I have a problem, one that I’ve been able to curb. But recently, I’ve had a relapse. I’ve been sparring with people on Internet comment boxes.
Everyone has their own guilty pleasure. Chocolate, booze, ciggies, cocaine, sadomasochism…whatever floats your boat.
I have more than I’m willing to admit. But the one I find with the pointiest of double-edged swords is the professional sport of Internet debating. I try and avoid it but, like most things that aren’t good for me, I’m occasionally drawn like a moth to the flame. Like most bad decisions, I just end up angry and regretful that I allowed another moron to get under my skin. At best, I selfishly get a buzz from taking a position of moral or intellectual superiority as I self pleasure my hubris from behind my keyboard (none of which represents my most enlightened moments).
Since I started writing, I’ve largely avoided such exchanges. In fact, it was my damaging addiction to the fight that prompted me to write for TBS in the first place as it seemed like, and indeed was, a much healthier outlet. Comment wars were my heroin, and TBS is my yoga-filled rehab facility.
Like all addicts…I occasionally slip. Last week I experienced one of those days. I’ve been crazy busy of late and I hadn’t written anything – and as I finally found myself relaxing on holidays, I opened Facebook. The allure of the potential high crept into my mind as I spotted a post with one of the most epic burns I’d ever seen. It was too much…I was weak, vulnerable and my drug of choice was close enough to taste. I should have called my editor, like the proxy sponsor that he represents. But I knew he’d stop me. He’d remind me of the natural high I get from taking my time and developing a well-constructed argument laced with sweet sweet empathy. I didn’t want to be stopped. I wanted to lay down, rack up and take on the moronic masses with a sense of superiority that is not even a metaphor for cocaine – it’s straight out cocaine in digital form.
So I did.
As any drug addict will tell you, the draw of the next pipe, line or shot is more often than not the chase for the holy grail; the perfect high. The fucking Hunter S Thompson meets Escobar meets Johnny Cash eating a cake in a bush high. What reformed addicts will tell you is it doesn’t exist. Much like the holy grail, it’s nothing more than a deliberately unattainable Mecca, concocted in your psyche to keep you chasing the dragon.
My addiction is no different. My perfect high is to force a high-level lightbulb moment on someone that seems incapable of having one. A fleeting moment where someone so stuck in an untenable position stops, listens and reflects. Whilst it may seem like a reasonable goal to most, in the dark tunnels of a comments section or Facebook thread it’s as likely as finding the Shroud of Turin in your laundry basket.
Whilst my dirty washing appears to be free of any Christian Relics, this week for the briefest of zeptoseconds, I tasted my perfect high when I encountered a post on Facebook from someone professing their profound inability to understand polyamorous relationships. My eyes lit up. These types of posts are like a honey trap for bigotry and hate speech. I watched as the responses started flowing in, waiting for my prey to appear. A slow moving gazelle approached the waterhole and announced its presence with a comment that read:
Exactly…if you cannot devote yourself to one wife/husband then go get fifty cats.
Hmm…it could be tongue in cheek. The underdeveloped gazelle could be a cheetah in disguise. I waited, stalking my victim. Within a minute, a follow up came through
Yea..they’re still weird pricks with no sense of commitment.
Bingo…I licked my lips and started slowly creeping through the long grass.
Less experienced hunters charged in, teeth bared and snarling. I watched to see how my prey would respond. I wasn’t looking for low-hanging, street-corner crack after all; I needed the good stuff. A victim that didn’t afford me sufficient self adulation wasn’t worth my time.
The first blow was struck by someone else:
Consenting adults who are causing no harm don’t require your approval (name redacted). It’s not for me, per se, but it doesn’t have to be. Live and let live.
A good, fair strike. If my prey is weak, it may be enough to send him scurrying and I can move on, looking for a worthier challenge. He wasn’t ready to throw in the towel quite yet:
…where did I say that they needed my approval? Please point it out, if not then go try and argue your point elsewhere.
Okay…not quite enough to convince me that there would be something in this for me.
Another hunter entered the fray:
Well, you did judge them as ‘weird pricks’.
I barely had a chance to contemplate my next move before the response came:
To judge is not to state my approval is needed. Like to try again?
Yep…he’s all mine. He’s a bigot who seriously overestimates his intelligence and is resorting to semantics as a strategy. Not only a fight that I’ll win, but one that allows me to put on both my moral and intellectual superiority cape – and one that’s stupid enough to think he can outsmart me, giving me the thrill of seriously playing with my food before I devour it. I couldn’t wait any longer, I had to enter the arena:
A quick jab to test the water. How would he respond? Would he cut his losses and run? Or would he take the bait? Thankfully, my answer came promptly.
He took the bait and offered me something even more tempting than a semantic strategy; he was setting up to use the “everyone is entitled to an opinion” defence – a particular defence that I had been dying to have a run at during my rehabilitation.
It was time to show my teeth. My first opportunity to throw the phrase “factually and measurably incorrect” as well as firmly plant my flag on the moral high ground:
At this point, I thought it could go one of two ways. My antagonising could lead to an all out abusive response akin to a cornered animal with adrenaline surging through it’s veins. Or he could stonewall me with a one-line response, giving me little opportunity to prolong the fight. Surprisingly, to me at least, he chose the latter:
I was disappointed. The fight I ached for wasn’t happening and I wasn’t even left with the usual regret of letting someone get under my skin. I was left with a feeling of nothingness which turned out to be worse – no one likes a draw after all. That wouldn’t do. So I sank a little lower into my depravity. I changed my approach, carefully crafting a response absolutely dripping with emotional manipulation. This fight wasn’t over until I said it was over.
My thirst for blood had turned me into a monster. A wolf in sheep’s clothing if there ever was one. I was now using my powers for unadulterated evil. Whilst my good intentions were still present, they were rapidly becoming the minority force. I was no longer chasing the perfect high; I was willing to inject draino to try and get a buzz.
Now, before anyone comments or points out the obvious, my description of the events thus far and my inner monologue without a doubt paints me as a Manson level sociopath. Whilst my narrative is utilising significant creative license (of the same scale that Johnno does at your local pub when describing the thirty metre White Pointer he caught which was actually a goldfish), I also freely admit that I’m capable of some level of sociopathic behaviour when I’m engaging in these types of debates. I know it’s in me; and I know it’s a significant flaw. But it’s particularly relevant and important to note as you will soon see.
At this point I don’t actually know what I was expecting as a response, if I was to receive one at all. I did receive one…and it stopped me in my tracks:
He had given me a taste of the perfect high I was chasing. Like the flicker of a finger from a coma patient, he gave me hope that something I had said had gotten through. The problem was…I no longer deserved it. I had become so consumed with self gratification, that I had lost sight of what I was seeking but was given it anyway. I felt like a right old bastard.
I may have gone too far, but it wasn’t too late to go back. It wasn’t too late to repay the hope I had just been gifted against the odds with some self-reflection of my own. As attacks on my victim from all angles intensified, I reached out with empathy. Genuinely this time. I even defended him.
I never received a response; but I didn’t need to. This didn’t need to turn into a Kumbaya moment around a campfire. In the grips of battle, we had both learned something and were hopefully better people for it. I’ll never know if he took my final genuine gesture on board; but I do know that for a brief moment, he stopped, listened and reflected. One day, somewhere on an Internet forum or in real life, that moment might come back to him before he says something insulting.
More importantly, I learned a lesson from the most unlikely of sources. I already knew the power of empathy and that only love can truly defeat hate. But up until that point, I don’t think I ever truly believed it. Upon reflection, my understanding of the concept had the depth of a meme; now it feels a lot more three dimensional. So thank you, stranger, for teaching me that, and thank you for reminding me of the real fight we should all be focusing on: the one within.
In the modern age, every fleeting thought and opinion has been gifted a public voice. Many use this to create genuinely good change. Most of us use it to smash our heads against one another like goats. We may have the best of intentions like standing up for an injustice or trying to silence the hateful voice of bigotry, but our methods rarely achieve anything more than making ourselves feel good about our position in some attempt to validate our moral centre.
True empathy is the only way, and I’ve only just learned that it’s actually always possible. You may not be able to empathise with the position of someone else. It may make you want to vomit everywhere in a rage seizure. But you don’t have to empathise with their position; look to empathise with the person. Why do they have that position? What has brought them to it? What has happened in their life that has led them to hate? What influences in their life make it near on impossible to swallow their pride and back down from that position?
Though they may be hard to find, there are always answers to those questions. Those answers can make your empathy genuine. And if you’re really lucky, might lead us to some common ground.