Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On Civility and the Internet

My new tumblr friend Lyssa recently shared an exchange she had with a friend of her mother's via Facebook.  It gave me some thoughts.  First, here's the exchange.

Tricia (6 hours ago):
Curious the reaction I’d get if I challenged your “Obama is the answer” mentality. I am a belligerently proud card carrying Republican who can’t wait for that piece of fecal matter to be evicted from that White Shack down the street. Elmer Fudd, Beavis or Butthead…fuck it even Sponge Bob would have stepped in with about the same amount of qualifications!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Tricia (30 minutes ago):
yea, pretty much what i thought! 
Me (just now)
Hey—just got this. 
I don’t think he’s the ~answer~ to everything. He’s done a lot wrong and has screwed up at several major points. However, he’s done a lot of good things, too, and I’d rather have him than any of the other possibles.  
I care about my reproductive rights, I care about being able to marry my partner regardless of their sex, I care about comprehensive sex ed and universal healthcare and uncensored internet. These are things that the GOP has proven time and again that they don’t care about, and that’s not something I can be okay with. 
I’ve said in jest that if a GOP gets elected, I’m moving to Denmark. I think I might have to. I can’t live in a country where the government continues to push women centuries back in their rights. I can’t live in a country where the government believes that racism doesn’t exist anymore. I can’t live in a country where the government would force me to carry the child of my—not one, not two, but three—rapists to term because it’s a “gift from god.” I can’t live in a country where the government would not allow me to seek efficient medical care quickly. 
Cue last night. I went to the ER because I was bleeding profusely. It was my period, but 10 times worse. If the GOP was in charge, my healthcare wouldn’t exist. I wouldn’t have been able to go to the ER and make sure that my IUD hadn’t perforated my uterus and I would probably have bled out. I was fortunate enough only to have to pay $70 out of pocket for that visit, have my girlfriend sit with me and hold my hand and not be denied care, and have a male doctor respectfully poke around down there. I have excellent health care coverage and I will continue to have that because of Obama’s Affordable Care Act. I would not have that under Romney or Santorum. 
I recently had to explain to my grandmother what Planned Parenthood does. As far as she knew, it was an abortionplex. Now, she had no idea that when I was out of school for a year and didn’t have health insurance, I went to Planned Parenthood for gynecological checkups, for a mammogram, for consultation about birth control methods. When I had kidney pain and a potential uterine cyst, I went to Planned Parenthood. Had I needed an abortion, I would have gone there too. Since I managed to get comprehensive sex ed and know how to properly use birth control, my risk for pregnancy was significantly lowered and I didn’t have to do that. Planned Parenthood exists because it’s a necessary thing for lower-income people to get the healthcare they need. Under the GOP, comprehensive sex ed wouldn’t exist. Neither would Planned Parenthood or abortion or half decent healthcare. Romney said one of his first orders of business would be to kill PP and outlaw abortion. Me and millions of women like me won’t be able to get that care, and have their lives threatened by medical conditions that could have been caught early. That is why I am 100% against the GOP. For me, they have no bright side, no redeeming qualities, no endearing charm. Obama’s defended PP and women’s rights. He’s fought for me to make the same amount as a colleague who is male with the same qualifications. He’s signed into law a bill that prevents healthcare discrimination on the basis of sex. He’s at least working toward equal rights for LGBT people. Under his healthcare act, women cannot be denied insurance for a history of domestic violence—which is considered a “pre-existing condition” under many policies today. 
When it comes down to it, I’m a two-issue voter: who’s going to let me have my healthcare when I need it, and who’s going to let me have equal rights under the law based on my sexual orientation. I am perfectly okay with that. 
That’s why your 6 hour ago message just got to me. I went to bed when I got home at 4 am, and woke up around 2. My schedule is erratic. Had I not been to the ER last night and skipped class today, I wouldn’t have seen this until at least 5 pm.
A while later, an update, in the form of a response from Tricia:
Those who are believers in his socialist ideas should relocate! I am TOTALLY okay with that!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
 Which earned a response from Lyssa:

There are so many things I could say to this right now, but I really doubt you’d listen. 
A) If you think he’s a socialist, you’ve been sadly misguided as to what socialism actually is. 
B) I appreciate your excessive use of exclamation marks. They really get across how passionate you are about your point. 
C) Thanks for the laugh. I needed it today. 
D) If it bothers you this much, I might just stick around. Besides, the girlfriend’s not particularly keen on moving to Denmark, and we wouldn’t want to deprive the US of the chance to deny another LGBT couple equal rights. 
E) I’ll send your good wishes along to my mother. Hope you’re doing well. 
And then one more from Tricia:
fucking liberals, spare me your attempts at educating me and i’ll spare you an education that you and your small town mind aren’t ready for. you and lewisburg deserve each other. as to your mother…must suck to be her. put that in your LGBT hooka and fire that fucker up.
Most of you can probably guess where I come down on the political issues being discussed here.  Surprisingly, they're not actually what I want to talk about, largely because I am kind of tired of talking about them.  What I want to discuss is the tone of this exchange.  First, I want to commend Alyssa for her response, because if I got a message like that out of the blue (or not...to be fair, I don't know if there was anything leading up to this, but I'd argue it's a shitty message to send regardless), my response would be about 50% profanity and another 20% straight up insults, so Alyssa is a far better woman than I.  But second, I want to point out that this phenomenon of speaking in the tone of "I'm right so I can be as big a jerk as I want" is pervasive and fundamentally damaging to our politics.

I talk a lot of smack about Republicans, and when I say Republicans I generally refer to elected officials because they have no excuse for not considering the ramifications of their crap policies.  Political ideology appeals to the average voter for various reasons and in our bipolar (mostly, anyway) system, it's often a matter of choosing the lesser of two ill-fitting options.  I also know that the average voter is not always in the habit of considering large scale effects of political policies.  We all learn the scope of our choices as we grow politically, and some of those effects can be really hard to see.  But as I said, it is politicians' jobs to know this, so when elected officials promote foul policies that are prejudicial or harmful, that shit is on them, and I feel fine about calling that like I see it.  But when I talk with friends of mine who are conservative or Republican specifically, I think it's my job to be respectful and to take their thoughts and feelings and opinions into serious account and have an actual conversation with them.  That's how politics happens - you have a conversation.  The above is not a conversation.  It is a woman being confrontational and aggressive for no immediately discernible reason.  It accomplishes nothing, and that is evident in her response to Alyssa's response - it's not about a conversation, it's about unleashing your venom on someone.

Anonymity on the Internet is fascinating to me.  There was a point where using the Internet required the use of a handle more often than not, and it's easy to see how it's easier to mouth off at "DerpEye9818375987" than someone in front of you.  That makes sense, particularly when you consider the inherent machineness of computers in this same period - Internet content wasn't nearly as pervasive in real life, computers were always computers (i.e. not phones, tablets, PDAs, etc.), and there was a limit to what you could do on the Internet.  Now, the Internet is everywhere, and there is an app for every damn thing you can think of.  Yet we still cling to an idea that "it's just the Internet," even though as the Internet has integrated with our lives, handles have fallen away and - particularly in the case of Facebook - we use at least some component of our true identities.  It has only become more evident that there are real, live, humans on the other end of the computer, yet we still accept "people are just jerks on the Internet" not only as a reality but as an acceptable reality.  The simple fact of a computer-intermediary removes our social obligation to common courtesy.

One of the hardest things for me to drive home with my students is the reality that there is no solution to politics.  You cannot resolve the big questions of politics and then wipe your hands of them - the biggest questions are ones about how we should live our lives together, and that is never going to get answered.  New science and art will come along, as will new events, and we'll have to figure out how to incorporate that, and sometimes that will require dramatic shifts in our political thought.  How does Piss Christ change the way we think about obscenity?  How does a Roomba affect our ethics?  How do surveillance cameras change our behavior?  How does September 11th change our relationships?  Politics is the process of parsing out all of these questions, and the greatest challenge is not finding a definitive answer but rather remembering that all of us need to work on it together; we need to understand ourselves as equally legitimate  in the political landscape, and to respect each other during the project of political life.  It means not picking fights and resorting to insults.  It means knowing we're all more than words on a page.

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