Transcending Online Road Rage


Treat a man as he appears to be, and you
make him worse. But treat a man as if he were what he potentially could be, and
you make him what he should be.
— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Perusing the comments sections
of two excellent articles I read recently on
Reality Sandwich
and Evolver,  I was struck by the abusive tone of
many commentators. This had much in common with the
tone I have encountered in other online forums. I refer to it as "road rage"
because I think there are some parallels to vehicular aggression, which also
occurs in a dynamic, anonymous medium. I grew up with and strongly believe in
the value of Socratic dialogue, including sharp and forceful Socratic dialogue.
But the tone of many online forums does not strike me as the sharp edge of
minds exploring their differences as cognitive swordplay. There may sometimes
be an element of that, but mostly the dominant flavor is a neurotic venom, a
venom that I find myself especially allergic to because I find some of it
within as well as without. I have had to hold myself back from online road
rage, and in exploring its origins I will look within, as well as without, to
understand what's going on and how we might transcend some of this venom.

Online road rage is relatively new, but only because online
is relatively new.  In earlier
centuries and millennia, political disputes, disputes in the arts and sciences,
in philosophy, history, theology, etc. often dripped with vintage venoms every
bit as potent as any brewed up today. Communication technology changes faster
and more decisively than the human psyche, so we should expect many of the
deeper psychological causes of venomous dispute, past and present, to parallel
these changes. I'll focus on the present, however, and take a more personal
view here. This is meant to be a personal comment on online comments and not a
research project on disputatiousness.

We could all find examples, some funny, some grotesquely
over-the-top, of online road rage. It would be easy to construct a rant on the
discourtesy, egoism, grandiosity, ignorance, etc. of online road-ragers.  It would be easy to go into road rage
about road rage, taking vicious glee in exposing the foibles and gaffs of
online road-ragers. Shaming road rage from the outside might serve some purpose
too, but I feel that to understand it I need to examine it from within, to look
at the glowing road rage embers in my own soul.

I am an introverted thinking type and I have this hunch, but
don't have a shred of evidence, that many of the online road-ragers of the sort
that write multiple paragraph comments are also introverted thinkers. Also, I
sense that most of the Reality Sandwich road-ragers are fellow "mutants." They
are highly individualized, cognitively dissident folks who have logged
thousands of hours in alienating environments such as schools, workplaces,
shopping malls, and various social venues where their point of view was not
always welcomed, respected, or acknowledged.

As an introverted mutant, my inner
world is often more real to me, more dynamically in the foreground of my
awareness, than the outer world, which often seems like noisy, in-your-face
mundanity, crassness, and mediocrity coming at me in percussive bursts like a
series of 30-second TV ads. So I'm used to carrying my inner world, populated
by my divergent thoughts, perceptions and images, around in alienating
environments.

Furthermore, as a narcissistic
personality type, the ruling personality type of our day, I take considerable
pride in my inner world. The alienating environments in which I regularly find
myself feel like an implicit dis of my self-importance. Everyone is just
passing me by,  like I pass them
by,  as if I were just another body
crowding the sidewalk, the highway, or the corridors of cyberspace. These other
bodies crowding the space I am trying to navigate seem ignorant and oblivious
to  the greatness of my inner
world.  And so I compensate for all
the thousand-thousand abrasions and irritations to my self-importance by
inflating my inner world. I take excessive and brittle pride in my inner world
as the best, most valid, most real, most everything inner world to be found
anywhere. 

Retreating from the often
abrasive, noisy mundanity of public spaces, I bring my precious inner world
home with me and incubate it in my personal space.

I sit in my personal space,
mesmerized by the pixellated glow of my computer monitor, exploring this vast
online labyrinth of zeros and ones. The walls, floors and ceilings of the
labyrinth are all mosaics, and every glowing tile is an artifact of other human
psyches. Some tiles are beautiful and intriguing, but many others pop up like
greedy little hands that promise to elongate my penis, or share the wealth of a
Nigerian prince.

Within the labyrinth there are
antechambers where I find mosaics that reflect back my own most personal obsessions — sexual,
intellectual, visual, musical, etc. Whatever entrances me, no matter how exotic
or unusual,  I can clutch it in my
sweaty palms and get sucked with it into Google wormholes which transport me to
hidden recesses where I will find tiles or whole mosaics related to my
obsession.

Recently, I logged onto Reality Sandwich and found an article
about Terence McKenna, entitled "Stoned Apes." Terence has been on my mind
lately, as just a few days ago was the eleventh year since his passing. I consider
Terence a colleague,  though I only
spoke to him on a few occasions, because our ideas and obsessions paralleled
and converged in so many areas. 
(Read about a weekend of high strangeness I spent with Terence in
1996:  A Mutant Convergence…) Just glancing at the
title of the article, and without reading a word of the text, I felt both
interested and irritated.

The irritation carried a strong flavor of trespass, of someone invading
my personal space. I heard a brassy ego voice speaking in my head, a voice
whose tone and percussive rhythm felt like the honking of an oversized
turn-of-the-century brass car horn, the kind with a large, black rubber bulb to
push the air: What's this about Terence
McKenna? I'm supposed to be the guy who knows about Terence McKenna. Whose this
other guy who thinks he knows about Terence McKenna? Why do I have to read this
shit? Dammit! Since I'm the guy who knows about Terence McKenna I better read
this and find out what he got wrong so I can set things straight. 

On some occasions I have been the irate, red-faced driver,
squeezing the black rubber bulb with furious intensity. On this occasion,
thankfully, the honking was not in the foreground of my mind; it was more like
a car honking on the street a few floors down. The brassy voice was there,
getting its two cents in at the periphery of my mind, but mostly I felt
curiosity, the title intrigued me, and the article seemed a worthy rabbit hole
of zeros and ones.  Intuitively, I
sensed that there was some novelty within, something new to learn, and was eager
to read it.

I entered the article, traversing passages and corridors
formed of a lattice of words and thought-forms. Traversing this particular
thoughtscape, the honking in the background continued: What's up with this writing style? I would never write like this. Is
this guy British or affected or what?
In the foreground of my mind I was
intrigued, though also a bit chagrined, at some flaws being exposed in
Terence's thinking,  and a
specific, important example of how he had distorted some research in a way that
was convenient to one of his theories.

This wasn't a surprise because I had
long realized that many of Terence's theories worked best if you took a
half-metaphorical step back  and
interpreted them for general principles without taking the literal specifics
too seriously. The few times I talked to Terence, the context was my
attempting, very politely and respectfully, to confront him with the flaws of
Time Wave Zero and the fudge factors involved, for example, in how he located
novelty.  I found him graciously
and courageously open to dissenting points of view about even his most
cherished ideas. For example, one time he replied to one of my challenges,
"You're right, novelty is a slippery concept."  This one sentence acknowledgment stands out in my memory not
just for its content, but also for the humble, gracious, even poignant tone of
his voice as he acknowledged my points. The tone of Terence's response was a
reflection of the largeness of his character, and his deep and humble
commitment to the truth, a commitment that transcended Terence the showman,
narcissist, trickster, self-promoter and so forth. It also reflected Terence's
genius with spoken language, his ability to impregnate a single sentence with
so much meaning.

The way I saw Terence handle
divergent perspectives is a gold standard for me. No doubt there were other
moments I did not witness when Terence, like other mortals, was squeezing his
black rubber bulb and honking with road rage. The point is not about Terence,
but about a particular layer of the reality sandwiches that we make and consume
on a daily basis. There are usually higher and lower options with the choices
we make in the various realities we encounter. There are disagreements that we
choose to handle with grace, and others that we handle leaning on the horn and
shouting invective at another body moving through time and space or cyberspace.

Commenting online can be a fast, anonymous and cheap adrenaline buzz.
Unlike lashing out a friend or coworker, the repercussions seem minor. We
usually don't see the face of the person we are objecting to. They are like
someone whizzing by us at ninety miles-per-hour  on the highway. We see the glass and metallic glare of their
speeding exoskeleton, but any human form is at best an abstracted blur.

The thought-forms of other psyches
traversing cyberspace can sometimes be thorns in our side or even splinters in
our mind. We  feel we know exactly
what they got wrong. But sometimes the other gets something right, or at least
half right, about something that we don't know or don't want to know.  Suddenly this stranger is showing up in
our precious, mental inner world saying something objectionable about something
that we know a lot about, and in which we have a lot invested. 

The "Stoned Apes" article at times intrigued me with the very specific
flaws it found about a McKenna theory that I always found a bit dubious
anyway.  At other times I felt a
bit offended by the author's condescending and superior attitude toward
Terence, and his failure to find or acknowledge anything of value in Terence's
work. After I finished the article, I started to read some of the comments and
found that many were pointing out some of the flaws I had also found in the
article. But the tone of some of these commentators was venomous, and I found
whatever content these comments contained was eclipsed by the sense of them as
stereotypical examples of online road rage. Just as the author of the article
didn't find much merit in Terence, the commentators found no merit whatsoever
in any part of the article, which to me seemed to be similarly unjust.

I found that I had a more allergic
reaction to the comments than the article, and quickly got restive and left off
reading them. Following some forgotten chain of links,  I found myself pulled into an even more
intriguing article posted on Evolver entitled
"The
dark legacy of Carlos Castaneda
." This article was a rabbit hole in
many senses,  a fascinating glimpse
into the hidden, cultic world of Castaneda's personal sphere. I had read other
exposés of Castaneda, and seen a documentary on the subject, but this article
was well-written and researched and provided many novel details. I had long
considered Castaneda a hoaxer-genius so the article wasn't disillusioning. When
I got to the end of this article I read a few comments and found many parallel
examples to the road rage tone I found in the comment section of "Stoned Apes."
The subject matter had changed, but the tone and tactics of irate commentators
had not.

Like most other mortals,  I've had some disagreements I've handled well, and many,
many that I've handled poorly. 
Leaving an online comment can be a fast and easy way to vent, but what I
try to practice, and recommend that others consider, is to slow it down and
relinquish some of the coarseness and aggression that often come with
anonymity. When I leave a comment I try to remember that in addition to higher
and lower options I have in the content of what I say, I also have higher and
lower options in the tone with which I convey my content. I try to remember to
ask myself: What does my tone say about
me and where I'm coming from? 

I also try to remember to respect
the otherness of the other, to realize that I am encountering another ship
distantly passing my ship in the night of time. Through the mist of zeros and
ones  I can't even make out the
outline of this other ship. I know little or nothing about where it's been or
what it's gone through, what forces may have pressed upon it to cause it to
yield up the words it has proclaimed that I object to. Very likely this other
ship has also passed through alienating currents and storms.  It has also passed through obscuring
fogs and dark, despairing nights. The view from the deck of this other ship is
different, its maps are different, its navigational instruments are calibrated
differently. But it is another ship with its own structural integrity, its own
trajectory and inertial force, and I need to respect that.  As I steer my ship through the
sometimes-misty darkness of cyberspace, I know that the wind in my sails will
drive me to areas where other ships are navigating the same space. Ship-to-ship
signaling is crucial, but many ships handle it differently. Some ships use
their canons to fire across the bow of other ships. Others are more
diplomatic,  and send signals that
encourage everyone to navigate more respectfully.

Image by whereisatcourtesy of Creative Commons license.