I’ve always been struck by the level of bile and verbal abuse on social media, particularly Twitter. In normal life, people tend to be respectful of acquaintances who don’t share their opinions. The online world is less polite in this respect.
“You don’t agree with me? Then you must be an evil idiot, so I’m going to invite my followers to attack and shame you into submission”. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly – online debates can get very ugly.
This has been especially noticeable over the last year, for obvious reasons. The pandemic is over a year old. People are stressed, tired, bored, anxious; tempers are frayed.
Online fights can be an outlet for these frustrations. They create drama – an increasingly prized commodity, given that most people would agree that life has become much more dull over the last year.
They can create a sense of belonging to a particular tribe and help form social bonds with others. As I noted in a column last year, people often bond by lamenting the apparent shortcomings of others. When one person agrees with you that it is indeed terrible that John or Mary said XYZ, they are delivering an implicit message: I am on your side, we are both upset because we are good people who hate wrongdoing. Berating others can make us feel better about ourselves, make us feel more competent and caring than the person being criticised.
And it simplifies the world. Everything would be so much better if Mr or Ms Bad Person had done ABC instead of XYZ.
Of course, the reality is life is messy and complicated. As the American essayist HL Mencken once quipped, for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
And there are other, more profound downsides. Black-and-white, hyper-critical thinking can become a bad habit, hurting your mood and relationships. It breeds bitterness and fatalism. It leads to people forming an unnecessarily dark and pessimistic vision of the world and of others.
Irish Times columnist Una Mullally recently addressed this issue in an insightful article. Allowing your rage and frustration to spill out on social media is ‘ultimately unhelpful’, she noted. ‘Gravitating towards social media to spill one’s feelings is not a good idea, and it’s not something people who work through their feelings in a healthy way do’. Yes, it may provide a ‘momentary relief’, but it is not going to alleviate or change your feelings.
‘It’s emotional littering, the equivalent of chucking a bottle out of car window when you’re done with it’, she added. ‘Other people have to look at that mess. It is not a coping mechanism. Try, as hard as it is, to find something that is.’
This is really good advice. In these difficult times, it’s important to resist the allure of simplistic narratives that divides the world up between goodies and baddies. Seeing the ‘other side’ as ‘stupid or brainwashed or corrupt liars’ is, as Sean Moncrieff noted in a separate Irish Times column, an ‘angry simplification’ that sucks us into a binary view of the world.
Referring to the recent anti-lockdown protests, Moncrieff notes that some people characterised the crowds as attended by ordinary folks frustrated by the government’s handling of the pandemic; others said they were attended by far-right groups; others said they were attended by conspiracy theorists entertaining wild, demented ideas.
Which statement is true? All three of them. Reality, as Moncrieff notes, ‘is defined by nuance and contradiction’, which is why we must aim to resist unhelpful “either/or” thinking, to see the shades of grey rather than viewing the world in black and white.
‘We can succumb to them, or learn to recognise them, regulate them and move through them’, she says. ‘We are not in control of the situation, but we are in control of how we react to it’.