Attack Dogs

Jennifer Bristol recently lost one of her oldest friends—thanks to a Facebook fight about pit bulls.

The trouble started when she posted a newspaper article asserting that pit bulls were the most dangerous type of dog in New York City last year. “Please share thoughts… 833 incidents with pitties,” wrote Ms. Bristol, a 40-year-old publicist and animal-welfare advocate in Manhattan.

Her friends, many of whom also work in the animal-welfare world, quickly weighed in. One noted that “pit bull” isn’t a single official breed; another said “irresponsible ownership” is often involved when dogs turn violent. Black Labs may actually bite more, someone else offered.

Then a childhood pal of Ms. Bristol piped up with this: “Take it from an ER doctor… In 15 years of doing this I have yet to see a golden retriever bite that had to go to the operating room or killed its target.”

That unleashed a torrent…

“It was ridiculous,” says Ms. Bristol, who stayed out of the fight. Her old buddy, the ER doctor, unfriended her the next morning. That was eight months ago. She hasn’t heard from him since.

-Elizabeth Bernstein
“Why We Are So Rude Online (October 1, 2012)
The Wall Street Journal

People can have diverse opinions. They can have different personalities. They can have different goals and objectives. Even so, they can choose to interact in peaceful ways, and discuss their differences with mutual respect. At times they will work out solutions to their mutual satisfaction, and at times they will not. Nevertheless, they can be calm, and think clearly about the wisest course to take.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Disagree Respectfully”
Today’s Daily Lift, #586

I recently posted a meditation about this very topic, and having to take the extreme action of banning someone from commenting on my blog. While I suppose I could assign the “blame” for the whole difficult experience to the person in question, in fact, the subject of Elizabeth Bernstein’s news article deserves some “credit.”

Why are people so rude online? People will say all kinds of things to other people online that they’d never dream of saying (most of the time) in person. Part of me is amazed that this tendency spills over into the religious blogosphere, but then, I find religious people possess just as wide a variety of character traits (and flaws) as the general population, rudeness included.

One of the reasons for online rudeness cited in Bernstein’s story is anonymity. When you can hide behind a fake screen name and avatar, there’s no sense of personal accountability because your statements aren’t easily traced back to your actual identity (nevermind that we’re not as anonymous as we think online, particularly on Facebook, or to someone with sufficient technical skills). There’s even a suggestion that the effect of being online reduces our inhibitions in the same way as alcohol.

Most of us present an enhanced image of ourselves on Facebook. This positive image—and the encouragement we get, in the form of “likes”—boosts our self-esteem. And when we have an inflated sense of self, we tend to exhibit poor self-control.

“Think of it as a licensing effect: You feel good about yourself so you feel a sense of entitlement,” says Keith Wilcox, assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School and co-author of the study. “And you want to protect that enhanced view, which might be why people are lashing out so strongly at others who don’t share their opinions.” These types of behavior—poor self control, inflated sense of self—”are often displayed by people impaired by alcohol,” he adds.

A sense of entitlement, boosting poor self-esteem, reducing self-control, I don’t think this just happens to people who use Facebook.

The Bernstein article also states that, according to Sherry Turkle, psychologist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of the social studies of science and technology, our inhibitions are lowered because we can’t see the reactions of the people we’re addressing with our comments. Because we can’t “see and focus on what we have in common, we tend to dehumanize each other,” Dr. Turkle states.

I’ve heard there are two topics that can guarantee you will immediately become involved in an enraged conversation, both online and in-person: politics and religion. Here’s an example of both happening at the same time:

Over the past few months, Mr. Bolcik lost two real-life friends because of online political spats. The first friend got mad at him after he posted a status update asking people to debate whether Mormons are Christians. (“You are so off base you don’t know what you are talking about,” she wrote on his page, followed later by: “You’re an idiot.”) Mr. Bolcik blocked her from his page. “I will allow free discussion until you irritate me,” he says. Sometimes, he erases entire conversation threads.

Cause, effect, and consequence all rolled up into a single paragraph. Post something controversial on your blog, or on Facebook, twitter, or some other social networking platform. Someone will invariably react rudely or even in a (verbally) violent matter. Then, as Mr. Bolcik stated, “I will allow free discussion until you irritate me.” And I’ve also seen people eliminate entire conversations on Facebook before.

Sometimes a “battle” will start between two people and then others will be dragged into it, sort of like calling up reinforcements:

…he says—he privately messages one of his “attack dog” friends and suggests he or she join the discussion. “I will say, ‘Gee, this discussion doesn’t seem right to me, what do you think?’ ” he says. “Then they will go on there and berate the person who is upsetting me, and I will look like the good guy.”

Taken to an extreme, this could be sort of like a miniaturized version of a flash mob, at least if you have a popular blog and a lot of online friends with similar points of view and an equal capacity for responding aggressively.

Most of us don’t have really popular blogs (I mean thousands or even tens of thousands of regular readers) or very large numbers of online associates who are willing to fly into a rage at a moment’s notice, but we can marshal what resources we have to be, if not a menace, then at least a nudnik.

What can be done about this unfortunate tendency to lose our sense of compassion and courtesy once we sit down in front of a keyboard (or when we are on our mobile) and start browsing various social networking venues? It’s no secret and I suppose the answer is what we euphemistically refer to as “common sense.”

Stop being rude. Exercise self-control. Speak with humility. Most importantly, if you are a religious person, behave consistently with your stated values.

Learn to disagree without creating an unpleasant argument.

A mature disagreement is when two people both listen carefully to the other’s position in order to understand the position and why the person feels that way.

The Torah obligates us to treat each person with respect – even if you disagree.

I’m not sure Rabbi Pliskin is basing his commentary on Internet conversations, but I certainly hope so. It would mean that there’s hope for those of us in the religious online space, and that we are not condemned by our human nature or the dynamics of web communications to behave like a group of jackasses.

Religious people present themselves, their faith, and their God online and, especially Christians, say stuff like, “Jesus is the answer.” Then when someone disagrees, the religious person proceeds to call their opponent every name in the book except a “child of God.”

“There was a time when I used to say: that man’s a Turk, or a Bulgar, or a Greek. I’ve done things for my country that would make your hair stand on end, boss. I’ve cut people’s throats, burned villages, robbed and raped women, wiped out entire families. Why? Because they were Bulgars, or Turks. ‘Bah! To hell with you, you swine!’ I say to myself sometimes. ‘To hell with you right away, you ass.’ Nowadays I say this man is a good fellow, that one’s a bastard. They can be Greeks or Bulgars or Turks, it doesn’t matter. Is he good? Or his he bad? That’s the only thing I ask nowadays. As I grow older – I’d swear this on the last crust I eat – I feel I shan’t even go on asking that! Whether a man’s good or bad, I’m sorry for him, for all of ’em. The sight of a man just rends my insides, even if I act as though I don’t care a damn! There he is, poor devil, I think; he also eats and drinks and makes love and is frightened, whoever he is: he has his God and his devil just the same, and he’ll peg out and lie as stiff as a board beneath the ground and be food for worms, just the same. Poor devil! We’re all brothers! All worm meat.”

-Nikos Kazantzakis from his novel
“Zorba the Greek”

We can do this better. We need to do this better. Angry religious people are not just discrediting themselves, they are dragging God’s Name and reputation through the mud along with them. We can either sanctify the Name of the Holy One or desecrate it. It’s your choice. It’s my choice. What will you do next time you read something on Facebook, twitter, or on someone’s blog (or a comment on your own blog) and then feel the anger rise within you like an enraged, blazing Phoenix boiling and then vaporizing the calm, cool waters of your spirit?



4 thoughts on “Attack Dogs”

  1. Good word. I have actually unfriended someone, not because I was mad at her or never wanted to talk to her, but because I couldn’t trust myself to not say certain things. It was just easier to not have the option to put my opinion on her page. My opinion wasn’t helpful to her at that point, even though it was correct. We have since reconnected & have had some great conversations in person. But I stay away from certain subjects online.

  2. This is a thought provoking Meditation. So…here are a few of my thoughts:

    Why are we rude on line? Possibilities

    1. Parents don’t use good manners with each other.
    a. Lack of good manners taught at home.
    b. Why? These parents were’t taught good manners??
    c. Do parents REQUIRE sincere apologies from one child to the other (when necessary) How can they when even they are often ignorant of the signs of rudeness?
    d. Nowadays when young people go off to collge…. they arrive on Campus with the same attitude of disrespect they had when growing up. Together with new roommates (I have observed this) they will discuss the ‘way my home life was: “my parents are divorced, this one had an affair, lied about it, etc. they go to church and wonder why I don’t. I lucked out, they remarried….now I have a step-father, a step-mother, 2 step sisters, three step brothers, and hell-no I don’t. I have one father and one mother and one brother etc. I hate them all! “ So, yes, this kid will get on to F. B. with no self-control. Unfortunately, X years later there is still no self-control. Anger can be expressed openly cause you don’t know me, and I don’t care!
    e. One might think the wonderful world of Religion would contribute to a change…if it has it really is not all that obvious.
    2. TV Shows………the ones considered FUNNY are most often, rude, crude, insulting, devaluing of morals….need I say more?
    3. The art of saying “I am sorry”, “I was wrong” followed by the art of
    “I’m sorry too!’
    4. So…when we grow up without accountability we tend to be rude on line, in the home, and everywhere we go. But…we can all change if we work together being mindful of G-d, our relationship to Him and how it should reflect in our relationship to each other.

  3. I don’t doubt that the basic rules for interpersonal dynamics have changed considerably since I was a child and that the culture around us has shifted to devalue basic human decency, but that should only affect the current generation or perhaps the last two. However, even people my age who, face-to-face, behave like civilized human beings become “attack dogs” when they get online. I think there’s something about online communications (such as the reasons I outlined above) that reduce our inhibitions and heighten our sense of self-entitlement, resulting in the bad attitudes that we typically experience.

    If you combine that with what you mention Pat…that the modern world tends to encourage lack of respect for other people and values rudeness and hostility, then it gets even worse. It’s amazing we have as much civility in the online community as we do.

    And yet, in spite of our upbringing, our experiences, and the rather poor cultural context in which we live (even though “progressives” think we are “progressing”), we can still choose who we are and how we act. I do. You do. Many other people do. We’re not robots. We’re free thinking human beings and we are responsible for our own behavior.

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