I used a high-school debate on abortion to talk about political intolerance. Guess how people reacted?
The other week, I wrote an article about debating “pro-life” in high school. I was then—and continue to be—passionately pro-choice. But my political stance isn’t the point—the piece was about the effect of the class’s conduct.
I expressed an unpopular point of view and was yelled at, mocked, and—for a time—ostracized.
The experience of being ganged up on by 25 of my peers so rattled and disoriented me, I soon found myself arguing my “side” with genuine feeling. It was a strange experience—especially because I wasn’t pro-life—to find myself tendentiously defending a cause I deplored—due to being attacked by others.
As soon as the article was posted, the comments section exploded.
Pro-choicers defended their right to be angry and treat others with the disrespect they “deserve.”
Pro-lifers defended their right to be angry and treat others with the disrespect they “deserve.”
At times, the comments veered into personal attacks: this writer is "pathetic," "whiny," "delusional," "an idiot."
And still, despite an eruption of online acrimony that perfectly mirrored my experience in high school, people insisted my memory was either faulty, or I was outright making it up. Fortunately, the irony wasn’t lost on everybody. A few commenters defended my piece better than I did:
“This post isn’t about the topic of abortion nor debates,” reads one. “It’s a discussion about how we treat each other as humans and our lack of control of our emotions leading to incivility.”
“Human beings are all individuals,” reads another. “But that individuality is bounded within a shared human experience. Unfortunately, that means that all of us are susceptible to these horrid little psychological tics. And we're living in a hyper-charged time. I hate to say it, but they're only human, reacting to information as opposed to processing it.”
I chose to write about this memory because I thought it illustrated, in microcosm, the tenor of debate in this country. I wish we lived in a world in which abortion rights weren’t up to debate—in which a woman’s bodily autonomy is a given. But we don’t.
And now we have an accused abuser on the Supreme Court. He is deeply conservative, and—judging by his anti-Democrat, conspiracy-driven rhetoric—possibly vindictive. Roe v. Wade is more vulnerable than ever—that’s just the reality. And yelling and sneering at pro-lifers is not only not helping—it’s working against us.
We need to figure out how to calm down and strategize.
Photo by Wojtek Radwanski//Getty Images.
I am by no means saying we shouldn’t feel outraged—we should. The injustices in our country are beyond the pale. But this isn’t about how we feel—it’s about how communicate.
Over the past 20 years, we have all learned to speak fluent internet. This morning, The New York Times reported: “Social media is emboldening people to cross the line and push the envelope on what they are willing to say to provoke and to incite.... The problem is clearly expanding.”
Angry outbursts and name-calling is so normalized, it's become our national parlance—something even our leaders engage in to appeal to (or alienate) the masses, advance politically, and deepen the divide.
Should we continue to drain our energy spewing vitriol online? Or should we rant instead to our friends, our family members, and therapists—people who love us, hear us, and are invested in our well-being—so we can metabolize our rage and move on to enacting real change?
Venting spleen on the internet may seem innocuous and “therapeutic,” but it is not. It is dangerous. Trolling is not akin road rage, where we yell things in the privacy of our cars we’d never say to someone’s face. The internet appears to offer the same privacy and anonymity as our cars—but it’s an illusion. Those other drivers—they can hear us. We are stoking real emotions with real—at time, deadly—consequences.
In addition to the illusion of privacy, the internet creates an illusion of control—we all think we're the ones driving. But, in reality, we are all in this car together—a brakeless clown car stuffed with millions of rage-demented clowns with Trump at the wheel. And while we all call each other idiots and pelt each other with “angry face” emojis, he's heading straight for a cliff.
Something has to change. The most moving—and effective—moments in history involved peaceful non-reaction to outrageous insult. If we are serious about our rights, then action—not reaction—may be the way forward.