I’ve threatened my big sister that I am going to rename this column with the title above. (My editor – hi W*ll! – warned me I would have to use an asterisk for the “i” if I were to make good on my threat, however. Family publication, he muttered, etcetera, etcetera.)
The point is that my big sister, let’s call her “Linda”, never lets pass an opportunity to call me on my bullsh*t, at least as it smells to her when she starts poking through the piles of pungent political posts that I publish on my Facebook page. And this habit of hers frequently leads to a memorable session of back-and-forth invective and digital dung flinging, furious research for supporting facts and data, and, best of all, a satisfying repartee that usually ends with a comforting reassurance that I remain her favourite – albeit only – brother.
It’s a good thing, to be sure. She forces me to support my arguments even as she artfully pushes my emotional buttons (something at which she’s had more than 40 years of practice) until I tell myself to breathe and not be so easily provoked. And, in the end, she unintentionally helps me build a better case for the political positions I support and, especially during the slicing cut-and-vicious thrust of our debates, must defend.
There’s another aspect to our virtual sibling salon. When debating someone online who is not a complete stranger or a casual acquaintance, one’s language must be a tad more restrained compared to what we too often read in the toxic political harangues that now characterize Internet arguments, especially in the comments sections of news media web pages. I care for my sister and I don’t want to completely alienate her even though we often debate each other from diametrically opposed political positions (and even though we are both no doubt convinced that the other is completely and tragically mistaken, deluded and naive, among a long list of other choice adjectives).
That’s why it’s important to be very careful about language and choice of vocabulary. Words still matter and they retain the power to wound. Precision and common understanding of meaning in the discourse between opponents who are nonetheless trying to maintain mutual respect is thus far from obsolete in this rude and rough era; to the contrary, it remains a delicate and necessary art.
Take, for instance, the phrase “big sister”. Some people might say that, journalistically speaking, my use of this description is rather inaccurate given that mine stands roughly four-foot-eleven despite her platform shoes and while trying to disguise the sad fact that she’s actually standing on her tippy toes when the tape measure comes out. I would retort that this quibble does not matter: to me, my sister Linda is larger than life, and that perception is nine-tenths of reality – or even, in her case, almost 10 tenths.
I kid, I kid. Obviously, I also use the term big sister in the generational sense. And here I don’t mean to emphasize the huge temporal disparity that divides our birth dates, though this gaping chasm is difficult to avoid if a full understanding of our complicated relationship is to be achieved. What I am actually trying to communicate most is that, figuratively speaking, I have always looked up to my “big” sister. I love her despite her faults and I hope she is likewise able to forgive me my tiny, almost invisible, imperfections.
My broader point, a bit more seriously, involves the not-uncommon reality in Canada that we two siblings have been geographically separated by most of a continent for most of our lives. In the past, this fact certainly made it tougher to maintain a family relationship. Facebook and other social media, for all their faults, helped change that. Despite the thousands of miles that separate my nuclear and extended family members, we are now able to breathe life into formerly stagnant relationships thanks to the virtual living rooms on our computer screens. And that means the old kitchen-table debates, fuelled by bottomless cups of coffee, or at times ample doses of whiskey, beer and self-righteousness, is once again possible.
The problem is that there is so much more to communication that cannot be expressed in 140 characters, or even in a “like” of one’s post or comment. There is tone of voice, a subtle raise of an eyebrow, eye contact or an eye roll, frowning and smiling, fidgeting with a lock of hair or an aggressive crossing of one’s legs, a light grasp of an arm or a finger poke in the chest, and I’ve barely tickled the surface of non-verbal communication that is so important to interpersonal exchanges. We are not machines. We are emotional human animals, and social media filters can never capture our range of our expressions and responses, as much as they do bring us together and give life to communities of interest.
That’s why so many otherwise unremarkable conversations online so easily degenerate into flame wars and unreserved hatred that, with a bit of perspective, appears completely insane and unjustified. Once committed, however, most of us find it difficult to pull back. And I speak here from personal experience and with ample regret for many of my online blasts in the past.
This is a reason why I am now making a concerted effort to remain civil and reasonable in my online exchanges, especially in the face of provocations I might see as beyond the bounds of acceptable discourse. There is so much aggravation and regret that I am now able to avoid, and I am finding that most people (though not all, unfortunately) back down from angry rhetoric when confronted with empathy and politeness. Even though we might each maintain our respective positions.
This is important to me because the public conversation is my life’s work, even as the quality of public debate now gleefully and enthusiastically descends into the mud and sewage of the gutter. And one wonders why. It’s such a waste of time. Especially when one discovers that a large portion of the angry online roar is actually fake. Some political parties (well, in Canada, one political party) and their third-party surrogates actually pay shady communications firms to flood online media comment sections and other places of debate with a crude and unending stream of hateful invective and formulaic demagoguery. Engaging with these political prostitutes is an exercise in futility and wasted effort.
Furthermore, it has become difficult to distinguish one’s online persona between the face we use in a public and professional sphere versus the private one we reserve for intimate relationships. The complete blurring of these two worlds has become quite common in the cacophony of social-media platforms. On a weekly basis we see public figures make fools of themselves by inadvertently giving the world an unconsidered insight into their private prejudices (or fetishes) that are so instantaneously and irrevocably revealed by the simple click of one’s mouse.
So, in this social-media age of public aggression, self-promotion and exhibitionism, there is still much to be said for reserve, courtesy and modesty. In the long run, treating each other as human beings is still a winning strategy for the way we interact. Whether it is on my FB wall or sitting at my kitchen table.
And Linda, even though you’re 3,000 miles away, I can’t wait until the next time we have a bottle of tequila and a kitchen table.