I unplugged last Tuesday night and didn’t return until a week later. No email, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – not even news headlines. I turned off phone notifications, meditated every morning, had lunch with several friends, saw a good creepy British horror movie, read, wrote, thought, and generally felt like a rational, happy human being again. It was delightful.
Don’t worry—this is not a post listing out all the ways I benefited from stepping away from the borg. It’s enough to say that I had richer conversations, deeper thoughts, calmer emotions, more measured responses, and an infinitely more positive attitude about life. (I also rediscovered the joy of eavesdropping in public places – because what else are you going to do without a phone to look at – but that’s a story for another day.)
Mainly, though, I realized how little our online presences have to do with our real, actual lives—a fact that makes all of the artifice and vitriol in social media even more frustrating. Who are we yelling at, exactly? What do we think can possibly be accomplished by it? And, perhaps most importantly, when we – or others (hi James Gunn) – look back on our conversations 20 years down the road, what will we see looking back at us?
This feeling has been building in me for months, as I watched myself and everyone around me work ourselves into ever-deeper states of lather about issues from A to Z. The straw that broke me was the death of John McCain.
I haven’t spent a lot of time in my life pondering the sins and successes of Senator McCain. Sometimes he pissed me off, and sometimes I liked him, and that was pretty much that. I spent as much energy on him as I’ve spent on the hundreds of other white men in our government who’ve alternately fought for and against my well-being. He had his good points and his bad points. You know, he was a human being.
But to hear the social masses tell it, he was a minion of Satan himself, not worthy of a kind syllable, and guilty of all manner of unconscionable crimes against humanity. It wasn’t enough to express your own opinion about it; anyone who dared to regret that someone had died was immediately set upon, reminded of every awful thing the man had ever done. It wasn’t enough to simply say what you thought of him; you needed to police the words of all other participants in the conversation.
A friend used the phrase ‘performative cruelty’ around this time and, while I’m not sure it’s the situation she was referring to (because really, take your pick), I suspect it had some relation. The jockeying to say the nastiest possible thing about McCain was head-spinning. There was no angle that didn’t merit a “well actually…” It was like a nationwide contest to mansplain the death of a public figure, with women joining in the fun too.
I’m not going to screenshot anything because I don’t want to wade back into that pit, but suffice to say that one woman tweeted that McCain could “suck on her clit” because her father had died of cancer after losing his health insurance.
So there’s that.
I watched all this unfold in a new kind of horror that simultaneously enraged and deeply depressed me. Whatever shreds of kindness and amity toward our fellow humans remained after the nightmare of the 2016 election are completely gone. Trump has won. His knee-jerk, thoughtless style of communication, complete lack of respect or interest in any other human but himself, and vile verbiage applied to anyone who crosses his path—we’re all doing it now. It’s baked in.
I know he didn’t create this. But the environment was ripe for him, and he was canny enough to recognize it. He’s been playing the long game on Twitter for years, and it’s finally paid off. Trump is the master of performative cruelty, and he’s conned the rest of us into playing along.
America has problems to solve, for sure—some pretty severe ones. But too many of us are operating under the illusion that the solution is to wage online wars with people we will never, ever meet in real life. You know how many people have had their minds changed during an argument online? Of course you do.
If you’re interested, a recent article on Kotaku drilled deep into this phenomenon, discussing how the scorched-earth nature of callouts and shitposts – behaviors that started in the early days of online fandom – is now standard operating procedure across communities, whether dealing with “political figures, neo-nazi organizers, [or] political issues in general.” Behavior we used to reserve only for racists and misogynists has settled into our bones, erased the concept of nuance, and made us forget who the real enemies are. Have an opinion I disagree with? Suck on my clit.
I am not calling for ‘civility,’ a word that goes hand-in-hand with rich white men wanting us to shut up and let them maintain the status quo. There are few whom that status quo is currently serving. Propping up the greed-mongers and theocrats that have ravaged our nation with ‘civility’ is of no interest to me.
What I do believe needs unplugging, stepping back from, and re-examining is how we’re talking to *each other*—the people on the same damn team. The people who want change just as much as you do, the ones earnestly examining their privilege and working just as hard to re-shape their worldview toward a goal of creating a society that works for everyone.
There are a hell of a lot of us in that category. We’re smart and motivated and passionate and desperate for something better. And we’re spending our days screaming at each other about John McCain. The best way to keep us off the streets, don’t you know, is to keep us tied to our screens, endlessly scrolling and posting and arguing towards a goal of… what was the goal of all this again? Oh right – to stay connected! I won’t bother to spell out the irony of that, because you’re not stupid.
The majority of us are not malicious. The majority of us are not willfully ignorant. The majority of us want a better, fairer, kinder world for all. It took some major jarrings for most of us to wake up, but we *are* awake now. And we want to fix it. So how do we do that without destroying each other in the process?
The world is currently a train loaded with shit, barreling toward an even larger pile of shit that is inevitably going to cave in on all of us (that’d be climate change). Our problems are weighty, complex, and ugly. It is understandable that we’re all turning on each other like feral dogs. But we must stop. It is imperative that we stop; that we refocus and reacquaint ourselves with what it means to be kind, intentional, progressive, productive, and positive.
While thinking through my role in all of this, I got to thinking about Graceless. The world in which we launched this site seems 10,000 miles away. Our original goal: an honest media brand for women that accepts you for who are you, “for those of us tired of the Supposed To and Should Have”. We’ve gotten away from that, and it’s time to get it back, with a mantra of being Positive, Intentional, and Productive.
There are a couple of ways we’re going to do that:
- Graceless Conversations – an event series focused on all manner of discussion, debate, drinking, and dancing (when appropriate). We’ll start in Austin, then spread around the world.
- The Graceless Happy Hour – we love our podcast, and we know you do too. We’ll be returning to the banter you love this week (not to mention discussing this post further).
- Graceless Writing – we’ll never abandon our unvarnished, unique voices. Help us feed our new mantra by submitting a piece today.
- Commenting – we’re adding commenting to the site, toward a goal of taking our community back from Facebook.
Those are the little ways I’m hoping to contribute to a more productive worldview. I’m also done with Twitter. Nothing good happens there, at least not in its current form. I’d love for others to join me – if enough of us leave, after all…
So that’s that, my torrent of revelations that came after six days of meditating and looking people in the face when we talked. The internet and social media aren’t going anywhere. But we can definitely start pointing them in a different direction.