Here’s Why I’ve Been Picking Fights On The Internet
There’s something irresistible about clicking on an article that I know I’m going to hate. Where the headline alone is enough to make my jaw tighten and my shoulders tense. A more mature person would ignore the bait. Or at worst, skim over a few lines, roll their eyes, and move on like a mentally well-adjusted adult.
But I am neither mature nor mentally well-adjusted. Which is why I’ve been commenting.
It started with the occasional snarky comment or a cherry-picked takedown aimed at one faulty sentence. But it steadily matured into thoughtful counter-arguments to the whole piece. I read the articles carefully, I represented the disagreements as honestly as I could, I went away and did my research, I came back with statistics and citations to support my arguments.
Instead of replying with whatever knee-jerk reaction popped into my head, I sometimes took a day or two before responding to articles that I’d found particularly infuriating. And as I did, a couple of unexpected things started happening:
The first was that I learned a lot about a wide range of topics. All of that research ended up sinking in whether I liked it or not. I also discovered, unsurprisingly, that most issues weren’t as straightforward as I’d thought they were. Even if my fundamental position didn’t change, I usually found room for nuance.
The second was that I started having actual conversations. Rather than degenerating into the typical online game of one-upmanship and bad-faith trolling, I ended up having interesting, nuanced discussions with these people who I’d only been reading out of spite. Doing this made me a better thinker, which in turn has made me a better writer.
Sometimes the conversations ended with us agreeing. Sometimes one or both of us made some small amount of progress in convincing the other. And sometimes things ended more or less as terribly as you might presume of online discourse. But almost every time I had one of these conversations, I learned something, even if just that it’s a mistake to judge a human being based purely on a few sentences that they’ve written on the internet.
It’s never more delightful to be wrong than when somebody turns out to be better than you gave them credit for. And it turned out that I was wrong a lot. Of course, on the occasions when I couldn’t resist being a jerk to them, they often responded in kind. But when I engaged with people respectfully, even while telling them I thought they were wrong, I hardly ever got anything but the same respect in return.
The problem with the speed and anonymity of the internet is that it’s too easy to type a snarky comment, hit publish, and walk away from the ensuing explosion like an action-movie star. Let’s be honest; doing this feels really good. Online culture has made us pathologically quick to dismiss people as racists and transphobes, communists and fascists, and all we achieve by doing so is make ourselves dumber, weaker and unhappier.
These drive-by arguments don’t challenge us to question our beliefs or reckon with the fact that there’s a human being on the other side of the screen. There’s no need to consider a perspective that differs from our own or engage with people who don’t tell us what we want to hear. We can approach every conversation as a zero-sum game, every disagreement as oppression, and every misplaced word as an attack.
But every time we go against this instinct, we fulfil the promise of what the internet could have been before we decided to use it for porn and memes and cancelling people. It can help us to connect with people and ideas we might never have come across otherwise. It can help us to overcome our biases and blind spots. It can help us to be better human beings.
So next time you read something that makes your blood boil, why not take advantage of the opportunity? Instead of skipping past it, why not engage? Why not see if you can express precisely why you disagree? And if you never come across anything online you disagree with, why not get out there and live a little? I can’t promise that it’ll always be comfortable, but there’s every chance you’ll learn, grow, and best of all, meet some interesting people along the way.