Matthew Rozsa offers a set of rules to give us a kinder, gentler Internet.
My first experience with Internet flaming occurred more than a decade ago, when I was still an undergraduate at Bard College. The 2004 presidential election had just ended, and although I’d staunchly supported John Kerry (more on that in a moment), I’d openly disapproved of how many of my fellow student activists had blocked a four-way intersection in our host community following George W. Bush’s reelection. The night after my editorial was published, I received a very unexpected email from one of my professors:
Just a heads up: The student radicals aren’t happy with you. Expect to be flamed.
Fortunately this did not culminate in some me being literally fricasseed, but I can say that the subsequent campaign of email harassment was particularly unpleasant. The head of one of the campus’s most vociferous leftist groups (though hardly its most numerous) sent the following message to her followers:
Matthew Rosza (sic) is trying to print an editorial about what happened on weds—please feel free to write to him what you think of the article in order to help his poor disillusioned soul! According to him we ‘alienated the community’ and committed acts of DISRESPECT towards the cops.
Certainly I’ve gotten used to it by now—my accumulated hate mail tally is without question in the hundreds, and possibly in the thousands—but the shock of my initial encounter was extremely jarring. When I reported this to our college president Leon Botstein a few weeks later (during one of his regular open houses), he offered an observation that still resonates with me today:
Emails and anonymous comments are the phone calls you shouldn’t make.
I’d like to play with this analogy here, because it actually works on several levels. If you think about the rules of etiquette that you would instinctively follow in a phone conversation, you quickly realize how many of them depend on your subconscious awareness that there is another person receiving the brunt of what you have to say. We may not be in the physical company of our guest in a phone conversation, but our attention is glued to them and we constantly require their input for validation (even if, for us talkative fellows, that involves little more than an occasional “uh huh” and “yep”).
By contrast, the recipients of online communication—by email, on Facebook, on a message board, or anywhere else—are usually nothing more than text and pixelated images on a screen (exempting Skype and other video messaging services, which aren’t as common). That’s why the first rule for being a good person when chatting online is to remember what my editor Thomas Fiffer pointed out in a Facebook forum earlier this week:
I’d like to offer a short course on respectful disagreement. A person makes a statement with which you disagree. How far do you go in your response:
A. That’s not how I feel.
B. Here’s why I don’t feel the way you do.
C. I don’t like that you feel that way.
D. You shouldn’t feel that way.
E. You have no right to feel that way.
F. I judge you for feeling that way.
G. I’m going to assume you haven’t thought your position through or read any of the research.
H. Your feeling that way makes you a bad or stupid person.
I. Your feeling that way makes me better than you.
J. Hey, everyone, can you believe this jerk feels that way?
K. I’m deeply offended that you won’t agree with me.
If you stopped at B., you get an A. Anything beyond that constitutes disrespect and communication failure.
All of these tidbits are structurally supported by the same logical premise: If something would sound rude when said aloud, it is almost certainly going to sound rude in an online conversation. Indeed, the second rule for being a good person involves precisely that: Before you submit a comment, recite it to yourself. Often it will help you catch turns of phrase and subtleties that you may have unintentionally inserted into your text … or perhaps will help you realize that what you believe comes across as righteous and informed indignation is instead condescending, confrontational, and even juvenile. As an added bonus, this practice almost always helps you improve the quality of your writing, from catching grammatical errors and fragmented logic to helping you think of a better way of expressing your ideas (personally I use this to rein in my penchant toward verbosity).
Finally, it’s important to think not merely of how you’ll sound, but of what kind of argument would be most likely to persuade you if you were on the other side of the debate. Once more, this works both as a mechanism for improving your empathy and as a convenient way to improve your skills as a writer: No matter how distant someone else’s perspective may seem from your own, a truly great debater is capable of effectively rebutting that point of view precisely because he or she can empathize (if not necessarily sympathize) with the reasoning behind it. Empathy is absolutely essential not only to comporting yourself with dignity and character, but also to sharpening your skills as a thinker and advocate.
Believe me, I’m not writing any of this from a presumed lofty perch. Although I have never participated in a formal flaming, I have certainly been guilty of emotional outbursts and downright nastiness that I have since come to regret. It’s difficult to keep your head on an even keel when they’re buffeted by emotional tempests, and anyone who writes for a living has more than a few issues which can knock them off their footing.
When I criticized many of my Bard classmates for their behavior on Election Day 2004, it was because I shared their pain and hoped they could find a constructive outlet for expressing themselves. Years later, when I read Bob Woodward’s account of the Bush administration’s experience during that contest, I was struck by how it depicted Kerry’s handling of the concession process. At first, it seemed like controversies over voting irregularities in Ohio would present Kerry with an opportunity to challenge the results similar to the way Gore had done in Florida four years earlier, but once it became clear that there was no realistic chance that the Kerry campaign could make a difference, their candidate had to stop viewing himself as President-elect and instead call to concede the election to his opponent. This was an agonizing ordeal even for a man who had won a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts, but because the Bush team didn’t attempt to confront or pressure him, he had enough time to calm down and handle the challenge with propriety (as well as deliver as fine a concession speech as any I’ve read or seen).
Whether it was Bush showing grace toward a defeated adversary or Kerry waiting until his rational judgment could prevail, both sides of the ideological spectrum can learn a great deal from how the candidates in that election handled themselves. So too with everyone else who wishes to be a constructive participant in our public debate—political or non-political, online or off.