I have become, in what I hope is the nicest possible way, a bit of a martinet about tone and discourse in my living room. I love good chewy discussions, but I try, regardless of my level of engagement (or frustration or incomprehension or general bogglement) not to name-call or make generalizations. And if I catch myself slipping, I try to reverse the trend. Because I really, truly do believe (in part from watching my kids, who are passionately political, but really good listeners) that we’re not going to get anywhere in solving the problems that confront us as a society if all we do is stand on the sidelines lobbing spitballs. It isn’t that I don’t find myself wanting a meme of Dan Ackroyd from the early days of SNL doing his Weekend Update routine: “Jane, you ignorant slut…”. But I don’t think it helps.
Did I say this is my cyber-living room I’m talking about? My presence on Facebook, my blogs, my Live Journal, etc? Well, yeah, because I have yet to have a person in my physical space start calling me, or other guests, names. Face to face most of the people I know well enough to invite inside know better. On the internet, not so much.
These days, I tend to step in as early as possible, pounding my cane on the floor and calling for civility and no name-calling on my turf. Just once I had a firefight break out in my cyber-space, and once was more than enough.
A few years ago, I posted enthusiastically on my Live Journal that I was going to a convention I particularly liked, and a friend of mine (since deceased) mentioned wistfully that he didn’t go to that con any more because it didn’t feel “safe”. He knew that this was a ridiculous thing to say on the face of it: he was a middle-aged, middle-class, straight, white man, successful in his day job and as a writer. But he had also been embroiled, a year or so earlier than that, in the awful mess that was Racefail. The experience had had a lasting, and not happy, impact on him. and now (he was battling cancer and working to keep all his energy for that fight) he felt the convention was “unsafe” in the way that any place would, where old wounds might be opened on either side, at a time when he had no energy to cope with them.
When I left for the convention, there had been a few other comments, mostly from friends saying “Ooh, good, I’ll see you there!” I didn’t check my email or Live Journal until the next morning, at which point there were something like 70+ responses, most of them in vehement, angry response to my friend’s comment. And it was awful. It was as if a friend at a party, overhearing another guest say something stupid, had opened the door to my house and invited all his friends in to set the dumb guy straight, and those friends had hailed other friends, and so on.*
I don’t disagree with some of the opinions expressed, but the tone, and the words used, and the way it escalated, was frightening. I suspect that if any of those posters had been in my real-world living room, talking with the guy in the chemo cap, and could see his demeanor, they might have expressed the same things, but not in the same way, maybe out of respect for his frailty, maybe out of respect for someone else’s space, and maybe because they could see both more of his intent, and of the impact their words had on him, and on the people around them.
I asked the advice of a friend at the convention, who shook her head and said that the only way she could see to handle it was to shut the conversation down. So I did.
And these days if someone comes into a discussion on my Facebook feed, or my LJ, or one of my blogs, I make every effort not to shut it down, because I want to hear what people have to say. But I will remind people to keep the tone civil, not to name call (including not name-calling public figures–that sort of thing can escalate to a fist-fight real fast), and to think before they hit Send. My cyber-house, my cyber-rules.
*thinking of it now, it reminds me of my daughter’s 16th birthday party, which somehow got into the wild on Facebook. Kids showed up who did not know my daughter or anyone else at the party. I caught a kid tagging the shed in the back yard. One boy arrived so drunk that he pissed on my kitchen floor. Stuff was broken. And yet, when I shut the party down (at my daughter’s request) most of the kids said, as they filed out, “thank you for inviting me. I had a lovely time”. They were not bad kids; they just didn’t think of themselves as being in a real house tenanted by real people, until I made it so by tossing them out. (Okay, except for the kid with the spray paint. Him I kicked out early, with extreme prejudice.)