The Lure of the Digital Pitchfork

angry mob” by Robert Couse-Baker is licensed under CC BY 2.0

There aren’t any pitchforks wielded by the citizens in 1931’s Frankenstein. Even though the popular image of the angry, torch wielding mob originated with that film, it’s not entirely clear where pitchforks entered the picture. Nonetheless, pitchforks became synonymous with large crowds filled with overwhelming, and sometimes misplaced, rage. Today, the internet has made the world smaller, and opened up immense new possibilities. Sadly, it’s also made it far easier for angry mobs to gather, and social media has replaced that well regarded farming implement as the weapon of choice.

The issue came to a head for me when I saw one of the first tweets referencing a trending topic was someone wishing the person in question was dead. The person in question was a professional athlete who’d just had a particularly bad outing for their favorite team. There wasn’t a hint of irony in their statement, and no mea culpa that the post had been an overreaction. Worse still, this wasn’t an isolated incident.

Consider the death threats against Nick Spencer, the writer of the Captain American comic books, after a recent major plot twist. Or the the threats against not only No Man’s Sky director Sean Murray after the game’s recent delay, but also against Jason Schreier, the writer for Kotaku who reported on the delay. Those are extreme examples, but examples that are becoming entirely too common in the current age of social media. Bear in mind, these are just examples related to entertainment, which is a fraction as severe as what you’ll see in discussions of politics or major social issues.

We have a natural tendency to vilify the views opposite our own, and the more deeply held our beliefs, the more we’ll hold the other side in contempt. That’s just human nature, but like many things in our nature, it’s an instinct we should fight to keep in check. Lately, it feels that this antagonism has ratcheted up to new heights. Discussions of any issue online feel more likely to break out into name calling and (hopefully) empty threats, instead of reaching any form of understanding.

Wielding that digital pitchfork is easy, sometimes even alluring. When you’re angry or hurt, there’s a natural tendency to lash out, and the online world makes it easy. We can just sit behind our keyboards, unleash our venom on a particular target and we might even get likes, retweets and follows as a result. But that works because we forget that even words carry weight, and the pithy comment we toss into the ether can impact others long after it’s passed from our mind.

I still vividly recall people making light of the Murrah bombing or deadly tornadoes here in Oklahoma City over a basketball team. My father worked mere blocks from the building, and I both saw the aftermath of that deadly attack. I’m willing to bet many of the people who made those comments don’t even remember it years later, but I do. Similarly, several months ago I was told by a former acquaintance how something I said in anger and had forgotten about for years hurt them deeply.

Monitors put a distance between us and other people. It’s easy to look at a Twitter handle or even a name on our Facebook feed and associate them with a single thing we hate. But stop to think of the people close to you. Think about your family, friends, neighbors and coworkers. I doubt you agree with any of them on every single issue, yet it’s rare for a single opinion to dominate our feelings toward them. When we see someone face to face, we know they exist as a complex, fully realized person.

Online? They’re just letters on a computer monitor.

It’s hard to find exact numbers, but a disturbing amount of content on social media involves everything from cursing at a writer because you don’t like certain aspects of their cartoon to threatening a woman with violence because she dared to write a feminist critique of a video game. Any number of issues dissolve into a war of words between two parties, with no progress being made and often with no viable information being shared.

Patience, understanding and compassion are missing from the equation. I always remember Raymond Reyes, or Ray as he often insisting I call him, a professor who taught history and Chicano studies at Saddleback College. I ended up in his U.S. History class because it fit my schedule, but I took every class he taught while I attended school there. A Chicano who would often describe himself as a Marxist, his views were often in direct opposition to many of the young students who entered his classroom.

Ray never raised his voice, and never disrespected his students no matter how violently they disagreed with him. I didn’t always agree with him, but I always wanted to hear his opinion. We would sometimes run into one another in the school’s cafeteria and eat lunch together, and I remember asking him one day why he remained so calm even when the people debating with him were so animated.

“If I yell, they’ll remember I was pissed off,” he told me. “If we have a discussion, they’ll remember why I was pissed off.”

Among the many things I learned in his classroom, that was one of the most valuable.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

You’ll find this quote by Wendy Mass from the book The Candymakers frequently in images and posts online, and it’s a beautiful thing to consider before you lash out online. None of our opinions form in a void, and that applies even to views we might find repugnant. Cursing and insulting won’t change those views, but understanding where they come from might. Anything from a painful or traumatic experience to a lack of exposure or experience can affect our views on almost anything.

None of us are perfect, and we will never agree on everything, even with our family and closest friends. But if we want to affect real change in the world, we need to be willing to discuss our views calmly and rationally, and extend the same courtesy to others. It’s not easy, especially on the things we feel most passionate about, but it’s vital if we want to see real change in the world.

No matter how violently we might disagree with one another, at the end of the day we’re all human. We all make mistakes, and none of us know everything. If we take the time to listen and hold a discussion, maybe we’ll start to see that the differences between us aren’t as great as we once assumed. Even if we can’t come to an agreement, we can at least leave the table with respect and newfound knowledge.

The time’s come for us to put down our digital pitchforks and instead look into the eyes of the “monsters” we want to attack. If you let compassion guide you, you might see more of ourselves in them than we ever expected.

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