In my 25 years as a writer and activist, I’ve been called everything under the sun, even before the Internet existed. When I came out as bisexual in the late ’90s, I was a “confused fake lesbian.” When I worked as the managing editor of Nervy Girl! Magazine in 2000 and we published pieces from Muslim women who believed wearing a hijab was an act of feminist strength, I was a “woman-hating misogynistic asshole.” When I wrote sexy books about people of all walks of life, I was “a slut-devil who will surely burn in hell.” When I came out as a gamer and a geek, I was “jesusfuckingchrist another fake geek girl.” Last year, when my company created a succubus-like creature in one of our games, I was “sexist, homophobic, and transphobic.” Most recently, I am a “racist ass.” (Yes, I’ve kept records of all of these interactions over the years, and these are actual quotes from various letters to the editor, emails, comments, and tweets).
At almost 43 years old, I know who I am and what I believe in, and most of the time, other people talking about me in a negative way is a something that just lives under my skin like some vestigial, permanent part of me. To me, it’s just the cost of standing up for what I believe in, and the price continues to lessen with each attack.
But it took me a long time to get here, and not all of us are in that place. People are losing their jobs, their families, and their lives over being mislabeled and misrepresented on the Internet. They’re experiencing depression, anxiety, fear, and PTSD. Young people, trans people, minorities of all types are being slut-shamed and bullied to the point where they take or consider taking their own lives.
It doesn’t take much work to find hundreds of Internet forums, social media sites, and blogs that are full of conversations that start out about important issues — discrimination, sexism, homophobia, censorship, suicide, global warming — and quickly spiral inwards to become angry disputes attacking the characters of the people involved. “He’s an asshole.” “She’s homophobic.” “What a total racist dick that person is.” “I agree.” “Me too.” “No, you’re the dick.” “Look at what she said one time.” And on and on.
Not only do conversations like this take away from the issues at hand, they are also impossible to “win.” You are the only person who truly knows who you are, and the forty other strangers discussing your virtues and flaws are never going to get close to that core of your personality and essence.
The truth is that it’s so much easier to believe something negative about someone than it is to believe the positive. Think about this: Studies have shown that if someone tells you you’re an awful person (or that your work is awful), it takes TEN TIMES of someone telling you that you’re a good person (or that your work is good) to eradicate the first statement. Negative things are louder than positive, almost always. This, I think, is especially true if:
a. You don’t actually know the person in real life. The internet makes it easy to erase other people’s humanity and assume the worst.
b. You already like or trust the person being talked about. You think, “Oh, damn. I really liked them, and now someone is saying they’re an asshole. I must be a terrible judge of people.” And that makes us feel hurt and vulnerable.
c. The person being talked about doesn’t get involved in the discussions, whether because they don’t know about them, they’re busy doing other things, or they’re purposefully not getting involved.
Conversations like these can contribute to all of the emotional issues mentioned earlier, creating a place where most people don’t feel safe being themselves, because who they actually are doesn’t matter as much as what other people say about who they are.
One way to not be part of that shaming and bullying culture is to learn more about the person in question before you decide–and publicly talk about–who they are. And then choose your actions accordingly.
Here are some suggestions for getting to “know” someone as best you can on the Internet. Yes, the steps take a little time, but imagine if someone accused you of being [insert untrue or unflattering personality trait]. Would you want everyone to just jump on the bandwagon and repeat that untrue or unflattering thing about you, or would you rather they take a few minutes to learn more about you before making a decision? It seems only fair to give other people the same courtesy (or at least reserve judgment if you don’t want to take the time to learn more). Even if, in the end, you decide that someone really is a [insert untrue or unflattering personality trait], you will have at least given them a fair shake.
In my experience, this type of exploration usually shows us what we already know in our hearts: most people are neither devil nor saints. Most people are just humans. Broken, beautiful, angry, kind, and utterly unique. And maybe that’s the best part of “getting to know” someone in this way. We all become humans to each other.
And perhaps that is the first step toward less bullying, less harassment, less harmful negativity. It’s a reminder that whether you like someone or hate someone, whether you agree with them or don’t, they are still a person, another human being. Whatever you think about the person, you can still make the choice not to say hurtful things to or about them. Or you could choose to say something awesome about someone else instead.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
P.S. As always, I’m sure there are lots of great suggestions that I haven’t thought of — please feel free to share them in the comments!