I’ve been having recurring dreams, of a type that I haven’t had for years.

This particular dream usually take place in a childhood home. In them, I’m usually aware that an upstairs room contains an evil force. If I go into the room, I can feel this force, a palpable presence of something terrible surrounding me.

Last night, I noticed that the first floor was totally different. I was excited to see the neon colors and modern design, but then I remembered the upstairs. I wasn’t sure if I should approach the room but I did, of course. I went up and just as everything was new and colorful downstairs, the upstairs was old and dark and I could feel it, the presence. It was terrifying.

Dreams aren’t literal and as nothing bad happened in that house, it might be that the metaphor is there are parts of me that I keep locked away, that aren’t so nice. Perhaps these parts are evil or cruel, or I’m afraid they are. Maybe I’m worried that as much as I want the love and familiarity of the good parts, that I have to risk the bad as well.

I’ve been thinking about how we treat each other online. If you read me regularly you’ll see that violence, online and off, has been a theme lately and I talk about non violence and our need for it. Online communication sometimes troubles me for it’s ease in facilitating mean behavior.

Here’s what I know from reading comments, articles and social media for a long time-

1) Behind every person’s angry screed or rant, there is a story of how they got to be that angry. This story doesn’t excuse mean or bad behavior but it can provide context for it.

2) People believe deeply in what they believe.

3) Sometimes that belief is related to their story, noted in point 1. If it is, it cements that belief even deeper.

What I’ve learned in watching arguments play out on comment threads or on social media is this:

1) The farther removed you feel from that person railing against your position, the easier it is to be mean to them, dismiss them, see them as people worth cruelty.

2) The closer you feel to a cause or a person, the easier it is to be loyal even if you secretly have some disagreement. You are likely to defend those in alignment with you and hate their enemies and feel justified in both.

3) This dynamic goes in all directions, and all sides. I suspect it’s part of how we are built, but we so wish to not see it in us. Cognitive dissonance is painful.

In person, where we can use more than 140 characters and are less likely to snark at each other because of being in that other person’s sphere, we listen more, ask more questions, find out the stories and beliefs. Sometimes we come to real agreements. Online there however there are more likely to be fights in fits and furies, twitter bombings, trolling.

Social media can be this amazing thing: It amplifies the voices of people, it helps in emergencies, it connects people in ways never before imagined. It also can be used to hurt each other so much. Hiding behind a screen, one can have hundreds of false identities, one could say anything nasty, mean, cruel and probably not get caught.

We’ve seen how it’s been used in Steubenville and now in Canada. We’ve seen how people can swarm one side to the other in the cases of people like Zerlina Maxwell or Adria Richards, and others. Divisions, threats, doxing, jobs lost. Online mob mentality.

In all the online fighting though, is it forgotten that those people, on all sides, were actual people?

What’s going on here?

Something seems really wrong to me. Are there simply too many of us to be able to find the empathy response? Our ancient evolutionary past giving us what, maybe 50 people for which to feel a general sense of compassion and loyalty and everyone else is just “other?”

Has the internet allowed for even less empathy because of anonymity? Does the screen distance and create a sense of objectification that dehumanizes others even as it provides this amazing connectivity?

I believe that the further from the physical space you are, the easier it is to dehumanize. And as good as people are at dehumanizing people in real space, we do it very well online. Also, I suspect that the online world simply amplifies the traits we’ve always had, the techniques we’ve honed over millennia of political games, othering and status plays.

I wonder though, was the first instinct upon getting ink and papyrus to lash out at each other? Does each technology go through a “mean” phase or is current issue connected to some bigger cultural dynamic of disengagement, me-first-ism, snark over earnestness, and ideological purity wars?

For me, I can’t forget that the people on the other side (for I do have my “side” that I stand firmly on, that of feminism, humanism and lefty politics), are human, are people. With families and kids and dogs and maybe turtles. That volunteer for things and tell funny jokes. That they believe what they believe passionately and feel justified in believe it, being loyal to their base, just like I do.

I understand the desire to lash out. It’s so easy to do and rewarded. I do it in my head sometimes, even when I don’t want to, and I’ve done it for real, online. It’s an addictive righteous feeling getting hooked into a Twitter smack-down, powerful, awesome and good. It feels horrible, visceral, terrible when it happens to me or to someone I care about. I often get caught right in that cognitive trap, avoiding looking in that space where I’m pulled to the farthest side of my “side” willing to laugh at or hurt others, to make myself feel good.

Maybe that’s why I’m dreaming those dreams right now.

Peace doesn’t actually come without conflict. It’s not just some lovey-dovey, unicorns and rainbows kind of state. It takes willingness to feel that dissonance and stay engaged and make that conflict productive and healing. It takes the work of letting go of arrogance and armor, and sitting with the mess and the irritation and the disbelief that others can be so different than you. It means standing strong in your beliefs without dehumanizing others who are in opposition.

It’s hard.

It also probably means sitting in that scary room even if I don’t want to, even if it’s terrifying, like in the dream. It means doing it no matter how palpable the bad feelings are, to look at my own meanness, my own willingness to dehumanize others, because I have. I’ve held that desire to just “other” the other side, make them unreal, horrible, monsters.

Most people aren’t monsters, this is the thing.

And everyone has good rooms inside them. Everyone was born and built with good rooms no matter how bad things seem on the outside. We all must allow for some renovation, an integration of the good and bad. Naive? I suppose it is. But I have to believe it in order to do the work in person and especially online, cause online is where it happening.

And I can’t very well write about how it’s happening out there, if I’m not doing the work myself.


1 Comment

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One response to “Renovation

  1. You just managed (again) to express perfectly something I’ve been trying to write for MONTHS.

    One of the things I admire most about you is that while you may not agree – may even vehemently, passionately disagree – with someone, I’ve never seen you attempt to demean or dehumanize them. Your and my belief systems are very different in certain aspects, but I nevertheless feel loved, valued and respected even when we disagree. (And I hope you feel the same.)

    You are absolutely right – positive change will never happen unless we all start having meaningful conversations with each other – preferably conversations that allow more than 140 characters.

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