Julie Gray
Editor, Writer and Only Slightly Reformed Overthinker.

Sticks and Stones

Remember that old rhyme? Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?

Like a lot of things we used to take for granted or believe in, we have learned that this just isn’t true. Words do hurt. Words hurt very much.

It seems like the world is just on fire right now. Orlando, Brexit and Sarona. Immigrants drowning and politicians being killed on the street and too many other terrible and frightening events to name here. Despair. It is all around us. These feel like very dark times.

I pine for the day when I can open up the news and read BREAKING: Something Really Wonderful That We Did Not Expect Happened!

What makes me even more despairing is the way that we talk to each other online. The animosity and combativeness are just off the hook. I think we are in a full blown crisis when it comes to discourse online. We are in total meltdown.

The thing is, no matter how far apart we are on all of these issues, we really have more in common than we think. We are angry and we are scared. We want peace, prosperity and well-being.

We obviously don’t agree on how to achieve those things. We take all kinds of stances and have all sorts of opinions. We all fancy ourselves to be armchair professors on topics far and wide. We have deputized ourselves to be truth-speakers and teachers of our beliefs.

No matter how wide our differences, we have shared bookends in common, of being upset and wanting better. That’s huge, actually.

What we really have to do is to stop tearing each other apart. To  paraphrase Andy Borowitz, The New Yorker satirist, whether Trump wins or loses, his supports will still be there. Exactly. Name the conflict or issue and the truth is that whichever outcome or politician or policy wins out in the end, we will still be here, living with the results. We have to change the way we speak to one another online if we want to encourage discourse, innovation and kindness in this world.

Human behavior is interesting to say the least and to quote the film Michael Clayton: “Humans are incomprehensible.” We really are. We are paradoxes within paradoxes. Within societies, we have many rules and restrictions for our behavior – of what we can and cannot say or do. But online, we feel sufficiently disconnected from a real interaction that we break all those rules. And how.

The online world is a society too. One without borders and often without rules. We can make of it what we will. In terms of resources and information, the internet is a cornucopia of the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful. But much of the discourse online has become so heated lately – even more than in the past – and so very harsh and ugly, that we have lowered the bar for all of us. But it’s not only that. Many online are very passive-aggressive, with slights, sarcasm and put downs that are subtle but just as hurtful. Making your anger more sophisticated does not make you better or smarter or more right. It just allows you to distance yourself from the ugliness a tiny bit. Same same.

Nobody is an angel – every day I have moments when I want to blurt out something mean because I am frustrated. It’s hard not to! But we have to find appropriate outlets, and ones that do not involve causing harm to not only one another but to our collective ability to engage in discourse at all.

Of course freedom of speech is important, but if you think for one minute that you will change a mind (much less a heart) by berating someone with how right you are and how wrong they are, you are demonstrably mistaken. You might “win” that argument. But you’ve also lost.

Think of it this way: Have you ever, once in your life changed your mind about something because someone berated or put you down? Ever? It’s just not effective. Recently someone said to me, well, “the truth hurts” and this person went on to say she felt obligated to speak the truth and further – sorry, it’s gonna hurt.

That’s another oldie but baddie. I believe it is a fallacy to make this argument, that the truth hurts and that we are obligated to go out there and be as truth hurty as possible. That’s actually just a rationalization.

So often in life we can’t really say what we mean. And we get pretty frustrated. So online – well – look out. You might be letting off some steam but you are actually hurting yourself and everyone around you. Mostly you are hurting the ability for us to discuss different ideas and reach for solutions to our problems.

This has been going on for years and much has been written about it. It’s certainly far from new. But I feel it has reached a fever pitch and sometimes I imagine those in leadership positions just rubbing their hands together with glee as people are so busy tearing each other apart online that they don’t pay attention to the fact that Rome is burning.

We do not have control over so many things that are going on in the world today. But we can control how we react and how we treat one another. We are all on this leaky boat called earth together.

If you are interested in changing your own habits, making a difference and learning more about more reasonable, empathetic discourse online, join Compassionate Communication Online today. Together, we can do this.

[There is also a Hebrew speakers group here. If would like to create your own sister group with the same aims, in a different language or in a different region, please let us know and let’s support one another.]

The world exists for the sake of kindness. ~ Rashi

About the Author
Julie Gray is a story editor and nonfiction writer who made the leap from Los Angeles to Israel almost seven years ago and has many (mostly) humorous adventures ever since. A longtime Huffington Post contributor and self-described "Hollywood refugee", Julie works with writers all over the world on fiction and creative non-fiction books. Her own memoir, "They Do Things Differently Here" is an understatement and a work in progress. Julie heads up The Gidon Project, a collaborative memoir about the nature of memory, the spirit of resilience, the Holocaust the art of aging well and other lessons learned from one man's life. Julie's favorite color is "swimming pool" and when she's not working with and wondering about words, she loves to knit "future gifts" in her beloved Big Red Chair.