March 19, 2009

How to Blog Without Losing Your Soul

If you want to lose your faith in human nature, spend ten minutes in the blogosphere. Hell, spend five minutes in the blogosphere. You’ll find enough ranting and raving and lying and name-calling and mud-slinging to make you want to go bash your head against a wall.

If, on the other hand, you want to restore your faith in human nature, spend ten minutes with any of those individuals whose blogs you just read. I mean, really spend time with them—not in a chat room, but in person. Go to a ballgame, grab a beer somewhere. And what you’ll find is that the same guy who was such a raging a-hole on his blogsite is actually a decent person in real life.

There will be exceptions, of course. But on average bloggers, who are almost always creeps when online, tend to be pretty decent human beings. On average.

One reason for this is cowardice. Most of us will say things behind someone’s back that we wouldn’t dare say to their face. Another reason is that it’s much harder to have compassion for someone who’s not in front of you. As Graham Greene wrote, hate is just a failure of imagination:

“When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity—that was a quality God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”

Yes, hate is just a failure of the imagination. And when we’re sitting behind our computers, few of us take the time to actually think about those we’re attacking. We rave on and on about “the liberals” or the “the neocons” or this politician or that writer, saying all kinds of hurtful things. Yet when we actually find ourselves sitting across the table from our “enemies,” we almost always tone it down.

And not just because we’re cowards, but also because we see before us, not the personification of evil or stupidity, but someone not that different than ourselves. Even if we remain convinced that their motives are impure and their positions dishonestly held—even then, we often find ourselves sympathizing with them. By being near them, by looking at them, we’re forced to acknowledge our shared humanity and with it our shared hopes and dreams and fears.

Hate is just a failure of the imagination. And I’ve been as guilty of this failure, of this hatred, as anyone else. Put me in the middle of a party, and I quickly become everyone’s friend. Put me behind a computer screen, and watch out. Hell hath no fury like that of a guy given his own blog.

Over the past few weeks I’ve become more and more aware of the monster I can be once online. But it’s not too late to change. And I’m not incapable—you’re not incapable—of imagining that our opponents are sitting down next to us, of visualizing “the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grows.” We’re not incapable of attacking their arguments and not them. We’re not incapable of being civil.

Well at least I hope we’re not. If I turn out to be wrong, then, for the sake of my own soul, I’m going to have to find a new hobby.

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