July 19, 2015

Toxic People

What is a toxic person? I'm sure we all have different ideas for the sort of person to whom that label might be fairly applied. After all, it is a highly subjective label that is tough to define without relying heavily on our own feelings. When I think about the sort of people in my life I might consider toxic, it is usually those who seem to do nothing but complain and those who always seem to make me feel worse after I've interacted with them. They have little of value to contribute to any interaction besides negativity. After I've interacted with them, I feel that the interaction was unproductive. I feel drained. I almost always ask myself why I spend any time with such a person.

Toxic people can be found online too, and their effects there do not seem much different. I have had a particular atheist blog in my RSS reader for some time and have been following the author on Twitter for even longer. The blog is relatively popular and is on one of the big blog networks (not Freethought Blogs or Skepchick). The author is quite prolific on Twitter, tweeting as much as anyone else I follow there. That means I have read several hundred if not several thousand of this person's tweets. And I have finally come to the realization that I find this particular individual somewhat toxic and have decided that I have been making a mistake by supporting his/her work by subscribing to the RSS feed, following on Twitter, and so on. In essence, I've decided that supporting someone who behaves like this is probably not something I should be doing.

How can someone be toxic online? Just what is it about this person's online behavior that I find so toxic? Based on what I have observed over the last several months, a significant number of the tweets sent by this blogger involve name calling and personal insults. In fact, it appears that one of the primary things attracting this person to Twitter is the opportunity to hurl insults at anyone who holds different opinions. Christians are the primary targets for the insults, but conservatives receive their share too. The insults are almost always over-the-top and juvenile despite the fact that this individual is a reasonably intelligent adult. And they almost always involve attacks on people rather than their ideas. A Christian who tweets something along the lines of how he or she believes in Jesus is quickly called a "fucking moron." What these tweets communicate, considered as a whole, is the author's utter contempt for anyone who does not share his/her views (e.g., religious believers, conservatives, anyone who might not know as much about a particular subject as the author does).

This author is one of the many public faces of atheism. In addition to blogging, he/she contributes content to many high-profile media outlets. The author's blog, while not particularly insightful and frequently hyperbolic, isn't terrible. I rarely find much of value there because the posts are not much more than re-hashed news stories I've already read with the author's angry spin on them. Still, I'd be hard pressed to claim that it has no value. I know some people really enjoy such blogs. All of this makes the author's behavior on Twitter that much more surprising.

Why would someone like this go out of his/her way to troll Christians (or conservatives) on Twitter to insult them? How does regularly insulting others on Twitter help atheism, skepticism, secularism, humanism, or anything else about which this author would likely claim to care? I don't think it does; I just think that the author must genuinely enjoy it. How does it advance his/her brand, promote his/her work, and so on? I suppose there is an audience for this sort of thing, but I'm certainly not going to be part of it. I'm not going to go so far as to claim that people who behave like this make the rest of us look bad, but I think it is fair to say that they make themselves look bad.

We all have some toxic people in our lives. Some of them are hard to avoid, and we might not have the luxury of separating ourselves from them. But in this particular case, I do have that luxury. I can remove this blog from my RSS reader and unfollow the author's Twitter account. If I found his/her content thought-provoking, I'd keep it even if I disagreed with much of it. Instead, I find myself wondering why I'm spending any of my time on someone who behaves like this. And the good news is that I do not have to do so.

We do not need to punish toxic people, and it would be a mistake to try to silence them. I recognize that I have no control over this blogger's behavior and am in no position to pressure him/her to change it. Besides, what I have seen is such a well established pattern of behavior that the odds that the blogger would have any interest in changing it now are quite small. What I can do is reduce my own exposure to it.

I am well aware that some will be disappointed that I didn't chose to name the blogger I've referred to here and cover this post with his/her objectionable tweets. But really, what would that accomplish? The point of this post was not to publicly shame anyone but to suggest that we each have some responsibility around how we choose to spend out time.

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