If you count my very first publication, I've been writing online for just about 10 years. Unlike people who know better, I've also spent a fair amount of that time reading the comments. I do that for lots of reasons. One is narcissism. Why bother casting a stone out into the lake if you don't want to watch the ripple it makes? Comics don't tell their jokes behind a wall of soundproof glass, right? But another reason is because even though comments sections are filled with some of the worst people in the world, you can usually learn something by throwing yourself into the mix, and exposure to contrary, even wrong-headed opinions can help crystallize your own beliefs.
We're so happy and well-balanced, we couldn't possibly be online right now.
Someday, I might write more about mistakes I've made and what I've learned about myself through the Internet (like I did in my forthcoming novel Notes from the Internet Apocalypse), but today's column is about other people on the World Wide Web. After a decade knee-deep in e-opinion, this is what the Internet has taught me about the Internet.
#4. The Internet Excels At Interpreting Things in the Way That Is Most Offensive to It
There's no doubt I've written some inflammatory things online and been pretty clear about it. I've trashed Green Day, Taylor Swift and people who create gaps in lines. The funny part is, judging by the comments, some of the most insulting things I've ever written weren't even intended to offend.
Part of the problem is that even on a site like Cracked, which runs longer pieces, you only have a finite time to reach a reader. There is a balance between making a point and explaining every conceivable counterpoint. Still, despite my strong opinions, I usually recognize exceptions to every rule and often couple my damnation with qualifying statements. You'd think that would prevent people from getting offended. After all, if you had a choice between reading a sentence in such a way that's personally insulting or believing there was no insult directed at you, who would choose to be offended? Well, the answer is just about everyone.
Hey, guys, great to see you again!
I've written about the value of debating or arguing because, as discussed above, confronting differing opinions usually solidifies your thinking or shows you why you're wrong. Many people avoid that conflict because they're too arrogant to believe someone else could be right. Others avoid it knowing deep down that they don't have the ability to defend their beliefs and don't care to understand them. The thing is, both times I've written about this, I've explained that, of course, arguing with some people isn't worth it. There are loud-mouthed imbeciles who only cast insults and don't debate ideas. But countless people took offense anyway and explained why they don't want confrontations with people who are just loud-mouthed insulting blowhards.
"Well, I'm sure I could interpret that as not applying to me, but then how could I be offended?"
Another time, I wrote a column about terrible college experiences that prepare you for life, like seeing people do bad things without consequences. At one point, I talked about all the women I'd met who'd been date raped. Here's a portion of what I wrote:
"I wish it were only one or two girls at school who had stories about getting date raped, but it seemed like it was at least 25 percent of all women I knew. And in almost none of those cases was there a criminal investigation. That's a lot of rapists walking around in the world, remembering that time they crawled inside that nearly comatose girl with a fond smile."
Yep, that pissed off some dudes. Dudes who wanted to defend the date rapists they knew nothing about. They said the chicks wanted it or the dudes were drunk, too. All I did was describe a date rapist, but they saw someone else, invented other factors, until they had enough information to be offended.
Of course, I've offended some women, too. One of my favorite columns talked about how Sex and the City feminism had led some women to confuse being slutty with being empowered. My point was simply that when it comes to sex, feminism means that women should have the same right as men to be whores. Nevertheless, whores (whether they are male or female) are not particularly admired. Many seemed to understand that there was nothing even vaguely inflammatory about that logic, but several people accused me of "mansplaining" and "slut-shaming." Those people read my words and heard something else: their preacher, father, abusive boyfriend, I don't know. But it wasn't me. My words were merely triggers to memories that shouted, "If you have lots of sex, you're a bad, whorish woman," but those words weren't there.
Pictured above: Not me.
#3. The Internet Greatly Prefers to Be Helpful at the Very End of a Tragedy
Ernest Hemingway's famous writing advice was to write the truest sentence you know. About a year ago, I achieved that goal. Unfortunately, because I'm not Ernest Hemingway, and because I live in the 21st century, I wasted that sentence on my Twitter:
For context, that was written after Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston died. With their deaths came a flood of tears from the Net. Such a loss. How tragic! Then all the #RIP tweets and Facebook postings. Some shitty poetry and sappy Photoshops canonizing the departed. But where were all these efforts during these artists' lives? How many cheered Winehouse while she sang about rejecting rehab and continued down a destructive path? Where were all the prayers for Whitney's sobriety? Would they have not been more constructive than those postmortem pleas to heaven that she finally be at peace with the Lord?
But that's much harder, right? I mean, to make a big deal out of suffering while it's actually happening requires action. You'd have to do something. Even worse, you'd have to keep doing something until the problem's fixed. Most people don't do that. It's too hard, and that's why I reject the bullshit sentimentality of people who wait for the very end of a tragedy to publicly proclaim their feelings. It's why I raise suspicious eyebrows to saintly comics who take pride in not making "too soon" jokes. I know it feels nice, it looks good, but you get no points for that in this life.
I'm not being holier than thou. I'm no exception. The other day, when crossing the street, I walked past a severely handicapped young man. I heard his tortured speech as he turned to speak to his caregiver, and I was so overcome by his affliction that I started to cry. Right there in the middle of the street. Do you know what I did next? Nothing. Do you know how many charities for the mentally handicapped I've donated to or volunteered at? None. My only contribution was my worthless tears. Look how good I am. I cried. And kept walking. Because it's easiest to cry when you keep walking.