It takes a lot for me to block people from contacting me online. Mostly, I do so only with people who produce a constant stream of unwanted and unoriginal material – ads, cat videos, platitudes decorated with festive borders and the like. I do not object to that material; I just don’t have the personal bandwidth for it.
Objectionable material is something else. And let me please state for the record what I define as objectionable. If the content is designed to denigrate others as a substitute for debate, however contentious, or if it suggests something that even an opponent of my remarks might consider morally reprehensible, that is enough for me to decide that (absent a change in behavior) there is nothing to learn from such a correspondent.
Here’s a past example: I put up for a long time with postings that skirted on racism and bigotry from a now-former friend. He was belligerent in his “right” to express himself as he chose, even when other friends (including those with sympathy for his positions) pushed back. I still have a copy of his suggestion that, when it came to certain kinds of protests, “sometimes a well-placed bullet is more effective than sending in all the social workers.” (No, we were not discussing Hitler.)
But he continued to cross the line and insult the dignity, intelligence and basic humanity of those who disagreed with him. When I describe him that way, I do not mean he talked down to them. I mean he continued to write insults to the qualities of his opponents that denigrated and humiliated them. Blocked.
Just this week I entered into a contentious exchange with a long-time acquaintance who holds to values I do not share. In question was a video in which a White House official attempted to draw an analogy to tax reform based on journalists going out for drinks together. I found the analogy specious, and the exchange was getting deeper into the issues. I doubt either of us was convincing the other.
And then, one of my acquaintance’s Facebook friends entered the fray. I was called a whiner, which is the mildest name in the personal attack and the only one I will reprint. I can allude to another – in more innocent circumstances, it might be used to call to a cat. And I was instructed to – and I quote – “stfu.”
I am not a novice online, and I have encountered such individuals before. I can’t prove it, but his screen name was so unlikely that I suspect it was an alias designed to allow him to behave badly while protecting himself from being identified. I exited the conversation. And in the time it took me to block him, he made another personal attack on me.
To this point, I have done nothing more than exercise a certain amount of common sense in protecting myself from wasting time on someone more interested in bullying than engaging. But I expected more from my acquaintance than I received. He dismissed the offender as “just some guy.” He suggested that by exiting the exchange I was proving him right. And he concluded by saying that I did what every left-wing person does when losing an argument – I ran away.
It occurred to me that bad behavior is going to continue as long as it is tolerated, not so much by the people it offends or injures, but by the “friends” of the bullies and abusers. If there is a more obvious lesson from a different quarter of bad behavior in the news these days – sexual abusers – I don’t know what it is. Abusive men who are tolerated by their buddies will continue to abuse, no matter how many women protest. Facebook friends who get “likes” for derision, obscenity and dehumanization will take only encouragement from the toleration of those who are in their camp.
My acquaintance, therefore, is also now blocked. I have lost nothing by not reading his posts. I still have more than a critical mass of correspondents willing to mix it up, publicly and privately, in a respectful manner. I expect people who believe in the free exchange of ideas to self-regulate and to insist from their supporters the kind of conduct that allows understanding to grow and respect to be maintained. I expect it of myself.
Will it eliminate the bad conduct of anonymous name-callers? Of course not. But it is one small step for civil discourse that could lead to a giant leap for social media.