“Never Read the Comments”

In vino veritas, the old saying goes — in wine, truth. The idea is that when we drink, our inhibitions drop and we lose the ability to curb our impulses. With our capacity to guard our tongues so compromised, we may let slip an unpleasant truth about how we feel about something or someone, and such slips as these ostensibly reveal our “true” natures. I don’t know how much I subscribe to this saying. On the one hand, if the side someone shows when they’re tipsy is too ugly, I’d be inclined to keep them at a distance thereafter. (Mel Gibson, whose drunken anti-Semitic tirade killed my taste for his films except Gallipoli and Chicken Run, is my go to example here.) Yet on the other hand, all of us have some ugly side, and our efforts to keep that side under control are a sign of our values and ethical code. With in vino veritas, we get only half the truth, and usually it’s the worst half.

The Internet, I’ve found, functions a lot like the vino in the old saying, in that our inhibitions are lowered and our self-control mechanisms may be compromised when we’re online. Yet this effect isn’t wrought by chemicals we ingest, bur rather by the seductive comforts of distance and anonymity. And as we see all too clearly when, despite the best advice, we give into the temptation to “read the Comments,” there are very few happy Internet-drunks.

We’re not face to face with the people with whom we talk online. We don’t hear their voices. We don’t see how their expressions change as they take in what we say. All we know of them are the handles they use (rarely their actual names) and the words they write. As such, we may find ourselves forgetting that they are truly people. And since they don’t have the means to hold us accountable, we feel we can say whatever we like to them. If they should disagree with us, we’re free to be as hurtful to them as our facility with language will allow, with no stings of conscience. After all, they are only their words, and that means their opinions — opinions we hate.

Examples of the swift descent into meanness when disputes arise are absolutely everywhere, from Twitter (a hotbed) to the Comments sections of articles linked on Facebook. I stumbled onto one instance in a place I wasn’t quite expecting, via a YouTube video. It was an episode of Hollywood, a documentary series on American silent films, and I’d thought the people posting in the Comments section would be at least somewhat united in admiration for this stunning series, sadly unavailable in a proper DVD or Blu-Ray release. Yet an argument came up, and out came the meanness.

At the crux of the debate was whether contemporary Hollywood actively promoted atheistic views, with Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous as an example. One poster argued that critics and Hollywood’s intelligentsia embraced Maher’s exercise in anti-Christian mockery, while another poster pointed out that the overall response to the film was in fact lukewarm. Poster 1 grew angrier and angrier, while Poster 2 tried to counter with detailed evidence until finally he/she realized that wasn’t working and announced he/she was pulling out of the debate. In response Poster 1 wrote, “Kill yourself.”

“Kill yourself.” Let that sink in.

Given the number of people who suffer from clinical depression in this country, “Kill yourself” is just about the most dangerous thing you can say to a stranger online. If there are any words less Christ-like, I don’t know them.

This is far from the only noteworthy example of online meanness, but it stings me a bit because I too consider myself a woman of faith. I don’t care for Bill Maher, with his stock-in-trade smugness. (He’s a misogynist, for one thing.) I can recall reading a few reviews of Religulous which suggested the movie attacks not so much hypocritical believers as belief itself. According to Maher, faith is just stupid. So I have avoided him, on film and TV. Why court rage? It’s not as if, should I meet the man, I would have any hope of changing his mind.  He can stay on his side of the pop culture world and I will stay on mine.

Yet this poster is just one of too many people who call themselves “Christians” who, whenever they perceive their faith under attack, choose to respond in the least Christian way possible. In sending the other poster a message to “kill yourself,” he/she isn’t contradicting Maher, but proving his point.

When we’re posting something online, we ought to consider that in the eyes of others, we are defined by our handles and our words. If we’re having a really, really bad day, as this person on the You Tube message-board might have been, those reading our posts don’t know it. So we ought to consider just what the words we choose are saying about us. Instead of letting ourselves get Internet-drunk, we should think when we’re writing online, just as we would if we were writing anywhere else. Will anyone be wiser or better informed as a result of this post? Will our words do good for anyone or change anything for the better? Let’s think of those who loved us most when we were growing up, who taught us right from wrong. Will our words make them proud?

Drive the Internet sober.

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