On Friday, in various Occupy discussion threads, I was called a troll, a coward, an anarchist, a troublemaker. Someone claimed that I was anti-law-enforcement, irresponsible, boring, and ignorant. Someone else tried to trap me into conceding a parallel between the Occupy protestors breaking windows during the General Strike and the Nazis breaking windows during Kristallnacht. Another wrote a paragraph-long diatribe denying the documented facts I presented, ending with a demand not to post any links supporting my points. Another ranted about respect and politeness because she thought someone else had called her names, then thanked and agreed with that person when it was clarified that *I* was the one in the crosshairs. The amount of misinformation was slightly greater than the number of insults, and just about tied with the level of hypocrisy.
I try to avoid flat-out namecalling…instead I’ll attack a specific point, perception, or action with some combination of clever wordplay, genuine insight, reframed arguments, and factual corrections. I know I can talk and write circles around most people and often do so because it’s easy and I feel justified in taking them down a peg; especially regarding issues which are important to me, events that involve people I love, and situations where the opposing party is clearly vomiting up whatever the TV news told them to think. I hold myself and others to a high degree of intellectual honesty, and there are certain types of ludicrousness and aggression which I feel spiritually and irresistibly compelled to smack the f@#k down (with or without a velvet glove). I find it very hard to walk away without either a concession or the last word.
But when that ego moment passes, after my self-congratulatory blood pressure drops and the bloom is off the rose of external validation by like-minded folks, I’m left to wonder about my net effect. I’m realizing that it’s still attacking, and perhaps even a bit bullying to shoot most of those barrel-bound fish. I can feel satisfied for a while but what have I actually accomplished? Most people are incapable of hearing any criticism of any kind or tone without feeling it as a personal attack. And in some, maybe many cases, pulling out my big logic and vocabulary guns is my indirect way calling them out as stupid or worse. It’s not intellectually honest just because I may be right, and I’ve closed them off and probably inspired them to nothing but further entrenchment in the positions that riled me up in the first place.
I’ve also been vilified, villainized, demeaned, and disregarded, which never feels fair, and have gone to some unnecessary lengths to conquer the sense of impotence that incurs. I get caught in a whirlpool of “if I just explain myself better they’ll agree with me” or “this guy needs to be destroyed point-by-point” mentalities which keep me engaged in negative and unproductive exchanges for far too long.
There have been moments in my life where someone slammed me for lazy thinking, or selfish disregard for others’ feelings, and I needed to pause to really consider the truth that might be there. I have been accused of speaking out of turn when I’ve challenged someone’s actions or perspectives, and then I anxiously wonder about the possible validity of those reprimands. I think we constantly learn from each other, and I don’t think it’s all ego to think that I have some things to teach, as well as learn. But I’m not always aware of which is happening before I speak.
I struggle with my own sense of justice. I know that my approach is at least partly rooted in egoism, but I also truly believe in some absolutism regarding right and wrong. I want to be a more compassionate person and not look down on others, but it makes me feel dirty to let some things pass without comment, if not downright refutation - the popular Einstein quote “the world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing” rings in my ears. I don’t ever want to be the one who looks on and does nothing, and I guess I’d rather err on the side of being overbearing than complicit. It’s what drives my activism, which is a big part of my identity and my daily life. But it needn’t be applied to every interaction, and I sometimes forget to pick my battles.
I have no brilliant method to address all of this, but I’m going to try to remember that everyone I’m communicating with is a person, and that I don’t have to convince everyone I’m right. Specifically, I’m going to be more mindful of my and others’ flawed humanity; to ask myself “is this my fight or my ego?” before jumping in; to try to not allow myself to get derailed by ad hominem attacks; to concede valid points and my own errors with grace no matter how little that courtesy is reciprocated; to check the feeling that I have to correct everyone, especially people I don’t know; and to ask more people about why they hold their opinions rather than trying to immediately refute them. I want to re-famliarize techniques outlined in the ever-accurate “Conversational Terrorism: How Not to Talk”. (http://www.vandruff.com/art_converse.html) so I can detect them in conversation and avoid using them myself.
With any luck, I’ll gain a greater understanding of those with whom I disagree, and a better understanding of myself. At the very least, I’ll get a couple more hours of sleep.