People of the Internet: Stop Taking Everything Personally

People of the Internet: Stop Taking Everything Personally March 29, 2017

A_frightened_and_an_angry_face,_left_and_right_respectively._Wellcome_V0009326A couple of weeks ago I wrote about what I call the “tyranny of exceptions.” Many people, when confronted with valid generalizations, are incapable of admitting the truth of these generalizations without immediately fleeing to exceptions. “Children do best with a mother and father” sparks the reflexive retort, “I was raised by a single mom, and I turned out just fine.” “The government does a poor job of funding good art” raises the immediate objection, “But what about those trippy dance numbers on Sesame Street?”

This tendency is so endemic to social media that I’ve begun to wonder whether the inability to grasp general truths is a handicap ingrained in young minds by our diversity-obsessed education system or popular culture.

But I just stumbled across a terrific 2009 article at Reformation 21 which made me realize how often I see people grasp at exceptions as a means not of highlighting marginal truths, but of taking offense as a means of defusing debate. Theologian Carl Trueman observes how many denizens of the Web–Christians included–have weaponized hurt and offense, even in conversations where no hurt or offense were intended:

“Everywhere I look, I find people “processing their pain,” “feeling the hurt,” or reacting to comments from others that are variously described as “hurtful,” “insensitive,” or “cruel.””

Trueman goes so far as to coin a new Internet law in the tradition of Godwin: “In any exchange of views, sooner or later one or more of the participants will describe themselves as hurt or in pain as a result of somebody else’s comment; and at that point it is clear that they have lost the real debate.”

He doesn’t think this behavior is accidental, or even (much of the time) sincere. It’s more “cunning and dishonest,” he writes, and more often than not serves as a substitute for reasoned debate, not a catalyst for it:

“Over the last couple of years, I have noticed that the hate mail in my inbox has been replaced by what I now call hurt mail. Now, the agenda of your typical hate mailers is pretty straightforward: they are simply attempting to intimidate or humiliate the recipient into silence. What you see is what you get.  Hurt mailers, by comparison, are rather more subtle and duplicitous: by claiming pain, they immediately do two things. First, they make themselves the poor victims; and second, they imply that the targets of this hurt mailing are intentionally malicious perpetrators.  The game is precisely the same as with hate mail — to make someone whom they dislike or whose opinions they discount shut up — but the tactic is different: to win by seizing the moral high ground that belongs to the professional victim.”

But invoking “hurt” and “pain” as arguments trivializes those concepts, and serves to obscure the real issues at hand. Trueman writes of one woman who dropped him a note chiding him for “personal attacks” after he’d written on a serious, church-related issue. This puzzled him, because he’d never met her or even heard her name before. How, he asks, is it possible to personally attack someone without knowing she exists?

Regardless, it’s clear where this strategy leads: instant flare-ups of passion in what should be calm, rational conversations.

Jonathan Bartlett, a friend on Facebook, took a somewhat more charitable approach than Trueman. Observing how many immediately take personal offense in discussions on any number of subjects, he suggests they just can’t help it:

“Many people are unable to separate out sociological generalities from personal attacks. They are just plain unable to do it. If I were to say, “I think that we should have more babies in society”, then someone is sure to say, “Are you saying that because I’m infertile I’m sub-human?” If I say, “I think we all should have fewer children” then someone else would say, “Which of my children do you want me to get rid of?” There seems to be, among a large group of people, the inability to separate general points from personal accusations.”

In discussion of the so-called “purity culture” (which I’ve engaged at length here), a great deal of the “hurt” and “pain” purportedly inflicted by Joshua Harris and advocates of courtship is more likely the misapprehension of critics. They simply hear statements which no one ever spoke. I can testify how many as teenagers heard their youth pastors teach the indisputable fact that premarital sex damages people, but perceived it as a direct attack on their worth.

“You will have difficulty bonding with your future spouse if you sleep around,” said “Purity culture.” But what they heard was, “Because I had premarital sex, I’m damaged goods, or less valuable as a human being.” If Joshua Harris or any youth pastor had ever said that, it would indeed be grounds for taking offense. But I can virtually guarantee that in 99 percent of cases, the “purity culture” teachers in question neither meant nor said any such thing.

Nevertheless, people have been taking it personally for decades, even as they have generalizations and truisms about family size, single motherhood, or government art funding. The reflex to cry offense at the first sign of danger to our worldviews or lifestyles is so ingrained, most of us can no longer help ourselves. It just gushes forth. It’s how the modern citizen of cyberspace wins arguments. But if we value truth at all, we need to reconsider this strategy. Because facts, even general facts properly qualified by exceptions, are not subject to feelings.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Engraving, c. 1760, after C. Le Brun, Wellcome Images

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