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 whereisat, courtesy of Creative Commons license.