, by telling people why they were utterly wrong and why I was right, the ignorant of the world couldn’t possibly fail to see their error of their ways, and hundreds would flee towards the light. My light, I might add.
If that isn’t arrogance, I don’t know what it is.
Here are the things I realised:
- people aren’t going to suddenly change their long-held, often intractable views because of one grammatically perfect paragraph in the comments section
- “Educate yourself” is possibly one of the most arrogant, unhelpful, counterproductive statements one can make online, even if it is well-intentioned
- I will never effect real change by becoming a keyboard warrior: it will simply exhaust, deflate, and deplete me
- I am not helpless. Change can start with me. But it can only start from inside me.
I realised that I have to be the change I wish to see in the world. It’s a quote that’s hopelessly overused, but it’s true. If I want to see positivity and truth and compassion online, I have to demonstrate it.
So I decided to stay out of the comments section. I resolved to no longer engage in arguments online that lead precisely nowhere. I deleted Twitter from my phone. I changed my Instagram account in a way that would remove the pressure to post pointlessly every day. I resolved to post humour, and helpful information, and educational resources (without being pompous or prescriptive about it). I resolved to blog with purpose and generosity, and to use my writing talent (without sounding too earnest and twee) for good.
I believe that if we are blessed to have a talent (and I think we all have at least one), we can use it to reach out and connect with others, and to make the world a tiny bit kinder.
That is my power as a writer. That is how I, in my own small way, can counteract the darkness. That is why I am not helpless, at all.