This week I fell gracefully off the wagon from my digital de-tox right into the comments section of a facebook post on veganism and the environment. I am exercising more self-restraint today and have put my phone on the top of my wardrobe but I wanted to share my thoughts on some of the frenzy some of these posts stir up. It made me reflect on the need for people to be more compassionate and respectful to themselves and others in the way that they express themselves about the big issues, particularly on social media. (I stress at the outset that whilst I use this subject as an example, I am writing this neutrally as an impartial observer and have no particular foot planted heavily in either camp).
When it comes to social media posts on politics, sexism, the environment or other contemporary and controversial subjects, the comments sections are often vitriolic battlegrounds in which one camp of thought unleashes unbridled verbal warfare on another. This is where modern day tribalism shows its muscle, with some comments producing battalions of fifteen of more replies. This modern symposium is an abstract disembodied one with people being free to let loose their streams of consciousness on the general populus without fear of being ‘lamped one’.
Some people love comments threads, using them as a means to express their moral anger, outrage and disgust. Some people are trollers, spewing out words of hate and fear in an attempt to create more of the same. Some people (like me) lurk a little from time, with a sort of rubbernecking fascination, half wanting to see what is said and half wanting to move away and look at you tube videos of cats.
The post I was eyeing this week was a post about unsustainable agriculture methods and the environmental damage that they cause. There ensued a comments battle between vegans and meat-eaters. The vegans accused the meat-eaters of being heartless and cruel and the meat-eaters angrily implored the vegans to let people be and allow them to make their own choices. I lurked a bit. I winced a bit. I wanted to run off and look at cat memes.
I was a neutral observer as far as the argument was concerned: I can see the merit of the argument that people ought to be morally responsible for making consumer choices which lessen the suffering both to the environment and to animals. However, I can also see that meat is freely available and accusing people who still choose to eat it of being cold and heartless is not an effective method of persuading them to change their diets. (They will of course be compelled to tell their accuser to ‘f’ off as they place their order for a KFC). There are also complex cultural, economic and psychological factors at play which are bound to influence people’s choices about which side of the fence they are on. It is not an easy nut to crack (if you’ll excuse the pun) and however enlightened you might be, the solution to this huge issue is unlikely to reveal itself on the comments section of a facebook post (even if it is your comment).
It is clear that given Brexit, the unfolding environmental crisis and the growing divide between rich and poor, there is at present somewhat of a moral panic in the UK. There are a whirlwind of emotions in the collective right now: disbelief, confusion, frustration, disempowerment, grief and anger. All of that is a fairly natural response to these uniquely challenging times. We all roll our sleeves up and ‘get on with it’, doing our day jobs and maintaining our households in the face of all this craziness, so it is no wonder that some of these comments threads act like pressure cooker vents for people’s unexpressed emotions.
However, in my very humble opinion it is unhelpful and potentially divisive for people to whip up frenzy and drama in response to the bigger issues we face. Political and environmental issues affect us all and therefore, it should be a time for reasoned consideration of how we as individuals and as a society make choices. What the world needs at the moment to move forwards is education, co-operation and measured consideration, not dogmatism or extremism in belief or emotion. Whilst those positions are usually born out of fear and desperation, history has informed us that such extreme positioning leads to social division and to a disconnection with our humanity. Re-connection with our humanity is where we should be headed.
Fundamentally, and in order to foster a sense of unity, we need to be compassionate with one another in the way that we relate. We need to foster a greater constructive community spirit, not a greater division within ourselves. It is necessary to have some consideration for the fear, desperation and anger that we all feel as a collective and a desire to conduct ourselves so as to alleviate whatever emotional or existential suffering we as well as others might feel at the moment. We can start a movement towards more unity in the way that we react and respond to others, whatever their point of view.
The fact is, people are people and not everyone is on the same page. Some people are very sensitive and aware. Some people truly have their heads in the sand. Some people are deliberately on a sabotage mission. Some people are desperate. Some people are very scared. Some people are intense. Some people are entirely self-centred and not at all interested in the wider human collective. The key for is for people to understand and accept that this is the way people are, whether we like it or not, and to have a little more empathy for them. No-one is perfect. In fact, no-one is more perfect than anyone else.
The fact is, sharing of points of view can be done respectfully and without mud-slinging. It is most effective when done gently, patiently and persuasively and with an element of generosity to the listener. It is more compassionate to share facts or opinions with kindness and neutrality and with a respect for people’s ability to make their own choices. Extreme emotion and fear in argument tends to cause people to engage their fight and flight responses, which only escalates conflict. People are then physically prevented from thinking rationally and engaging in patient discourse. You are always more fluent in your arguments and cogent in your reasoning if you debate from a position of calmness and patience. Be in your parasympathetic nervous system if you want to sully your opponent’s argument. Otherwise you’ll be thinking from your small brain (just like they are, of course).
How you present yourself is vital if you want to gain support for a point of view. People are less likely to listen to you if they think you have an agenda and they are more likely to adopt theirs. Be open and listen to what others have to say. Be respectful. They have as much right to express themselves as you. People are not their points of view. People are people. They are brothers, parents, neighbours and friends who are also looking for happiness, just like you. When I was a smoker, I did not give up because people lectured me or tutted at me. By doing so, they were simply projecting their anti-smoking sentiment onto me. I gave up and in my own time, because I weighed up the pros against the cons and decided that it was probably a bad thing to do. Respect that people will change their views in their own time if they want to and that no-one can force a point of view onto anyone else.
Again, in my very humble opinion, people need to have a little more respect for boundaries on social media: both their own and other people’s. The social media world blurs a lot of them. As a social media user you are hidden: both by a screen and possibly by a different identity. There are not the sort of social barriers that might be present if you were in a workplace or physical community space. There is an absence of social accountability (such as the fear of whether you will lose your job or the fear of whether your mate will think you’re a bit of a tool). People also tend to think into their devices and use them as a sort of extension of their inner (unchecked) thought stream. The message is to think before you speak. Look at the page before you leap headfirst right into it.
Whilst it is undoubtedly good for democracy for people to express views, the moral of the story is that words can also be weapons and people can injure others unwittingly in the way that they express themselves and turn others against their cause. The simple truth is, if you use your words disrespectfully or intemperately on social media the likelihood is that you will be firing them close range at closed ears and your victory will be a pyrrhic point-scoring one.
Create willing listeners when you write, not unconscious objectors.