Here's a confession for you: I'm terrified of the internet.
That may seem a strange thing to say, since the only reason you're able to read this is the internet, but hear me out.
Following the Elliot Rodger killings, there's been a lot of online discussion about feminism and misogyny. And no, I'm not planning to add to the millions and millions of words that have already been written about that specifically. But one thing I did notice is that some people seemed to come into the debate – as some do to all internet discussions – with very absolute views. 'This is what I think and no-one is going to convince me otherwise.' Or 'This is the issue I feel most strongly about, therefore no other issues exist.'
Now, I can come up with plenty of opinions about all this stuff, some well formed and others less so. And I did start writing a long blog post about them. But then I began to see some of my internet friends' comments on the subject, and realised that they wouldn't agree with me, and that's when it all fell apart. Because I'm the original people pleaser. If I ever look like I'm getting into a conflict, I placate.* I smile. I try and smooth things over. And so for someone like me, writing something even mildly controversial is simply inviting misery.
Yet there's more to it than my fear of confrontation. You see, I'm not an absolutist at all. Other than some very basic, fundamental beliefs, I can usually see the other person's point of view. I'm not so convinced of the rightness of my own opinions that I'm willing to antagonise people over them – I'm well aware that they're often partly formed and lacking data. I like to engage in discussion because it's interesting to explore an issue and maybe I'll learn something new. I expect people to have different views, and that's OK.
But the trouble is that for some people, that's not OK. They get defensive, or determined to convince equally rigid people with opposing views that they're 'wrong', and the conversation escalates into a slanging match. Sometimes it seems as if people can only really hear those who share their opinions; everyone else might as well be talking a different language. And that's the point at which I would placate and retreat, because it's no longer a discussion. It's just people on soapboxes seeing who can preach the loudest.
The sad thing is that maybe people would listen to each other a bit more if they showed each other more understanding. The misogyny discussion has been led down a lot of fruitless paths by men and women apparently determined to deny the validity of each other's experiences; to generalise about groups, rather than treat each other as individuals. If people would just listen, and try to understand, before jumping in with their own opinions, they might find more in common than they thought. And if people didn't keep starting debates, only to shut down anyone who doesn't agree with them, then maybe we could actually have an interesting conversation.
But that's what scares me about the internet. I've read a lot of articles in the wake of the Rodger killings, and seen a lot of comments and status updates and tweets. Many of them were far more articulate and profound than I can ever hope to be. Yet I never had a sense that anyone's mind was really being changed. People seemed to be gravitating to those who shared similar beliefs, crossing to the other side of the fence only to try and shut it down. Call it reinforcement theory. Call it confirmation bias. Maybe it's just human nature. But I find it sad that the internet gives us so many ways to expand our understanding and change our views – the chance to listen – and yet all we seem to end up doing is continuing our endless quest to convince others that We Are Right.
So what are my few basic, fundamental beliefs – my absolutist sticking points? Well, one of them is that all people have the right to be treated with equal respect, whatever their gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity or disability; and concomitantly, that we all have the responsibility to treat others that way. I'd have thought that was pretty inarguable, but apparently not. (That's another reason the internet terrifies me. It keeps slapping me in the face with the fact that at this time, in this place, there are still people who are 'against' women's rights, or gay rights, as if those rights are something that can be granted rather than something that belongs to everyone by virtue of being human.**)
Still, here's a thought. Maybe if those of us who do hold universal equality as a basic truth stopped acting so defensively towards each other – stopped arguing over which group has it worst or whose problems trump whose – we'd realise we're actually on the same page. And then we could focus on how to change the minds of those who aren't. Because, OK, yes, I'm a hypocrite. When it comes to my basic, fundamental beliefs, I'm as convinced I'm right as anyone else is. I just don't think I'm going to get anywhere by beating people over the head with it.
* Mr Smith would disagree with this somewhat, I suspect. But I find it far easier to express vehement and genuine opinions with someone who I know isn't going to judge or reject or disown me for them.
** Yes, that was dangerously close to being an opinion. It is my blog, after all.