Trolls used to be a phenomenon relegated to the comments sections of the Internet, lurking there to call someone a name when they disagreed, construct a straw-man argument, be nasty for an unrelated reason, etc. The confidence to be an asshole to strangers was based in confidence afforded by anonymity. Did you know it’s super easy to be a jerk to someone when you're not face to face?[^1]
The evidence that the anonymity no longer matters is all around us. Look at Ben Carson and Donald Trump. Just the other day, Ben Carson chided the victims of a mass shooting because they didn’t do enough to stop from dying. Can you imagine somebody letting their idiot flag fly so proudly even just a few years ago? Donald Trump trolls a new group every week, so you can find your own examples there. These are just two. Just two. There are a multitude of other examples to show that civility, while needed and necessary, is a relic of our shared past.
I’m an editor by day. I write and edit web articles, and I moderate the comments that appear beneath them. This is to say that I’m acutely tuned in to how people talk to each other online, even on a site dedicated to faith. Some of it is done under the veil of semi-anonymous profiles, but some isn’t. Like the guy, using his real name, who condescendingly told me to “keep reading and studying” and to “please dig a little deeper before you write your next article” because he “expected better” of me as an editor. I don’t begrudge him his opinion, and—to his credit—he certainly could have been a lot nastier. Still, I think I’d have been happier being called a “libtard” than have someone speak down to me with such pomposity.
I’m not sure things were ever civil. Maybe that’s just a view of history tinted by nostalgia. But even if social interactions weren’t more civil, they were at least contained to local spheres through lack of technology. Now we hear what everyone thinks from every corner of the globe, and, in keeping with human form, a ton of it is utter nonsense.
I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what it’ll take for people to return (or get there the first time) to a sense of relationship to the person(s) they’re speaking to. Entering into relationship with someone is usually the best way to not treat them like garbage. That’s the empathy piece Matt was talking about. But until that plays a major role, our corrosive politicking (by which I mean the way we do all things social) will continue to be tiring for me as an individual and exhausting for our culture.
I don’t have a ton of hope for some glorious turnaround of these behaviors. This unpleasant way of talking to and relating to one another seems to be the new norm. None of this is to say that we can’t be passionate, that we can’t be bold about saying how we feel or what we believe or what we think needs to be done to take care of people and the world we share. But there has to be a healthier way to do that, right? Because if not, what’s the point of being the body politic at all?
And that’s the crux: maybe this idea of the body politic as a healthy, functioning entity is doomed, and the best we can hope for is some form of hospice care for it. That remains to be seen. In the mean time, I’ll step back, walk in the woods, be silent, and try to cultivate a small bubble of kindness that hopefully spreads to one neighbor, then two, then communally until I don’t feel like saying “to hell with civility” anymore.