A long time ago, when this blog was in it’s infancy, I wrote a post that hurt a friend of mine. I won’t go into humiliating detail, but let’s just leave it at this: she posted something on Facebook I disagreed with, and I decided to blog about it. Ever the arrogant English major, I dug down to the etymological roots of the words she used, blathering on about how petty I found her ideas at the time.
And then she read it.
And then, in a truly humiliating turn of events, more people read it. Her husband. My husband. Our friends.
And then they talked.
And then I took down the post.
As much as I wanted to be right and felt my ideas were valid, I couldn’t deny that the way I went about expressing my ideas was wrong. I hurt my friend, not because she’s too sensitive and can’t take constructive criticism, but because my criticism was not constructive. It was snarky, rude, and though the post didn’t mention her by name, it might as well have.
I think I thought that no one was paying attention to my blog, so I could get away with it. I think I thought that maybe if I obscured my language a little bit and buried my frustration with her beneath layers of intellectual rhetoric, people would think I was smart and witty and would forgive me my ruthlessness. I think I thought that my blog was my territory, so no one could criticize me. I was wrong.
My friends were gracious enough not to storm my comments section with their rage, but to reach out to me privately and say, “did you really intend to hurt?”
I didn’t intend to, but I did hurt.
I’ve had to relearn that same lesson over and over again online, and in those other instances, I haven’t always had the graciousness of friends to help me dismantle my arrogance. More often than not, it has happened with complete strangers, or people I’ve never met in person.
Sometimes being a writer on the internet feels a little like those Sunday mornings that start with good intentions and result in you yelling curse words at the driver that cuts you off in traffic on your commute to church… and then that same driver pulls into your church parking lot just ahead of you. Do you risk being a little late to worship and park down the street so they don’t realize Crazy Lady With All the Swears and Middle Fingers also attends the 11 a.m. service?
We go with the best intentions for engaging healthy community and facilitating important discussions about faith, human rights, theology, politics, the arts, and a whole manner of really important, worthwhile things, but then we jump into conversations and they are promptly derailed by egos, sarcasm, condescending remarks, and general nastiness.
This is humanity and it’s not unique to the internet.
But so often we tell ourselves that those people we disagree with so vehemently “don’t know us in real life” and we shrug it all off like it doesn’t matter. The obvious implication is that the people we interact with online are somehow less “real” than us, and that the consequences for how we interact are less “real” too. And it’s unhealthy. Because it makes it hard for us to talk about something well, like human rights and theology, without treating others as less “real,” less human, for disagreeing. And then it defeats the whole purpose of these conversations to begin with. The “real life” versus “online” distinction is an immature idea, and it gives way to immature behavior.
It’s “online” versus “offline,” not “real life” versus “fake life.”
I know this because this online life of mine has led to a lot of real friendships over the past few years. The “online” versus “real life” distinction is the excuse I whip out when someone disagrees with me and hurts my feelings.
I’m not saying that we owe it to everyone on the internet to treat them like they’re our best friend. All it means is that we are just as responsible for treating people like they matter as we would if we were confronting them face-to-face. It means that if we see conversations derailing into hurtful, condescending arguments, we’re responsible for setting a boundary for ourselves, and sticking to it.
My friend Tamara left a brilliant comment on my post a few weeks ago, and I’ve adopted it as my new mantra :
Don’t engage the crazy.
Most times, this means not engaging my own crazy. (Because let’s face it, I can’t even make it to church without losing my temper.)
For me, setting that boundary means saying, “This discussion isn’t healthy for me. I’m sorry, but I have to end this conversation here.”
So here is my invitation : if you’re as tired of the “online” versus “real life” myth as I am, then let’s intentionally change the way we talk about the internet, and by doing so, acknowledge each other as equally real, and then treat each other that way. Let’s set and maintain healthy boundaries for how we interact. Let’s be quick to listen and slow to speak and love one another as ourselves, because isn’t that why we’re here? At least that is my hope.
So, real talk with me : how do you approach engaging people on the internet? What are the things that raise your hackles and how do you tame yourself down? What are the boundaries you’re setting for yourself these days? Do you disagree with me?