I know people have always been mean. Mean behavior is nothing new, but there does seem to be a new wrinkle to meanness these days. In the past if you wanted to say mean things, it was difficult if not impossible to do that anonymously. If you were going to say something mean, you had to say it to an actual person. You either said it to the person or you said it about the person to someone else. You couldn’t be anonymous. The internet, however, does give us the ability to speak anonymously.
Now we have the opportunity to interact with viewpoints and ideas and people via the internet, that we otherwise might never encounter. The internet gives us the ability to comment on a wider range of topics with a larger group of people. And that is a good thing, even a great thing. But if you read the comments to a few news articles, blogs, etc. you know how frequently mean comments are made. (I was going to link to a couple of examples but then I thought, I don’t really need to do I?) It also seems to me that public discourse and public political discussion has also become meaner. Political mudslinging is nothing new but the scope and intensity seems increased. However for the sake of civil discussion, let’s avoid the political and focus on the personal.
Some observers think that the ability to speak and comment anonymously on line which allows people to make harsh comments without personal consequences is the reason we find such meanness on line. If you are “sugarbear 23.5” (I just made that up, if you actually are sugarbear 23.5, my apologies) no one knows who you are and you can be as unpleasant as you like without much risk. Certainly someone might be mean in response to something sugarbear 23.5 wrote, but they are responding to an alias, a fictitious character and not the actual person. Except, of course, actual people are making and responding to those comments. Even though others do not know who sugarbear 23.5 is, sugarbear 23.5 knows who they are and what they said.
This suggests that the social convention that keeps us from saying mean things stronger and more important than our personal conscience? Have people always felt this mean toward others and anonymity loosened their tongues? Or perhaps since the world is less physically violent than in the past, our hostility has been re-channeled from the physical to the verbal? I’m sure I don’t know. I suspect this is much more complex than my thoughts here.
Never the less, what, if anything, can be done about meanness?
I am enough of an optimist to think something can be done and enough of a pessimist to think it will be really, really difficult. The great majority of us try to teach children to not be mean. But what can we do about mean adults? I suspect that most adults were taught not to be mean so that education about meanness isn’t much of a solution.
My guess is that often meanness comes from fear and anger- fear of vulnerability, fear of ridicule, fear of not being accepted. And anger over loss or potential loss, anger over failure, anger over being ignored. No doubt we could make this list longer.
What overcomes fear and anger? Well, Jesus says love. Personally I think loving mean people is difficult- to say the least. Difficult even when it involves anonymous people on line. It is hard not to respond to meanness with meanness. Or on line to simply not respond at all. Loving people, as I frequently need to remind myself, is not ignoring or condoning inappropriate behavior and it is not allowing people to be persistently mean to me. But rather it is listening, carefully and intently, to what people say (and don’t say) before I respond. A person’s careful and loving listening can make me less fearful and less angry. I suspect that same thing happens to others. So I wonder if the “solution” to the meanness in our society is more listening, more hearing, more healing, more loving. For me this is really not easy. I would much rather avoid mean people. But as I recall, Jesus never said things would be easy.
I’d like to know, what do you think?