Here's a confession for you: I'm terrified of the internet.
That may seem a strange thing to say, since the only reason you're able to read this is the internet, but hear me out.
Following the Elliot Rodger killings, there's been a lot of online discussion about feminism and misogyny. And no, I'm not planning to add to the millions and millions of words that have already been written about that specifically. But one thing I did notice is that some people seemed to come into the debate – as some do to all internet discussions – with very absolute views. 'This is what I think and no-one is going to convince me otherwise.' Or 'This is the issue I feel most strongly about, therefore no other issues exist.'
Now, I can come up with plenty of opinions about all this stuff, some well formed and others less so. And I did start writing a long blog post about them. But then I began to see some of my internet friends' comments on the subject, and realised that they wouldn't agree with me, and that's when it all fell apart. Because I'm the original people pleaser. If I ever look like I'm getting into a conflict, I placate.* I smile. I try and smooth things over. And so for someone like me, writing something even mildly controversial is simply inviting misery.
Yet there's more to it than my fear of confrontation. You see, I'm not an absolutist at all. Other than some very basic, fundamental beliefs, I can usually see the other person's point of view. I'm not so convinced of the rightness of my own opinions that I'm willing to antagonise people over them – I'm well aware that they're often partly formed and lacking data. I like to engage in discussion because it's interesting to explore an issue and maybe I'll learn something new. I expect people to have different views, and that's OK.
But the trouble is that for some people, that's not OK. They get defensive, or determined to convince equally rigid people with opposing views that they're 'wrong', and the conversation escalates into a slanging match. Sometimes it seems as if people can only really hear those who share their opinions; everyone else might as well be talking a different language. And that's the point at which I would placate and retreat, because it's no longer a discussion. It's just people on soapboxes seeing who can preach the loudest.
The sad thing is that maybe people would listen to each other a bit more if they showed each other more understanding. The misogyny discussion has been led down a lot of fruitless paths by men and women apparently determined to deny the validity of each other's experiences; to generalise about groups, rather than treat each other as individuals. If people would just listen, and try to understand, before jumping in with their own opinions, they might find more in common than they thought. And if people didn't keep starting debates, only to shut down anyone who doesn't agree with them, then maybe we could actually have an interesting conversation.
But that's what scares me about the internet. I've read a lot of articles in the wake of the Rodger killings, and seen a lot of comments and status updates and tweets. Many of them were far more articulate and profound than I can ever hope to be. Yet I never had a sense that anyone's mind was really being changed. People seemed to be gravitating to those who shared similar beliefs, crossing to the other side of the fence only to try and shut it down. Call it reinforcement theory. Call it confirmation bias. Maybe it's just human nature. But I find it sad that the internet gives us so many ways to expand our understanding and change our views – the chance to listen – and yet all we seem to end up doing is continuing our endless quest to convince others that We Are Right.
So what are my few basic, fundamental beliefs – my absolutist sticking points? Well, one of them is that all people have the right to be treated with equal respect, whatever their gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity or disability; and concomitantly, that we all have the responsibility to treat others that way. I'd have thought that was pretty inarguable, but apparently not. (That's another reason the internet terrifies me. It keeps slapping me in the face with the fact that at this time, in this place, there are still people who are 'against' women's rights, or gay rights, as if those rights are something that can be granted rather than something that belongs to everyone by virtue of being human.**)
Still, here's a thought. Maybe if those of us who do hold universal equality as a basic truth stopped acting so defensively towards each other – stopped arguing over which group has it worst or whose problems trump whose – we'd realise we're actually on the same page. And then we could focus on how to change the minds of those who aren't. Because, OK, yes, I'm a hypocrite. When it comes to my basic, fundamental beliefs, I'm as convinced I'm right as anyone else is. I just don't think I'm going to get anywhere by beating people over the head with it.
* Mr Smith would disagree with this somewhat, I suspect. But I find it far easier to express vehement and genuine opinions with someone who I know isn't going to judge or reject or disown me for them.
** Yes, that was dangerously close to being an opinion. It is my blog, after all.
1/6/2014 04:21:19 pm
I admit I have pretty absolute views on this. Raping and Killing people because they won't have sex with you is not okay and there is no excuse for it. That's my absolute view. So I may be one of the people you reference. I don't know. Either way, I don't think it's a bad thing to speak up about it. Are minds being changed? Probably not. But culture WON'T change until enough people realize that whatever their minds think, certain things aren't okay. Do you think when the abolished slavery that people changed their minds about racism? My guess is no. They were still racists, but there were more laws protecting it and more people talking about how wrong it was OPENLY instead of keeping those thoughts to themselves. Eventually those people realized that if they wanted to be accepted by society, they shouldn't be racist. Eventually they raised their kids not to be racist. ETC. So does racism still exist? Yes. Did they change everyone's minds overnight? No. But did out culture shift to have less tolerance for racism? Yes. Why? Because the people who didn't agree with it all got together and talked aloud. Believe it or not, that IS what brings change. It doesn't matter if like minded people flock together or people's minds are changed. I mean sure, that would be great if that happened, but that's not why people speak up. People speak up to say, "this isn't okay with me" and the more people who band together and speak up, the louder the message that, "this isn't okay with a lot of us" and "this isn't acceptable." In fact, I would venture to say that it would be better for 1000 people with the same opinion to all get together and shout the same message then it would be for 500 people to separately try to change 1 person's mind each. The latter would be less effective, for the very reason you pointed out--minds on this issue are NOT going to be changed. What we can change is OUR CULTURE and the way cultural changes come about is when large groups of people speak up and say something is not acceptable to our culture. Not everyone will conform, and I'm not saying conforming is always a good thing, either. But reality is, many people just want to fit in--it's a subconscious thing that happens that is actually part of human survival, so this happens on a biological level. So people conform to society. Thing about it: why do people say please and thank you? Cavemen didn't. They say it now because it became a societal norm. and these norms can shift. It's all about setting the standard. People now are setting a standard against rape culture. They aren't going to change minds, but they MIGHT change society. The rest comes with time. Just my 2 cents.
1/6/2014 05:56:38 pm
Hey Becca, oh man, I knew I hadn't explained myself too well on this one.
2/6/2014 02:03:36 am
This was intended as a general article about internet opinions, but since we're on the subject, an example might be worthwhile. I have a male friend who, judging by his status updates, is currently feeling pretty defensive. He feels, rightly or wrongly, that by pointing out and fighting against misogyny, women are veering into misandry. In response, some female friends are posting more and more articles about misogyny. Neither 'side' is actually hearing the other. But the truth is, all these people are decent people. They all believe in equality. They're on the same side. They just don't realise it, because they're too busy shouting.
2/6/2014 12:35:50 am
I'm with you all the way. I believe people are just people and everyone deserves to be treated equally until they've proved otherwise. I hope I'm right about the things I hold true but I'm prepared to have my mind changed. I think some people are taught 'facts' right up to leaving school. Others of us are taught to seek knowledge and form opinions. There's a very big difference between the two.
2/6/2014 02:21:59 am
Agreed! I reckon one of the most valuable lessons that children can be taught is to question what they are told. Which isn't to say that they can't be shown a moral code -- only that they should be given the opportunity to think it through themselves, rather than simply being told that this is what they should do Because I Say So.
5/6/2014 03:56:32 am
Ah yes, everyone shouting, no-one listening is a common strand, including on the internet. Psychology tells us that people are more likely to conform to a standard if they keep hearing that other people do. E.g. doctors find '90% of patients either kept their appts or cancelled them' works better than ''10% failed to'. Then there is the role of likely sanctions, another topic altogether. So let's keep sight of the ants moving those rubber tree plants (High Hopes).
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