The intention behind keeping our internet lives private was so we could protect ourselves. Online communication largely takes place with people we don’t personally know and so it makes sense to keep some information private. We don’t want strangers being able to find out intimate details of our personal lives. However, this common sense approach to internet discourse has led to some unintended and often scary consequences. Our ability to remain unknown to those we interact with online does protect us, even when it shouldn’t. When folks can say whatever they want without fear of consequences they can unleash unabashed displays of cruelty without any accountability.
As a writer and speaker who has chosen what will be a more public life, I’m often told that this is just the cost of doing business. This has been the price of public success for as long as there have been public figures. I think this is intended to be helpful in a “Any work worth doing is going to get you hate” sort of way. While this is probably true, any time we say “this is just the way it is” we one, refuse to confront any change that has been made and two absolve ourselves of responsibility thus, convincing ourselves that we don’t need to keep working for change.
This version of cruelty is different than previous versions and we do have a responsibility, as a world to expect better from one another.
Though there have always been cruelty directed at those who do public work the internet has taken the mob mentality to the extreme. Take tabloids for example. These have existed for quite some time and make a living by chastising those with an audience. However, these publications are limited, take time to print, and have to claim whatever it is they put out into the world. Now, with the speed and privacy of commenting from home, one cruel comment turns to thousands in a matter of seconds. We all know we shouldn’t take these comments to heart but that many voices can be hard to ignore. We are taught that if one person says something bad about you that they are probably wrong but if many people say it you should take it on as truth. In small communities of people, you trust this is probably good advice, but in the hurricane of the comment section this is a recipe for wreckage.
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Critique and dialogue are an important part of creative work. Trolls love to suggest that those they are attacking just can’t take a critique or hold a debate. Let me submit to you that there is a difference. If I write an article and you say “I don’t like your view point because you fail to take this other thing into account.” That’s great! Maybe I’ll agree maybe I won’t but there is potential for constructive conversation in that. However, if a commenter wants to talk about me and not the work (be it my disability, gender, race, personal life or anything else outside of the work) that is not productive. My work is totally up for discussion as are my views. My body and my life are not part of the conversation and neither are anybody else’s! Even when I write about disability or gender that does not give anyone the right to express opinions on my disability or gender. You can disagree with my views on sexism or my concern about job resources for the disabled but you can not use my identity as a weapon.
We need to expect better from one another. The impulse to be cruel when we are angry or unhappy is something we all have but that does not make it ok. The internet is a public space just like any other. It comes with a lot of freedom but should also come with a cultural expectation of decency. As long as we say trolls are just part of public life we give them permission to continue the behavior. We teach small children that you can not just insult someone walking down the street because you don’t like something about them and yet on the internet, the ultimate intersection, we are told that people will talk about your body and your personal life in a terroristic way and that’s just the way it is.
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Female content creators are subjected to fat jokes and rape threats while successful people of color are pushed off of social media by floods of racial remarks. All cultures have manners and expectations of conduct it is time internet culture got some too. There shouldn’t be a place where you can spew hatred call it critique and then declare yourself the winner of some nonexistent debate. It was once that the cost of doing business for women in the working world was for your boss to sexually harass you. This is no different. Something is only the cost of doing business if we as a society decide it is what we will pay.
I shouldn’t have to take into account a cruelty tax when deciding to go into the public world.
It is time we change the rules.