Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How to be wrong on the internet

Step 1. Person A posts something ill-informed in an online space. They’re blinded by privilege or lack of experience, or lack a nuanced understanding of a complicated topic.

Step 2. Dozens of people jump in to point out Person A’s mistake. Most responses are helpful and constructive on their own, but the sheer volume of the comments, sprinkled in with a couple of mean spirited replies looks and feels disproportionate to Person A.

Step 3. Person A feels piled on and digs in her heels. What was probably a half-formed opinion before she posted now becomes The Hill She Will Die On. She accuses others of attacking her and being unreasonable.

Step 4. More people jump in to point out how wrong Person A is. A few people consciously keep their replies constructive and friendly (because they’re more patient than most of us), but others are just having fun with yet another ignorant poster who didn’t know what they were getting themselves into. At least two people post a gif of Jon Stewart eating popcorn. At least another person says, “don’t feed the troll guize.”

Step 5. Because at this point, Person A starts to sound like a troll. “This group is an echo chamber! You can’t handle anyone who disagrees!” She is now emotionally incapable of reading any of the thoughtful responses and instead sees only accusations and condemnation.

Step 6. Person A leaves in a huff.

Step 7. The group says, LOL, YAGE! And moves on.

So, is this okay? Maybe it’s just inevitable given the platform. But I wonder if there are skills we can build to avoid becoming Person A and a culture we can foster to avoid becoming the Group-That-Piles-On-Person-A. I want to focus on the former and maybe save the latter for another post.

The first thing I want to posit is that Person A’s ill-formed opinion was not her problem. Or rather, it’s not exclusively her problem. We all carry around wrong opinions every day. We all deserve to be called out. We should all be questioning our opinions and perceptions from time to time. Second, Person A’s emotional reaction to the push-back she got was also not exclusively her problem. Every single one of us attributes either moral meaning or identity to most of our own opinions. Having them questioned, especially publicly by strangers, feels like an attack on our character. So bottom line, We Are All Person A Sometimes.

The real question is, given our stupid opinions and our tendency to cling to them even harder when we encounter conflicting information, how do we avoid becoming the kind of person that never welcomes new information, rejects any kind of push-back, and minimizes any contact with conflicting opinions until we’re the ones in an echo chamber?

The answer may surprise you.

No it won’t. The answer is dull. But this is what you do:

Let go of your opinions.

I don’t mean don’t have opinions. Keep your opinions. Whatever. But separate your opinions from your sense of self. You have worth and beauty independent of (and probably in spite of) your opinions. Allow your soul the freedom to change your mind, often if necessary. Let go of the need to be right, or the need to have people agree with you. Be open to the idea that you’re probably wrong about a lot.

Easy to say, hard to do. Here are some tips that have worked for me. (Newsflash, I’m not good at this yet! Work in progress!)

Recognize the complexity of the world around you.
  • Read a variety of sources. Don’t just seek out sources that affirm your views. Don’t stop at the tweet that quotes the title of the buzzfeed article that quotes one out-of-context sentence from a newspaper. Read the actual article in the newspaper.
  • Learn from experts! Want to know about intersectional feminism? Find a college textbook or look for a Top 10 Book list on the topic.
  • Learn a little bit about why humans hold opinions and disagree. I really liked The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. It’s not about moral relativism, it’s about our legacy as humans and how we evolved morals to help structure and regulate our society.
Spend time away from the computer. I know, is that even a thing?
Be honest with yourself.
  • You know that scared, shaking little narcissist that lives inside all of us? It’s the one that builds up walls around its delusion that it is the center of the universe, never makes any mistakes, and is good while the other guys are bad. King Benjamin called it The Natural Man. Bust open a wall on that turd and let some light in. It is excruciating. Look at that thing and say, “you’re not all that good and you’re not all that right.”
  • Banish shame. Brene Brown has spoken a lot about the difference between shame and guilt. Try to see your insecurities and faults as places for huge potential, or at a minimum, just things that are true about you for now. Be as gracious with yourself as you are with the people you love.
I am not trying to say that we should all just try to let go of all our wrong opinions and replace them with the right ones. I’m trying to say that it’s healthy and freeing to question our opinions and be open to the possibility that we’re wrong, or at least lacking critical nuance. If we can be that kind of Person A, then when we make a mistake or say something stupid, maybe we can better handle the piling-on we’ll get.