Aaron R. Davis
Over on my Blogger account, I’ve always talked on and off about politics. I’ll try not to delve too deeply into my political opinions here, because I don’t want to talk about them, specifically, but about ways of communicating with my fellow humans on the Internet.
Back in the days of George W. Bush, talking at length about his policies and why you thought they were destructive was a short route to becoming part of a circle of liberals on Blogger. I didn’t seek that out, but I did briefly become part of it. I’ve actually never really sought out any kind of acceptance whatsoever; I never thought to myself, Goddamn, if I could just be accepted by a group of armchair activists on Blogger I would be so freaking happy. I was just doing what I always do: writing my sincere opinions, talking about how I honestly felt and fielding the reactions in the same way.
For a while, I felt like I had really found a group of like-minded individuals. Sure, there was a lot of hate that came with it — you can’t write anything about politics online without someone disagreeing with you vehemently and venting it at you — but it was kind of intoxicating knowing that my opinions pissed off someone that much. That the mere act of stating an honest opinion could inspire that kind of unfocused, often-hilarious-to-read rage. It was a fun couple of years.
But during the 2008 election, that kind of honesty suddenly wasn’t welcome to the world of online liberals. I made the apparent mistake of being critical of Barack Obama and his ties to corporate business at a time when everyone was high on the idea of how cool it would make America look to have an African-American president. Sure, now liberal news sites are critical of every decision Obama does or doesn’t make, but in the year leading up to his election, it was somehow unconscionable to do the things that an informed person does with any politician anywhere: ask questions.
Someone I respected a lot at the time accused me of trying to derail everyone’s enthusiasm, like I was some kind of political Internet troll. Another person flat out told me to shut up and stop sowing doubt. I even had someone go off on me just for saying I wasn’t sexually attracted to Michelle Obama, because apparently to that man (and an embarrassing number of men), saying you’d sleep with a woman is the same as saying you think she has an admirable character. It was bizarre, and at the time it hit me like a donkey kick in the gut. It ended up being a valuable lesson, but one that it felt weird learning at the age of 32: that any group of believers, any group of fans, any group of like-minded individuals will eventually turn on the person who isn’t 100 percent with them. Room for doubts? Get out of here; you’re ruining everyone’s completely uncritical excitement.
It’s not just in the world of politics. I’ve had the same experience before with other groups. Hell, it was the basis of my column last week when I talked about fanboys attacking a film critic for daring not to be completely overjoyed about a movie they hadn’t even seen; they just didn’t want their excitement ruined and became little sexists in their fury. I’ve seen it happen in comic book stores, in online fan groups and all over schools and playgrounds. I’d just never had it happen to me before with a group of supposedly enlightened and forward-thinking adults.
Basically I stopped talking to those people, disappointed with their childish reactions to my honest questions. And they stopped talking to me. I was out of the circle. And if that was how they were going to react to critical thinking directed at a Democrat instead of a Republican, then I was glad to be outside.
Not everyone reacted that way, of course. There were still people who wanted to hear what I wanted to say. And I was never just trying to preach to the choir or write something just to have my back patted. I got my self-esteem kicked around enough as a kid that as an adult I’m genuinely surprised when I do anything anyone likes. But whenever I wrote about politics on my blog, I never got quite the same reaction again.
But you know what? It’s fine. Because I don’t want a reaction: I want thought. I want genuine opinions. I want to be engaged by people commenting, I want to have a discussion with the people who agree or disagree.
Unfortunately, on the Internet, that’s pretty much impossible. Like I said last week, everyone stopped expecting comments sections to yield interesting discussions a long time ago. Nowadays I’ll usually get some attempts at interesting points, and then some right-winger will come in who vehemently disagrees with whatever inflammatory thing I’ve said, and he’ll (and it’s always a he) start calling me names and attacking me for being a “typical” liberal. Which is especially annoying because although I consider myself socially progressive, I’ve never considered myself more than a political moderate … but to people on a rant, anyone even a step to the left of Rush Limbaugh seems to be an enemy of freedom. I finally had to go the step of putting up a warning on my comments section that angry, right wing, neo-conservative rants would be automatically deleted, because I’m not providing a virtual soapbox for people to just make themselves feel smarter by attacking me personally. If you want to attack my ideas or what I said, let’s do it. But if you’re going to be a child, do it somewhere else, because I don’t care and I’m not providing space for it.
One person took this personally and attacked me for being a “typical” liberal, and then went on to defend himself for not being a neo-conservative at all, but a libertarian. I deleted his rant without finishing it. I’ve always wished he could somehow know that I never finished reading his passionate defense of his libertarian beliefs. Because maybe then he’d know a little bit how it feels for me to keep explaining that I’m a political moderate only to keep being attacked for being a “typical” liberal.
Of course, the hilarious icing on the cake to all this is that when we talk about politics on our blogs — and I’m not talking about legitimate news and op-ed sites, but just men and women writing their political opinions on their blogs in their spare time — is that none of it really makes any difference, does it? It’s not like someone important is reading our opinions and making policy decisions based on them. We’re just blowing off steam; we’re frustrated at having no power in the system, so we find a way to just get out our feelings and opinions so that they’re not eating away at us. We have a tendency to imagine that getting into a passionate fight about matters of legislation is somehow intellectual trench warfare, as if two or more people in one tiny corner of the blogosphere refusing to ever agree about the bank bailouts is somehow actual life-or-death politics.
And that, in the end, is what it all comes down to for me: Live your beliefs. Own your opinions. Say what you think and don’t be afraid, but always be open to listening. Just don’t fool yourself that your opinions on the political issues of the day affect anything. (Unless of course you really are getting involved; this is a whole other discussion.)
And stop fooling anyone that yelling at someone in the comments section for not being completely won over by a political candidate is ruining the political process for anyone. Grow up.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org