The day Margaret Thatcher died, my Facebook feed unfurled itself in a strange slurry of hateful glee. Post after post celebrating the passing of the former PM projectiled out of my friends’ fingers and, while I understood the possible reasons one might have for loathing Maggie, I began to feel increasingly uneasy. However you dress it up, I just can’t get on board with rejoicing a human being’s death – however shite that human may be.
Or, as a friend more eloquently put it; “you don’t have to have any respect for a person to abhor the celebration of that person’s death”.
My usual response to having an opinion is to voice it. Loudly, relentlessly, a bit prefect-y. However, as my fingers hovered over my keyboard, there seemed to be a pulsating forcefield preventing me from typing. I felt hyper anxious about marking out my place in such divisive territory, in spite of the sureness of my beliefs. Why? Because those few who similarly chose to be a bit weirded out by high-fiving someone’s death on social media were getting a lot of aggressive, personally directed shit. In real time, their friends were adopting a peculiarly nasty tone in their responses, often making snarky remarks about something the status-writer had clearly NOT SAID.
“Feel a bit weird that everyone is so ecstatic about Maggie Thatcher dying.”
She destroyed lives and if you can’t understand the impact she had on this country, you need to read a book. It’s a great day for everyone who’s ever suffered as a result of her bullshit and before you harp on about feminism and glass ceilings, she’s an embarrassment to powerful women. Personally, I don’t believe in judging people for expressing their negative feelings towards her.
Hmm. Let’s analyse. Status-writer did not say that she wasn’t versed in Thatcher’s politics. In fact, status-writer is a working class academic with a politics degree. Status-writer did not “harp on” about feminism. She didn’t mention feminism at all. Also, status-writer said nothing about judging other people. I think, if you look closely, you’ll see that status-writer was talking about her own feelings.
Not long ago, I made a comment on Twitter that effectively amounted to: “What a shame Caitlin Moran is talking out of her ass in the press again.” Until she published How to Be a Woman and apparently lost all grip on reality, Moran was my hero. I religiously read her columns and wanted to grow up and be a writer just like her. But then she started saying daft things about racism and disabilities and my heart split clean in two. My tweet was hardly controversial, yet such was the onslaught of hate-filled digital garbage I received (from a colleague and friendly acquaintance, in fact) you’d have been forgiven for thinking I’d just suggested butchering a basket of kittens. A mildly infuriating ‘discussion’ ensued across 3 or 4 tweets, before I was blocked from this hater’s Twitter account. I was also immediately un-friended on Facebook. I tried to shrug off the incident – shit happens – but my hoarder brain just couldn’t let it go. This had been a disproportionate response. A personal attack in response to an abstract remark.
Days later, still stewing (mature), I raked over our ‘conversation’, trying to pinpoint the awful thing I said to elicit this reaction. And then I realised – I’d never figure out what I’d said that had triggered this response. Because what she read was not what I said.
And this is the problem with the internet. Too often I’ve seen people hectored and bullied for what someone else has misconstrued, misunderstood and misappropriated. People do it all the time – mostly meaning no harm. As a teenager, who hasn’t responded to “you look nice today” with, “are you saying I look shit every other day?”
But seriously – when did we get so bad at listening to what people are actually saying? And why have we developed this really unpleasant tendency to react so negatively to our friends expressing a difference of opinion?
Of course, we all love a debate (argument). It makes us feel intellectual and worthy and it allows us to let off steam when we’ve had a clanger of a row with our husband about doing the washing up properly, or vent after the kitten has vomited on the bed. It’s cathartic, right? A virtual room full of people all shouting over each other, eyes closed, fingers stuffed defiantly in their ears, refusing to listen to anyone else because their opinion is SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT? No.
After about an hour of watching people I like respond with contempt to totally reasonable points of view, I got really depressed. Not only were legitimate arguments being lost in the mix, but it began to feel like I was witness to a secondary school debating society practice. All these adults, supposedly intelligent enough to be able to turn their computers on, having the world’s most ridiculous and reductive arguments. By choosing not to celebrate someone’s death, are you really saying you’re an avid support of their politics? By not publicly rejoicing, are you actually saying you don’t understand reasons for public animosity? By thinking a feminist made a silly statement, are you really saying you discount everything that feminist stands for? By saying you like summer, are you saying you hate winter?
I have no problem with people disagreeing with my opinion. I do have a problem with people disagreeing with their version of my opinion. Stop inventing new reasons to argue. Stop pestering me with non-existent bones to pick.
I have a voice. I know how to use it. I do not need your words in my mouth, thanks. But what about all the people who don’t shout loud? How many voices do we miss because they choose to opt out of the bully-boy tactics employed in this strange zeal to shout everyone down? Even I, with my gob and my opinions, stopped myself from entering into the Thatcher fray. I’ve had friends leave the internet because of the hounding they get for perfectly innocent comments. We’ve all watched as Anita Sarkeesian received death threats for BEING A WOMAN and DOING HER JOB.
Sitting behind a computer screen doesn’t mean the rules of social conduct are thrown out the window. And I’m not talking about using the right fork at dinner and curtseying for royalty. I’m talking about respecting people and not being a total jackass just because you think you can.
I’m not passing judgement on how people express themselves on the internet. If you want to use Facebook to moan about your dinner being cold, go crazy. Nor am I suggesting some opinions are valid where others aren’t. Hate Maggie Thatcher and think the world is a better place without her? Fine. I just find it depressing that over the course of a few hours, I watched a lot of reasonable, intelligent friends react to difference in such an aggressive, unreasonable way. I watched people I love act like jackass trolls, TO THEIR OTHER FRIENDS. To such a degree that I chose not to express my own opinion. And that’s not good. Because that’s kinda my job, and if I get too used to not expressing my opinion, I’m going to become very poor and have to move back in with my mum and she’s been really stoked since my sister and I moved out and she got to take back control of the remote.
So, here are my five rules for not being a dick on the internet:
1. Consider your motives
Have you had a shitty day? Are you hangry? (Hungry + angry. Shut up, it’s a thing). Was your boss a dick to you today? Put the computer down, go eat something, watch some RuPaul’s Drag Race, have a lie down, and see if you give any shits about a Facebook argument in a couple of hours. (Clue: you won’t).
Or more accurately, read. Look at what someone is actually saying. With their words. If someone’s meaning isn’t clear, ask them to clarify. Politely.
3. Just because someone else is being a dick, doesn’t mean you have to be
Being a provocative douche bag is not a requisite of the internet. It’s not going to make you – or anyone else – feel better. If you really disagree with someone, find a decent way to say it. Look to Ijeoma Oluo for inspiration.
4. Ask yourself if you have anything better to do with your time
When was the last time you called your mum? Is there a nice programme on the telly you’d like to watch? Your belly button need de-fluffing? All these things are exponentially funner than putting your dick energy out into the universe and waiting for it to come back and spaff in your face. Seriously, go read a book.
5. Don’t be a dick
It’s that easy. In every situation you find yourself in, on the internet and in real life, just think: “what would a dick do?” And then do the exact opposite.