Have you learned lessons only of those who admired
you, and were tender with you, and stood aside
Have you not learned the great lessons of those who
rejected you, and braced themselves against you?
or who treated you with contempt, or disputed
the passage with you?
Have you had no practice to receive opponents when
I’ve spent far too much of my time in the odd corners of the Internet conversing with strangers.
The messenger evolved. I’ve read and participated in dozens of online channels. Usenet, the old ISCA BBS, LiveJournal, forums, blogs, article comments, Facebook, Twitter. You get the idea. I gave as good as I got, mostly. I watched subcultures flourish and squander. I encountered new friends and some troubled souls. I cheered and jeered. So did almost everyone else. We still do.
The internet is an idea amplifying engine.
Through the miracle of transfer protocols and pseudo-anonymity, we rally around fellow digital wanderers. We generate heat and a little light in a crucible of ideas. At last! We abandon the vagaries of our geography and find kindred spirits who think and feel like us.
We form tribes. Yes, they are fluid and even overlapping, and we navigate among our own tribes as easily as we drive down the road. But they are tribes of ideas. And, inevitably, of ideals and ideology. Tribes protect their own. Tribes lash out. I’ve watched my own tribes do this over the years, and borne the brunt of other tribes doing their own identity protection.
I hear friends and acquaintances lament the state of politics, especially in America. It may be an American phenomenon, but I doubt it. I do know it’s clear to me that my country has become more polarized in my lifetime, not less. More tribal, not more diverse and open-minded. We have less in common, yet insist the contrary. No “side” is immune. If only this experience were limited to politics. It’s not.
As the internet amplifies our ideas, it weakens our empathy.
We’re less able to forgive heated words. Not everyone and not all the time, but our ability to get over it and get along anyway ebbs away on the screen. We dehumanize those with different ideas. We call them names and think impossibly nasty things about them.
I think it’s because ideas become our bond. With ideas as our common ground, we react violently when that’s threatened. Our noble ideas drive us toward stridency. Toward puritanical attitudes about our mores, whatever those may be. Toward moral panics. The world’s going to hell in a hand basket! Oppression reigns!
We shout down others. We say things most of us would be ashamed to shout to someone on the street. We close our minds and latch on to certainties.
Ideas seem to be our most important things.
I love ideas and this idea-amplifying engine. It brings me new friends and helps me figure myself out and learn about the world. I love my tribes, though I hate yours at my folly. Besides, why shouldn’t our ideas be our most important things?
Our experiences know better.