I don’t really want to remember 2016. It gave me a lot of wonderful things, like a taking month-long vacation abroad with my family, moving into a bigger apartment, and working on fun projects, but it’s hard to ignore the elephant in the room.
This elephant took on the form of this year’s elections, where the energy was overwhelming and where toxic discourse was the norm and not the exception.
2016 is the most polarizing election year I’ve ever witnessed in the 12 years I’ve been voting. At age 30, my political views are now part of my identity and my value system is something I constantly weigh and thresh out. It’s safe to say that I use your politics to gauge you as a person. I’m also one of those people who is online a lot. I use the Internet to work, to get my news, to get my culture fix, to research, and to keep in touch with people.
Needless to say, social media during this particular election season made me want to bleach my brain. With a deluge of paid trolls and heightened emotions from regular people, it was hard navigating through any comment thread without leaving angry, depressed, or miserable.
I’m also a new mom. Even without any existing Internet dependence, the smart phone was my sole link to the outside world during those long, sleepless nights nursing an infant. A lot of my sorrow was also a result of lamenting the kind of world my kid would be growing up in. I wondered what happened to us as a people that we never really learned how to disagree without becoming assholes.
I’m still coming from a generation that remembers what it was like without the Internet and constant stream of noise and communication. It seems like this is the first time our environment allows for our opinions and beliefs to be scrutinized with so much speed and intensity. A lot of us allow ourselves to be consumed with fear and confusion and we react by lashing out. The best in us find ways to pause and engage with the intent to understand or to learn.
Learning how to be a good person on social media cascades to good relationships in real life. I have heard many stories about how politics have divided families and ruined friendships. I don’t think the alternative is to shut up—that only results in repressed emotions and shallow relationships. That’s an even more toxic way to live, albeit more discreet.
Parents always have an opportunity to better the generation and fighting on the Internet gave me a bunch of ideas on how to do so.
Take some tips from debaters
I have friends who were competitive debaters in high school and college. Some of them are magnificent at laying out their arguments and keeping things above the belt. Debaters are trained to fight for the validity of their arguments by logical soundness. There’s a whole list of fallacies debaters have to familiarize themselves with in order to remain in context (it’s on Wikipedia, if you’re curious). One lovely thing that came out of the 2016 elections is how “argumentum ad hominem” became a commonplace term. An “ad hominem” attack refers to avoiding topics by launching into personal jabs and it’s great that we’re learning how to call this out.
As much as we wish for things to be black and white, life falls into a spectrum and complications arise when we try to make sense of it. There are ideals and non-negotiables, for sure, and this is why we end up trying to assert ourselves.
But the goal in arguing is to find understanding by hearing each other out. The lack of understanding is what usually spawns anger and resentment. Imagine if kids realize this early in their lives. Train your children to articulate themselves well, let them talk instead of silencing them. Parents can also learn a thing or two about logical fallacies when they have their own arguments.
Know when to back down
When people are involved, emotions are not far behind. A lot of fighting on the Internet involves insulting people to win arguments. I recently rediscovered the difference between being rude and being mean. Rudeness is when people unintentionally hurt or inconvenience others because of actions that weren’t thought out very well. Meanness possesses the intent to hurt. Resolution can come out of calling out rudeness—meanness, not so much. Trolls are mean. If there is one Internet commandment that we should take seriously, it’s this: don’t ever feed the troll. Fanatics are also mean. Any person who seeks to silence you or toy with you doesn’t deserve to be engaged in any way. Get in the habit of blocking and reporting. The same mentality applies to real life, educate your kids about boundaries.
Things get a lot more complicated when it involves friends and family members. Think of people you consider close to you directly or indirectly calling you stupid, naïve, or ignorant just because you don’t have the same beliefs. The opportunity lies in communicating hurt to open up dialogue.
Cover all bases by policing your wall and enforcing house rules. You can also do this in real life or break away from the comment threads and have a conversation through private chat. If the people in your life are more concerned about being their moral ascendancy than your relationship, establish your boundaries and walk away.
There’s also a silver lining to this. Internet fights also reveal good people―find them and keep them close.
The end doesn’t justify the means
Being “right” doesn’t give you the license to behave in any way you want. It’s not okay to spew out hurtful words just because you are frustrated or angry. It’s not okay to bully someone just because you think what they’re doing is wrong. You can criticize an idea, a way of life, a law—you can even examine the motivations behind the things you don’t agree with, but leave the person out of it. Public figures have signed on to a heavily scrutinized life, but ordinary people don’t.
It’s the same mindset that fuels desperate parents to do their kids’ projects so that they’ll get better grades. I’ll admit that there will be times that we’ll have to do illicit things to get what we want (isn’t this the plot for some of the most interesting movies and books? Or ALL action movies?), but what’s crucial is the understanding that this behavior should always be the exception and not the norm. Action movies are exciting but everyday life and especially everyday policies are built on norms.
At the same time, you best be sure that you’re also not guilty of what you deplore in others. When you’re filled with righteous anger, it’s so easy to ignore your own faults. Personal faults aren’t always weaknesses. They’re also opportunities. Shedding light on our faults allows for us to learn from each other on how we can be better.
Online trolls try very hard to hide their identities because they don’t want any of their cracks exposed. It allows for them to employ maximum damage from a safe vantage point, it also keeps them untouchable and powerful. People perch themselves up on high pedestals to achieve the same effect. It’s a futile effort because people are finite creatures and we all get something wrong, one way or the other.
When we had our daughter, my husband and I were so terrified of fighting in front of her. Any longtime married couple will tell you that this is impossible. We will always miss the mark. The trick is to figure out how to pick ourselves up when we royally f*ck things up.
We decided that we could try our best to fight away from her but the most important thing for her to see as she grows up is to have her parents acknowledge their wrongs and ask forgiveness from each other.
The same thing can be said with our online engagements—we can choose to destroy or to build.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Preen.ph, or any other entity of the Inquirer Group of Companies.