On Bullies and Bully Pulpits

I’m a big believer in our rapidly evolving virtual world and its capacity to change things for the better, and yet there’s no denying that people often act far more horribly to each other online than they ever would in person. When everyone gets a bully pulpit, you wind up with a lot of bullies, and when everyone owns a bullhorn, you hear a lot of bull. Though lists can be odious, here is my modest attempt at some guidelines to avoid having your virtual crap pollute everyone’s online streams:

1. Only Write Things You Would Also Say Face To Face: When we’re actually in the presence of a person, we tend to moderate our behavior out of equal parts empathy and fear. Remember, though you may not see someone’s eyes crease in pain at your snarky cheap-shot, that doesn’t mean they’re not crying. And just because Facebook can’t punch you in the face doesn’t mean you should go around flicking your hateful comments in people’s posts.

2. If You Feel Like A Hero, Stop What You’re Doing: Sure, you might feel noble delivering that revolutionary tweet you’re about to send, but remember, heroism is rare enough in the world of flesh and blood. In the world of bits, it’s pure unicorn. What you’re probably feeling is an unearned righteousness that will almost certainly lead you to act like an entitled jerk. The internet may not yet have the bandwidth to download heroism, so let’s try kindness for awhile instead.

3. If You Know All The Answers, You’ve Misunderstood The Question: It’s a great feeling, when someone shares your groundbreaking post on How to Fix Everything Forever and Have Great  Abs While You Do It. However, in the world where one can find dirt under the finest fingernails, things are almost always more complex than you think. YOU are more complex than you think. Oh, and here’s another thing, in the time it took you to write that perfect post, the world has changed in more ways than you will ever have time to find out. That doesn’t mean we don’t need your suggestions, we absolutely do. Just remember your blog isn’t a stone tablet. Why, even this awesome list I’m writing now is surely full of missteps and misunderstandings.

4. Only Hitler is Hitler: The person you disagree with may seem an awful lot like Hitler right now, but remember, only Hitler gets to be Hitler. This also holds true for Goebbels, and for that matter, pretty much all Nazis. Additionally: only slavery was slavery, that thing at your job probably isn’t all that much like apartheid, and when you get them confused, you make it harder to right the wrong you want so badly to right. Show us the wound as it truly is, otherwise we’ll end up trying to heal the hyperbole.

5. Is It Worth It? If you’re not sure, wait awhile and ask yourself again. Your time on this earth is precious, so don’t spend it like it’s your first time at the mall. Shop around, and eventually you’ll find a cause truly worth all that adrenaline pumping right now through that itchy mouse-finger of yours.

6. Keep Your Shoes Close, But The Shoes Of Your Enemy Closer: If you want to persuade someone to change their mind, take a minute to walk through the world in their shoes. They may pinch in ways you didn’t expect, and lead you to places you knew nothing about. You may even discover they’re not really your enemy. And that’s good, because having an enemy is a terrible responsibility, and you should avoid collecting them or you’ll never have time for anything else.

7. If You’re Trying To Win, You’re Playing The Wrong Game: With apologies to Milton Bradley, nobody wins at the game of life. You’re going to die, and a great number of the truths you held dear will in time be proven laughably wrong. You can be wrong in the way that you’re right, and every victory is temporary and conditional.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t such a thing as progress: there is, and it’s worth working for, and I agree its moral arc does tend towards justice. Just remember that justice and progress are like that parable of crossing half a distance; you can get closer, but there will always be a new half-distance to cross.

So stop trying to win, and remember the game you’re actually playing. All each of us can do is illuminate our little corners of time with as much compassion as possible, and under that light, place another lily pad of knowledge upon the deep water of our ignorance to make the path easier for those who come after.

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