By Frances Thrush
It is funny how easily we forget ourselves while arguing passionately on the Internet. Typed furiously without a moment’s hesitation, attempts at intellectual debate quickly turn from tentative discussion to sarcastic memes and comments that would usually not be made in person. The distance the typed characters travel from the mind of the author, to the screen, to the audience is often perceived as being greater than it truly is.
The reality is that the distance our thoughts must travel nowadays in order to be heard, read or published is incredibly small. The true smallness of this distance has caused a large shift in our levels of comfort when sharing deeply personal truths or simple opinions. This is most clearly seen on the Internet; whether they are comments concerning the “Candide” or Groundhog articles, or even those found on YouTube pages, the bulk of the commentary are pleas based on impulsive and overexaggerated, reactionary emotions. Too easily have discussions on social media platforms fallen victim to this trend.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this behavior is not so much that it happens on the Internet, but that it does not happen in person. There is an astounding difference in the level of logic, respect and the over all value of the arguments that are held in person versus those on the Internet. Personal observation suggests that the main difference between the two consists of an emotional and intellectual awareness that is more present when arguing in person. When viewing the person we disagree with, we can see the effect of our words, feel the tension and see the emotions play on our opponent’s face. The person’s physical presence also reminds us that he is, in fact, a person. That tiny distance between our fingers typing and someone reading the comments we type is short, but too often in that short distance do we allow ourselves to forget the dignity or humanity of the person we are attacking 140 characters at a time.
Even among intelligent and socially conscious individuals, the conversation among five or 10 people, all trying to prove their points at once, often descends into quickly typed quips meant only to shame, embarrass or disprove their opponents by any means possible (including sarcastic memes). More often than not, the arguments are laughable with too widely used hyperboles and hilariously childish insults. These “arguments” tend to sound like nothing more than the squabbles of children who end up insulting each other to avoid accepting any truth the other party may have stated.
It is important to note, however, that there are those who argue on these sites with only the best intentions — to genuinely arrive at a new conclusion or idea, or to discuss issues they are passionate about. To these individuals, I tip my metaphorical hat; there are too few of you. It is a rare occasion when a discussion held on social media platforms ends successfully and respectfully.
This culture of impulsive sharing and broadcasting of emotions and thoughts of almost stream-of-consciousness style has made these social media platforms the most hostile of environments for intellectual discussion. It seems contrary to the purpose of social media that the place through which you can reach the largest group of people with the most diverse opinions is unable to sustain a discussion about a play, event or, even worse, a political or religious matter. The speed with which these discussions take place is astounding. Pages worth of insults, desperate attempts to stay on topic, logical arguments drowned out by emotional mud and frustrations and misunderstandings all occur within minutes. Conversations that would take days or hours in person take less time than it takes to prepare a nice pasta dish.
At the end of these discussions, no one shares to the best of his abilities, no one learns and, ironically enough, no real emotion is shared. The distance is too small, our separation too large and our fingers too fast. We are in a society that is constantly sharing and updating, and yet people express less genuine emotion and spend more time alone than ever before. It is always more convenient to forget the effect of the thoughts we share, but it is when we stop considering who we are affecting that we lose our ability to reach any sort of common understanding.
We should continue to share, to discuss and to search for new perspectives and truths – but we must do so respectfully and deliberately, and we must pause before submitting an opinion. What we type, say and think affects those around us.