People are simple social creatures. We like to communicate with eachother, and we’re not very good at understanding nuance; we often have to simplify stuff just to fit it all into our heads. However, this does mean that we’re pretty inaccurate a lot of the time, as anyone who’s spent any time in Social justice circles will know all too well.
Different factions of the internet believe enormous simplifications about each other, like we’re all disgusting caricatures who exist purely to antagonise each other, in a horrifying ugly yet elegant relationship of mutually assured destruction, many people wasting days of their lives (literally, if you add it up, you’d be surprised how many hours those trash conversations on facebook stole from you) both contesting these caricatures and simultaneously re-inforcing them.
- “Feminists aren’t angry! but actually I am angry about this issue for a legitimate reason though”
- “4chan users aren’t obnoxious! but actually I do find this offensive thing funny though but”
- “Fat people aren’t lazy! but actually people should be allowed to be lazy though”
These examples are far from perfect, but you get the idea.
The problem comes from the combined problems of ego and communication.
When we talk about anything that stems facebook messes (those conversations that go on for far too long, and you either love the drama TOO MUCH or you despair of it, but either way, it’s still be hours since you left the screen), we’re normally talking about stuff that’s really close to people’s hearts, that’s close to their identity and understanding of who they are as a person.
There’s a lot of defensiveness here, and it really gets in the way of actual communication, and what’s worse, is that it’s normally really unoriginal, like “I’m not racist, I have a black friend” which even typing out felt bad, because it’s been said so many times in the exact same way in so many of the exact same conversations about racism with someone who only has a basic level of understanding of the word.
This unoriginality begins eventually to grate so hard that it becomes its own meme, and illicits hostility from the moment it’s uttered, like “Not all men” has become its own red flag for a man who knows nothing about how structural sexism and rape culture operates. But predictably, being met with sudden hostility doesn’t exactly decrease someone’s defensiveness, and they still don’t understand what you’re talking about, just because you do and you’re bored of having the same conversation.
Now I’m not saying humour them and say, no, it’s okay, you’re one of the good ones and do not worry! But we’ll get to communication in a bit.
Another specific instance I’ve noticed is with autism, perhaps because it is a more hidden or private trait, often when it’s spoken about on the internet in casual circles it will be with relatives of autistic people. Not only is this uncomfortable because leaving someone out of a discussion about them is inherently dehumanising, whether on purpose or not, it also greatly increases the levels of defensiveness involved. Now it’s not only about being potentially seen as a bigot (a big part of most people’s lives revolving around not being that blatantly unpleasant) but also about their worth as a parent/sibling/cousin etc. It’s a particular brand of nightmare fuel.
We get a bit lost with all the understandable human ego messes flying around these topics, there’s the warrior in each of us that wants what’s right, and a scared little person who wants to look good too, and part of us that doesn’t want to fight at all. No wonder we miss the point sometimes, we get waylaid with insults, or pedantry, survival tactics, damage control, or simply soapboxing our own beliefs.
There’s actually not a lot of talk left inbetween about how best to communicate across these issues, and that’s not surprising. Who wants to spend the little energy they have left at the end of the fray on working on communication with the “other side”? Tribalism is deep in our bones, and when stuff doesn’t work out, it makes sense that our instinct is to blame each other and flee the scene. And there are times when that is simply the best thing you can do; remember those people who love the mess too much? Definitely a running-away situtation.
But the answer is actually pretty clear with the benefit of hindsight; it’s in stepping away from our egos. Now this is hard, and it feels dangerous, because our egos are what fuel most normal interactions just fine, they are what help us to know if we’re going over the line, being offensive, or if we’re improving our relationship. But it’s not normal communication at all when we’re talking about social injustice, which is why it trips up so many of our ego defences.
Communicating without Ego but with Respect/Dignity
Thinking of egos like trip wires, we can see how to avoid them. We can avoid a lot just by focusing on statements and facts, on sources written by other people about people in general of a certain social demographic, or even sources written by people who belong to that demographic; it takes the sting out of any perceived insult and it reduces the degree to which you personally are part of inflicting said insult.
Another handy way to get out alive is to remember your own relationship to your ego. You will want to be right, and you will want to be understood. The other party probably won’t be trying to avoid tripping you up, especially if they think this is a personal conversation, so you have to be the one with the perspective to step away from the ego in order to communicate what you need. And then get out; because you cannot make up people’s minds for them, and people need time and the (illusion of) choice to change their worldview.
This doesn’t mean just be a doormat. You still have an ego, you’re just putting it away temporarily in order to achieve a realistic goal, like providing an alternative view point. It doesn’t mean that when someone insults all feminists for example that it is okay for them to do, and that you always have to shrug it off, and that it isn’t structually harmful to discredit marginalised voices that speak out. But what is structurally harmful and what is personally constructive are not always the same thing; letting a bit of ignorance slide is the only way to change that ignorance into potential knowledge and another agent of change in the world.