I was talking with a friend recently, and she was mentioning a rule she uses in her online discourses: Never say anything to someone online that you wouldn’t say to their face.
It’s an idea I’ve seen a lot in discussions of online society: Online interactions tend to be ruder and more cruel than in- person ones. Without the physical presence of the other person, people feel somewhat released from normal social inhibitions — inhibitions like civility, and empathy, and kindness. Without the presence of the other person, people tend to forget that they’re interacting with an actual human being, and not just a set of ideas and beliefs.
There is some truth to this. People do say things online that they wouldn’t say in person. And some of those things really shouldn’t be said: from personal insults to bigoted diatribes to death threats. Even interactions that fall short of these extremes can be, shall we say regrettable. I’ve had more than one painful lesson with friends and family, teaching me never to process serious emotional issues online. It’s too easy to try to marshall your arguments into an unstoppable steamroller, and too easy to forget that you actually care about the person you’re talking to, and don’t want to hurt them if you can avoid it.
So yes. There’s some truth to this.
But ultimately, I don’t agree with my friend.
See, here’s the thing. Yes, some of the things people say online are terrible and hurtful and never should be said. But here are some of the other things people say online that they don’t feel they can say in person:
“I really don’t agree with you.”
“I think your ideas are mistaken, and here — exactly — is why.”
“I’m gay.” (Or bisexual. Sadomasochistic. Polyamorous. A sex worker. A foot fetishist. A furry. Almost any sexual minority you can think of.)
“I think your most deeply held beliefs are irrational, unsupported by the evidence, and almost certainly incorrect.”
“I am an atheist.”
And these are important things to say. They’re things that should be said, things I want to be said.
The fact that people feel less bound by social convention online than they do in person doesn’t just give them license to be rude where they would otherwise feel pressured to be polite. It also gives them license to tell the truth as they see it, where they would otherwise feel pressured to go along with socially acceptable lies — or stay silent in the face of them.
And that, I think, is a good thing.
I’ve felt this pressure myself. In person, I’ve definitely backed down from arguments — dropped the subject, changed the subject, agreed to disagree, whatever — to keep the social engine running smoothly. And I haven’t always felt proud of myself for doing so. I’ve compromised my honesty and my beliefs, let stupid and terrible and patently false ideas slide unchallenged, in order to defuse conflict and awkwardness in social situations. And I think most of us have.
It’s a hard situation. I like the fact that I’m empathetic and diplomatic, able to see things from other people’s perspectives and reluctant to hurt their feelings. And it’s not like I think that contradicting wrongness or proving my point is always the highest priority, or that I want every party to turn into a debate. But like a lot of people, I have a reflexive anxiety in the face of conflict, a reflexive tendency in social situations to prioritize social grace over other considerations. And I don’t like it.
So I love the fact that the blogosphere releases me from some of that concern. I love that there’s a social arena where the convention is that it’s okay to disagree: okay not just to argue, but to stubbornly stick with an argument and see it through to its end instead of just saying, “Well, you may have a point, let me think about that, hey how about them Yankees?” I love that there’s a social arena where it’s okay to point out that the other person has flawed reasoning, unreasonable assumptions, incorrect facts.
I don’t just love it so I can hammer on other people’s ideas, either. I love it so other people can hammer on mine. I feel like the blogosphere is a crucible, a whetstone, where my good ideas get clarified and my fuzzy ideas get sharpened and my bad ideas get burned away. I want other people to feel as free to criticize my ideas as I do to criticize theirs. Otherwise, what the heck’s the point? And I think that’s true for a lot of people. Having a place where you can test your ideas against another smart, thoughtful, stubborn person who’s just as willing to go the full fifteen rounds as you are? I can’t be the only person who thinks that’s the neatest thing since buttered popcorn.
And for people who don’t live in Sodom by the Bay, all of this isn’t just important. It’s vital.
For people who live in suburbs and small towns, places that are even more strongly ruled by social convention than the big impersonal cities, the online world is a godsend. (Tangent: What’s a secular word for “godsend”? I couldn’t think of one.) There are thousands — millions — of people for whom the online world is the only place where they can speak their truth, and explore the questions and details and complexities of their truth, without fear of reprisal. Not just fear of social disapproval, either, but fear of actual, practical, losing- your- job type reprisal. There are thousands, millions, of people who have no place other than the ‘Net where they can safely say, “I’m queer,” “I’m an atheist,” “I think the way I was brought up is stupid and evil.” For them, the fact that there’s a social arena where it’s okay to disagree and argue and not fret too much about what other people think or whether your opinions are hurting their feelings… it’s not just a relief. It’s a sanity- saver.
And I want the atheosphere to exist.
I’m not saying that people should relinquish all social inhibitions in online interactions. Far from it. Even when I’m locked in a hardcore online battle of wits and wills, I try to remember that there’s an actual other person on the other end of the ethernet cable. And I try to remember to criticize ideas and beliefs and behaviors, rather than personally insult people.
Plus, for every well-mannered person who finds a good balance of honesty and kindness on the Internet, there’s an inept, inconsiderate, socially tone-deaf moron who needs more social inhibition, not less.
So I’m not saying that the Internet’s tendency to loosen the bonds of social good grace is an unmixed blessing.
I’m just saying that it is a blessing. A mixed one, but a blessing nonetheless. I’m saying that this weakness of the Internet is also one of its greatest strengths. As annoying and off-putting and fucked-up as it often is, I’m glad that there’s a place in the world where I can say things to people that I wouldn’t say to their face.
And where they can say them to me.