IF YOU STILL bear any hope for mankind, you will not read the comment thread beneath a news item, op-ed, or internet meme.
That bit of wisdom was articulated by a dear colleague (a talented actress of stage, film and television to whom I have grown close as a result of Facebook) but I think we can also look to Dante for his angle: “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.” While I’m almost certain that Dante could not have anticipated the abyss of anonymous (and egregious) opinions the internet would become, he certainly understood Hell and human nature. Engaging in an internet argument won’t get you buried up to your nose in ice, but Facebook threads – the endless stream of back-and-forth that litters the procrastination playing field – are like quicksand. Step in and you’ll find yourself up to your neck in other people’s issues. As you struggle to escape, you’ll be sucked down by the weight of your own.
Recently, despite a constant, dull awareness of my friend’s advice, I was gobsmacked by the struggle it became to avoid falling into the hole of internet polemics. It should be so simple to step away from the computer, what with so many ego-savaging lessons, but in the vacuum of my need to feel superior I began to feel as if I was the parasitic Alien and Ripley had opened the air-lock.
At the very beginning of a debate about some right-wing vs. left-wing philosophy (THAT topic is a sea of psychological demons which should be the subject of a separate essay…) I used the word “meme” in reference to an image (with text) that had been passed around the internet. The etymology of “meme” can be traced through seeds biological and cultural, but its meaning in this case, “an image, video, etc. that is passed electronically from one Internet user to another,” taken from the Oxford English Dictionary, refers to one of these “things” that gets passed and posted in the social media-sphere.
Typically you may see something like this:
Let me point out that the cuteness of that kitten’s face and the anthropomorphizing of its expression is what draws me (and people like me) to memes starring cats, dogs and “other.” Somehow, though, I think the “other” category, which occasionally includes dead babies, cuttlefish and spiders, may not be for everyone. It does give one pause, though: can spiders be funny? I like to think they’re largely misunderstood and probably have stockpiles of black-comic turns of phrase invented during hours of lonely observation from their solitary vantage points:
Ah yes… on a friend’s Facebook wall, in the opening volleys of the semi-anonymous match with his friend, a total stranger. The graphic I referred to was one of those political bits which oversimplify a complicated subject, perpetrated by creative types on both side of the political aisle.
I referred to it as a “meme.”
My debate rival said, “That’s not a meme. It’s a picture.”
So, this was going to be a game of pettiness with an internet troll! Feeling instantly and incredibly spiteful – surely I must win! – some combination of my right and left lobes manufactured this in my brain:
Was it so important for me to be right? No. I would not allow myself to be sucked out into space or down into the bowels of a private hell. Recent forays into reiki, elevated consciousness and self-improvement told me to step away from the computer.
But not before one last serve.
Grabbing the gold in the Comment Thread Games, you see, is all about wit… or appearing to be bigger than the troll who goads you. So I said, with my least haughty hauteur, trying to justify my need to be the bigger man by being, instead, concise and precise:
“As long as I know that you’re not interested in an intelligent discussion on the topic, I can step away, get on with my day and leave you to the splitting of hairs. In the meantime, I suggest you look up the definition of ‘meme.’”
I see it as an altruistic act on my part: you must be cruel to be kind. Would this fellow ever learn if I didn’t give him a good tongue-lashing?
I unsubscribed from notifications about the thread – which is one of those functions you discover on the ever-changing world of Facebook. (Rarely, though sometimes, changes to the free site we all complain about are useful.) I did, indeed, “step away,” not to return again… for 48 hours. But as curiosity does with cats, this proud Leo was led back to the edge of the abyss – a potential loss of one of his nine spiritual lives.
When I looked again at the thread, my rival had responded to my political opinion with variation on “No, it’s not.” He had also deleted his earlier comment and posted this:
“meme (miːm) — n – an idea or element of social behaviour passed on through generations in a culture, esp by imitation [C20: possibly from mimic , on the model of gene ] Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition 2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009”
A surprise bombing after I had extended my poisoned olive branch?! Did this fellow not know to quit while he was ahead? I would squash him like a bug.
His incomplete (and out-of-date) definition of “meme” would sit on that Facebook thread for a century, coming back to haunt me if every one of the tens of people who might read that thread saw his error and believed he was right. And since he had deleted his earlier, impolite comment – the one which prompted me to step out – there was no telling how I would appear to other people.
Dr. Wayne Dyer, the self-help guru and motivational speaker, addresses this in his work: “Attachment to being right creates suffering.”
But fuck you.
Another colleague says, “My wall. My rules.” Since she’s a civil and classy lady whose rules are about respect and maturity, I would find a way to follow her example even if it meant that for the next hour I would be distracted and belittled by my own need to feel superior. I wasted at least 30 minutes trying to fashion a response that seemed appropriate: one that would not denigrate this stranger but would set me above my need to call him names; one that would enable my articulate self while also saving face.
Anonymity breeds monsters. But, unlike The Kraken Inside Me from my previous essay, these beasts have no righteous anger – only misplaced. They are a transformational species, like “The Thing” in John Carpenter’s film, mutating with each insult – giving rise to the ugly side of human nature.
And that ugliness is not limited to political debates. The recent Danell Leyva sexting “scandal,” (which included some temperature- and anatomy-elevating photos) invited these charmers on a Facebook Wall:
“WOMAN ONE: Nice slightly smaller than average sized penis sir…I guess o_O.
WOMAN TWO: Maybe he is a grower, he is Cuban after all.
MAN ONE: He’s a grower, stupid bitch….anyway, YOU’LL never find out
WOMAN THREE: Wow, harsh much?
WOMAN FOUR: The shaved chest hair, his butter face and the fact that he’s a gymnast just really aren’t doing it for me.
MAN ONE: ‘Butterface’???? REALLY? This man is beautiful. You’re just bitter cuz you have zero chance in hell to ever have someone like him.
MAN TWO: [name deleted] you look like a fucked up ‘Incredibles’ Character mixed with some Jersey Shore tool. So what you consider good looks doesn’t really matter. ”
In contrast to our bigger nation- and world-wide problems, this type of incivility seems insignificant, but it is a symptom of an epidemic in our instant culture. We don’t think before we tweet. It degrades both social media and ourselves.
A Broadway actress recently and dubiously attained Five Minutes of Infamy for tweeting a negative opinion about a musical after its first preview. Those rushing to her defense said things like, “She’s entitled to her opinion.”
Well, dzuh!! Of course she is! Pointing out her right to free speech is a diversion. Her opinion is not on the chopping block. But did she have to be so unkind about it? (Not to mention unprofessional.) The way in which she expressed her opinion reveals more about her than the thing she criticized. On this Dr. Dyer says: “When you judge another, you do not define them, you define yourself.” From where I sat in the audience of that same show 10 days later, I could only smile and weep quietly-happily during this re-imagining of a familiar and popular work by Stephen Sondheim.
Then there are the attacks on American gymnast Gabby Douglas‘ hair…
As the anonymous internet cat says:
If someone hides behind the mask of internet anonymity, using the catch-phrase “I’m just being honest” as an excuse to be unkind, it presumes that honesty is by definition unpleasant – as if one cannot be both honest and polite.
In my mimetic-politico debate which lasted all of 24 comments (only three of which were mine) I tried to rise above by not sinking to the useless distortions of the self-made hell that anonymous polemics have become: name-calling and personal attacks. Words like “idiot,” “’tard,” “hypocrite,” and worse insults are a consistent part of the vocabulary of these exchanges. These debates devolve into attacks on grammar and spelling as well as other jibes which veer off the main topic – though sometimes not as quickly as in the exchange I gave as an example.
In the end, I found myself trying to win an argument that deep down I knew could never be won. So when Dr. Dyer says to leave behind being right for being kind, what he’s talking about is examining yourself. I don’t have to be right. I just have to be good to myself. Being good to myself means letting go of that which does me harm. I must know my nature and strive to improve it.
We could learn from the witty but acerbic spider to stay above the tangled underbrush — only tossing out an occasional, acid observation to point out, gently, that your opinion doesn’t make you a jerk. It only makes you act like one.