March 2, 2013

Hurt Feelings on the Internet

The IMP Log: The Very First Message Sent on th...
The IMP Log: The Very First Message Sent on the Internet (Photo credit: FastLizard4)
On a scale from 0 ("not at all") to 100 ("extremely"), how concerned are you about whether you hurt someone's feelings on the Internet? Take a moment and think about it. Consider how you generally behave online and ask yourself how often you find yourself holding back so as not to hurt someone's feelings.

Time for me to confess something. I think I'd be about a 20 on this scale. It is not that I am indifferent to the feelings of others. There are times when I attempt to word something in a gentler manner, but they are infrequent. I rarely hold back unless I think I might be interacting with a child. At the same time, I generally avoid name-calling and so-called profane language in my writing because I do not think they add anything of value. So while I avoid these things, I do not do so because I am worried about offending someone. All in all, I think I'd have to say that I'm not particularly concerned with hurting someone's feelings on the Internet. I do not go out of my way to do so, but I also do not expend much effort trying to avoid doing so.

Does this make me a monster? Maybe it does. I mean, with all the talk lately about civility pledges, some might think I am despicable merely for bringing this up. Some of the pledges out there certainly seem to suggest that I should spend far more time and effort reflecting on how my words might affect others. For example, I should completely eliminate "gendered slurs" and "ableist language" from my vocabulary. I should respect "safe spaces" and avoid saying anything that might possibly "trigger" someone. Perhaps the fact that I do not reflects poorly on me. And yet, I am reluctant to accept the conclusion that this makes me a monster.

My reluctance comes, at least in part, from knowing myself. I know that I do not go around looking to hurt anyone's feelings. I know that I am generally quite respectful of others, at least until they provide me with multiple reasons not to be. I know that I am not a particularly forgiving person and that I make my share of mistakes, but I am also not especially vindictive. I do not particularly believe in "turning the other cheek," but I would usually rather end an unpleasant interaction than try to get the last word in or hurl insults out of frustration.

Besides my awareness of my own motives, there is a much larger and more important reason that I am reluctant to conclude that my lack of interest in focusing on other people's feelings on the Internet makes me an awful person. I want the Internet to be a bastion of free expression where I can choose whether to interact with others and they can choose whether to interact with me. I want the Internet to be about reality and not about positive thoughts or happy feelings. I want to be able to find places where I will be challenged and pushed to confront difficult truths about myself. I desperately want to avoid the false sort of cohesion that may make people feel good but which masks important issues and smacks of hypocrisy.

Yet another reason for my reluctance to conclude that I am a monster is that I expect most adults to be able to engage in some basic emotion regulation. That is, adults are supposed to be able to manage their emotions so as to not become overwhelmed by them. If they can do so, they have the ability to self-soothe and will quickly recover from any hurt feelings. If they cannot do so, they should probably not be on the open Internet but should restrict themselves to limited "safe spaces." An adult who lacks basic emotion regulation skills is impaired and should ideally be receiving some sort of mental health treatment. Part of this treatment may involve temporarily limiting one's exposure to "triggering" stimuli with which one cannot effectively cope. I am not saying this to be mean, but I am not responsible for how another adult feels. None of us are.

Wait a second! Don't my feelings ever get hurt on the Internet? Sure. It does happen from time-to-time. And when it does happen, I get over it just as I would expect other adults to be able to do. If I feel the sting of hurt feelings or feel bummed out that something I did was poorly received, I might get off the Internet for a bit. Problem solved. And no, I am not about to conduct myself as if everyone reading my words is unable to cope with the slings and arrows of daily life.

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