There’s a cognitive disorder called all-or-nothing thinking. It’s what we do when we haphazardly make conclusions (about people, things, ideas, etc.) that are hyperbolic: good guys v. bad guys, for instance. In reality, we know it’s never quite that simple. We’re all “good guys” and “bad guys” in different ways. If we stop and think, we can correct this type of all-or-nothing thinking in ourselves.
But what happens when that all-or-nothing thinking takes hold of a whole new entity, one we cannot control alone? What happens if it takes hold of the social entity that is humanity as represented on social media? I think we’re there. The ‘us’ that is represented through our collective involvement in social media is a rampant all-or-nothing thinker. And worse, it’s an unforgiving one.
Here’s an example: Our online persona believes that because racists commonly exhibit a failure to understand the significant depth of their privilege, then that means that anyone who exhibits a failure to understand the significant depth of their privilege (even if inadvertently, and sometimes especially if inadvertently) is a racist. And they are called as much without restraint.
Here’s another: Our online persona believes that because anti-LGBTQ persons commonly exhibit a desire to significantly differentiate males from females, then that means that anyone who differentiates males from females (let’s say, for example, by stating that “men are not women”) is anti LGBTQ. And we tell them so. Sometimes we even fire them from their jobs.
Here’s another: Some of you think I’m to blame for androcentrism/antifeminism because I used the term “guys” in the first paragraph of this story to apply to humanity generally. If you did this, you painted me with a broad stroke. And you were wrong.
Imagine an intelligent being years from now looking back on history to piece together its creatures and their habits. It might find our Tweets and our Instagram stories and our Facebook posts and analyze them as communications of a creature it could aptly call the Human Heckler. And as it analyzed our communications, it might determine that this heckler could view a single moment, a single phrase, a single stutter even as a deadly sin from which there was no return.
And why one creature as a whole unit? Because the future examiner would compare the various social-media handles to their embodied counterparts and realize they were quite different. Put another way, we are not in life who we are online, either as individuals or as a group. Online, we are imprecise, overstated, and magnified. And we are pretty ruthless sometimes.
My inclination, or perhaps my hypothesis, as to why this happens stems from my own experience. As a female (genetically and by identity) growing up in a world before ‘me too,’ I could not find a voice to appropriately and wholly convey the intense tribulation it was to grow up being treated less-than in so many ways. And so when someone, anyone, made a comment that added to that tribulation (or to what I thought was the cause of it) the whole, entire amount of pain came crashing down on that one person. Each decimal was wholly responsible for the deafening. Each drop of water was wholly responsible for the flood. Of course, in person, I didn’t verbalize the full amount of blame on such a person. I used a filter. And I am glad for it.
But what now that the opportunity for blame falls not only to anonymity or quasi-anonymity but also to the force of anonymous or quasi-anonymous masses? Now there is no more filter. Instead, there is a rousing level of support for such antics. Enter the social mob.
mob /mäb/ noun
a large crowd of people, especially one that is disorderly and intent on causing trouble or violence.
Mobs get things done; don’t get me wrong. But the trouble is that mobs often don’t stop and think very much. They are not the cognitive or cognizant giants of the modern world. Moreover, once they get going, it’s very difficult to get them to stop, and they often do a lot of unwarranted damage in the meantime.
So what do we do about it? Enter apologies and forgiveness.
And here’s where I turn the question back to the reader: how do we incorporate apologies and acceptance of the same into our online culture?
Again going back to my personal experience, a true apology would have been one where someone genuinely tried to understand the depth of my tribulation and their part in it. Of course, the reality is and was that an exact understanding could never be had. They weren’t me, and they never would be. Something short of that exact understanding had to suffice. On top of that, sometimes I was plain wrong about their contribution. They hadn’t added to my pain: my interpretation of their actions added to my pain.
So to you I ask, where is the line or the scale by which we can judge when an apology is (1) needed, and (2) enough?
Is there room for something short of perfect understanding, perfect “wokeness” to suffice in the online world? If someone contributes to someone else’s significant tribulation, is it enough for the contributor to realize this and try to change? And can we start to differentiate the drop from the bucket?
I certainly hope so, because if not, then I fear none of us is safe from accidentally tripping and losing our livelihoods. I fear we will all be painted with the broad brush at some point.
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