The idea of publicly exposing my ideas to critique would have appalled my high school self, unlike high schoolers today, who walk blindly down hallways, tilted faces aglow, eagerly sharing their own opinions and throwing shade on others, a whisp of a smile flickering then quickly disappearing. The young mind’s penchant for reductivism, generalization, and oversimplification props up what might otherwise be a limiting medium. How much of a cogent point can you make in 140 characters?
As we adults flocked to the new community of social media, it became the essential way I stayed in touch with my family: parents, three brothers, and their wives and children. I reconnected with old friends, and kept loosely in touch with new ones. And although it was far from my only source of news, I did get pointed to things I wouldn’t have found without a friend’s post on social media. And many of my friends’ posts made me laugh, sometimes deeply, which is never a bad thing.
I actively resisted the addiction, and recused myself for periods of time ranging from weeks to months. One such period has just begun, and after falling under the spell of a barrage of over-saturated media around the election, I find myself examining my online behavior and asking myself: why?
It’s not that I’ve posted anything I’d regret: my posts were honest and heartfelt, my comments respectful with the rare edge of sarcasm when the attack back had been particularly hurtful. I maintained my dignity by carrying the consciousness that several of my former students were in my circle of friends and as a teacher I try to modulate my public behavior where kids might be watching, even grown up ones.
Not everyone in my thread was equally respectful. One former friend from childhood posted some false and hateful things in response to my forwarding of Robert Reich’s advice for activism. But I think she was really mad at the fun I was poking at Mike Pence, a devil in sheep’s clothing, by creating puns on Broadway shows that he might prefer to watch (heavily angled toward the Trump camp in general). It was a diverting game for the musical lover in me, and I sniggered at my own bits of wit, such as Seven Brides for Seven Misogynists, Dream on, Girls, and Bye Bye Birthcontrol. My intention was to blow off the steam I’d been represssing since the election, a much-needed release for my toxicity overload.
Taking offense, my Republican friend amped it up, and what followed were “you people” accusations (on her part) and attempts at respectful counterpoint (on my part), with a few of my relatives and close friends chiming in to defend my post and our stance of compassion and respect, rarely crossing the lines to lash out or name my adversary’s commentary as white supremacy. At one point my older brother emailed me privately, saying he might have to block my posts if my former friend kept up in such a manner. I resisted unfriending her, because I deplore censorship in general and believe in trying to educate people. I pretended that those were my only reasons for answering back.
What lurked under the surface is what really matters: why I felt the need to engage in the first place.
In my disagreements with people, I’ve learned a modicom of self-control, which permits resistance — although not complete immunity — to baiting and diversion. When I fall into these traps, I have to wonder about my motivation to continue engaging the beast when I can just escape.
It’s not the thrill of the battle. I’m a nonconfrontational person. A few decades ago, I avoided talking about our non-existent sex life with a live-in boyfriend for over a year. I just watched our intimacy die slowly, and I grieved, but I prefered silence over the possible revelation that his love had died, too. I’ve evolved since then, but it’s not in my nature to start a fight. That said, I will defend myself and my loved ones to the death, and I have the capacity to get mean, which I usually resist.
In my Internet sparring, I get satisfaction from self-control, not falling for the bait, maintaining a respectful dialogue, responding with compassion. When one is generally powerless, self-control feels like power, even if it is within a small realm: not falling prey to petty arguments, not spending more than the $20 I have left before payday, not eating that second cookie, or third, or sixth. Or eating them all and saying “fuck it all.” Even the loss of control can be a powerful decision.
My recent social media dispute was complicated by the early adolescent friendship I had with my troll. We were friends of convenience who shared one passion: horses. Otherwise we were from different worlds, back into which we settled as adults, she in the conservative South and I in liberal cities. Her family had often spoken harshly about others, and they were overtly racist toward black people. The meanness trickled down in their daughter with milder taunts like “leather feet, leather feet” because I went barefoot all the time, as well as harsher criticisms that occasionally sent me into a pubescent rage. She would throw back her head and laugh at my frustration, which enraged me even more. Many wounds were inflicted during this time of my life, most more serious than hers, but for some reason my adult self needed to prove to myself that I was beyond her taunting, that I could win by not stooping to her provocation. I needed to heal the small part of the wounds from that time that I had some control over, as the larger part is still beyond my reach.
Reflecting on my brother’s email, I realized I was engaging for the wrong reasons: if I had to prove something to myself publicly, it wasn’t really for myself. So I hit the pause button and removed an app from my phone for now. Removing myself completely from one channel of social media may seem like an extreme reaction, but I consider it a healthy change, a shift in my behavior patterns, a time for self-reflection, an opportunity for more personal communication rather than public tiffing from behind a screen.
Leaping into the unknown…