People will say anything, they really will.  Many don’t especially care if you agree or disagree, and they don’t care if they offend your delicate sensibilities.  Also they don’t care about your opinions, until they’re at direct odds with their opinions — especially political ones, in which case they care a great deal, very loudly, often endlessly.  (Or for as long as anyone else cares to listen, or to perpetuate their stridency by responding to it.)

Why is this?  Why is it downright common nowadays to expect people to self-righteously spray public spaces online with virulent nastiness?  In an age of social media, where everyone spends half their time with an eye on a screen, this has become the norm.  Trolls, we say.  Don’t feed the trolls.  And everybody knows what a troll is.

It must be indicative of some ugly universal human trait, because the behavior is everywhere:  your friend’s wall; the online comments section of any article in The New York Times; even book review discussions — if there’s an open forum, sooner or later you’ll be exposed to some crank in the throes of rancid fulmigation, at least until the moderators get involved.  It’s so widespread that I’m thinking it must be the default of human nature to turn hostile on a dime.

Is it because people are innately insecure — to degrees of verbal violence — about topics in which they’re emotionally invested?  Can it really be that simplistic?  Haven’t we learned by the age of eleven that not everyone will agree with you?  Or do most people just reject that precept?  Their histrionics are the electronic version of a tantrum, nothing more.

Or is it just a fad, sort of, something that’s okay as long as you do it online because it isn’t “real”?  Is it acceptable in the electronic ether because you feel insulated against repercussions or responsibility, because even if you act a fool in binary media under your own name, it isn’t the same as doing it in real life for an audience?

This is my guess — that it’s cowardice and insecurity.  In physical public places where you’re likely to run into people you don’t personally know — the grocery store, the movies, ball games, big events, your work environment — most of us do not need to be told to be careful about being too abrasive while presenting opinions; we do not want other people stomping all over our happy peace of mind, such as it is, so we try to take care not to inadvertently do it to someone else.  This is pretty standard; almost everyone is at least nearly polite in person.  Not so online.

Before social media there was not a whole lot to indicate that the default position of so many people would be hostile attack in the face of opinions at odds with their own.  People at least gave the impression of possessing sane, objective powers of good judgment.  Now it seems unwise to expect that, since every day you’re online you’re likely to find yourself dealing with at least one psychotic fruitcake.  This is why we do background checks, and this is why potential employers google you:  to rule you out as the day’s nutcase, because the odds that you’re not are not in your favor.

Now, I’m open to online discussions with anonymous strangers, but to a fairly limited degree, because I’ve been online since about 1994 and by 1995, I’d learned the follies of  looking for meaningful interaction with random people on the internet.  Even nowadays in environs you’d expect to be safe, like the walls or accounts of family members, there’s no guarantee you won’t find yourself face to face, to so speak, with someone doing the internet equivalent of throwing himself on the floor, or throwing his own feces at the wall.

No place is safe, unless it’s a closed group of people who know each other, and really, how much fun is that?   Part of the awesome of the internet is being able to interact with so many people you don’t know and could probably never know otherwise.

Anyway.  Just thoughts; the “block” option is never far away, so for the time being it’s still worth the risk.  I have made some very rewarding long-term friendships that began online, and there’s a plus side too, that I’ll explore in another post.

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