Sunday, February 17, 2013

Oh, God(win)

Godwin's Law, not really a law as such but more an idiom in the Murphy's Law sense, states that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1."
More plainly, Godwin's Law asserts that, given a long enough time, any online discussion (regardless of topic, scope or participants) will eventually contain someone making a comparative reference to Hitler or the Nazis.*
I had never seen this happen firsthand, however, no matter how well acquainted I was with the idea. It was the stuff of legend, something that happened to famous people or internet trolls.

That is, until a week ago.

An acquaintance on facebook, known to purposely provoke debate, posted a statement about gun control really being about our Second Amendment rights to bear arms against our government if necessary. Of course, knowing the person behind this particular argument, several people (myself included) responded with snarky comments: how can a government's own constitution condone treason against said government; or that if the point is really to arm ourselves against the government, why can I not have some submarines and an Air Force and a few tactical nuclear weapons to make the fight more even?

And then, so swiftly that no one saw it coming, enter The Thread Killer.

Thread Killer jumped right into the heretofore good-natured banter with an epic description of how he knew people who owned tanks and anti-aircraft guns and that they were prepared to use those weapons against the government if necessary. Without time for a breath, he stated additionally that it appeared it would be necessary because the "Socialist-in-Chief" Obama was trampling all over our constitutional rights.
I hoped, naively perhaps, that the levity of the original mood could be regained. I didn't know the person, but he was friends with the original poster, as I was... so surely it couldn't be as bad as the dark and dangerous internet, where comments are a free-for-all. "Obama a socialist? That's funny," I said. Especially (I thought it wise to point out) if one goes to Europe, where the real socialists can't stop rolling in the aisles every time they hear such ridiculous accusations.
Oh, no. Nope. It's not funny at all. Thread Killer pounced: it's not funny, it's horrifying, Obama is going to take away our guns and turn our country into Nazi Germany, and little me, the obviously brainless and acquiescing sheep that I am, well, well, well, I was just going to let it happen just like I would have let all those Jews waltz right into the gas chambers**. Luckily, Thread Killer was on the side of Israel, unlike the rest of us socialist Nazi wannabes who would rather do useless things like vote. (Ah, yes, and how dare I assume that he'd never been to Europe?)

I was taken aback. I tried to keep a lighter conversation going with the original poster, but I simply could not let such hateful and harassing statements go without reply. So I was matter-of-fact and brief: I should hope he would take back what he said, as it was unacceptable and shameful.

Well, that didn't work. Instead, Thread Killer demanded to know why he should take back his statements when they were true and Obama was a fascist, or, I assume, whatever Obama's currently thought to be on Fox News.

Because, I said. You just called me a Nazi. And you don't even know me.

After this, Thread Killer's comments in the thread disappeared, as if by magic. I thought that perhaps reason and civility had won the day, that he had seen the unnecessary cruelty and inappropriateness of his statements and thought it better to rescind them from public view. I continued a conversation with the original poster, but something seemed off about our back-and-forth. It seemed, well, not precisely back-and-forth. And a couple of days later, I discovered why.

Thread Killer hadn't deleted his posts - he'd blocked me.

Someone else, someone capable of seeing the entire thread, finally told me so. The conversation had continued without me. What I found the most discouraging was that Thread Killer didn't even want a debate to air his opinions. He didn't want me saying contradictory things or accusatory things in relation to his comments. He preferred the uncertainty of knowing whether anyone was listening at all to the certainty that I would argue with him.
The night of that post, I happened to be home alone, and let me tell you the sleep I got that night was fleeting and troubled. I heard every creak and snap of the house, every rustle and whisper of the trees outside, my brain convinced that someone willing to accuse me of destroying the country might also be willing to take whatever steps he deemed necessary to prevent me from doing so. A day or so later, I finally got up the courage to write one last post, explaining to anyone else who could see the thread that I had been blocked and thus could not read or respond to any of Thread Killer's comments. I should think, I said, that ownership of opinion is one thing that we can agree upon in this country. We take the right to free speech just as seriously as anything, or, at least, I thought that was true. So let it be known, world, I concluded, that I was disappointed in Thread Killer's behavior, despite the fact that the discussion itself had been essentially worthless. At least, while it was a discussion, it had the potential to get somewhere, but now that potential was lost completely. Two monologues do not a dialogue make.

It does sadden me that this happened; not just that it happened to me, but that it could happen at all. At what point did we give up on trying to compromise? At what point did we decide it's ok to hurl accusations at people we don't know, simply because they disagree with us on something? When did we begin to allow ourselves to believe that a person could be categorized so completely that the words we use to describe them don't even have to make sense anymore - how can someone be a socialist and a fascist dictator at the same time? - or, in another sense, when did we become so angry that it didn't matter what words we chose? Why does it seem to be so easy for an online thread to escalate from discussion to accusations and threats of violence? And how do we know if such violence isn't (or is) really intended?
Is it the nature of modern communication? We are so easily able to remain anonymous and hidden in a word of internet memes and text messages that perhaps we don't bother with civility anymore, the same way we're more likely to pick our nose in the car than elsewhere in public. Or is it the media, which blasts us with so much information that we're unable to process anything but whatever simple mantras they feed us, without even knowing what they mean: socialist, Second amendment, constitutional rights. Is it just human nature to feel that it's always "us versus them"?
I worry, mainly, because whatever the cause, this behavior is indicative of a dangerous current; the hidden undertow of willfully ignorant tribalism that threatens to destroy the very democratic social contract on which our country was, at least in theory, founded. We are losing our educated and informed public opinions, and we are losing our desire to even engage in the discussion and debate necessary to fairly and communally apply those educated and informed opinions. And that is a very frightening thought. Far more frightening than whether Obama is trying to take away our guns.

*It should be noted that Godwin's Law does not apply in the circumstances that the discussion is actually about something to which a comparison with or reference to the Nazis is relevant, such as WWII.

**I do not wish to make light of the tragedy that happened, but I also do not wish to mince words. The relevant portion of the exact quote in question: "Apathy like yours was the same apathy that allowed millions of Jews to walk into ovens." This was a hateful and cruel statement directed straight at me, and it is not acceptable to let such behavior go unchecked.