Twitter, Warfare, and the Imagined Rival
What I've learned from treating interlocutors as, well, human.
The first casualty of war is not truth, but compassion.
Compassion dies long before the first shots fired. It was lost in the weeks before the first men fell, in the years before treaties were broken. We use these events to date our conflicts, but in truth they begin long before, in the moments when one side — or all sides — forget what it’s like to feel with another.
The animalization of enemies, detaching ourselves from their humanity, is known to every student of history. But rarely, I think, do we pause to consider the feelings of righteousness that lead us there.
As a white American male who’s spent some time studying politics, I naturally feel the need to say something in moments like these, and to be seen saying something, and to find something — anything — unique to say. And a few of my reasons are noble enough. Solidarity matters. Social pressure has sway. A well-aimed quip can change minds, or reveal the idiocy of the self-sanctimonious poseur.
But mostly it feels good to feel right, and it feels even better to hurt those who are wrong.
This is as true on Twitter as it is on the battlefield.
I have deleted untold numbers of tweets this week. Several made good points, but nearly all aimed invective at someone. Glenn Greenwald alone has launched a thousand mental warships.
And then last week, wandering in a daydream, I saw in perfect clarity my introduction to one of these imagined rivals.
I watched the whole scene play out. I walked up to the man, extended my hand and gave my name.
“Oh I know who you are,” he said.
“Yeah,” he continued, “you were the one who…” at which point he recounted (not in words, but with the unspoken emotional force known to dreams) something I’d said that was so hurtful to him, so demeaning, that he’d never forgiven me for it.
I felt the life rush out of me, mumbling some trifling apologies, all the while thinking “I’ve become one of the people I hate.”
It’s commonly said that we’re so much meaner online because the personal stakes are lower, either because we’re speaking anonymously or because we’re unlikely to ever meet most of the people with whom we speak.
Picturing my interlocutor in the flesh — imagining myself speaking to them not just in the same room, but in the future, after my words have had time to work their effect — drains all of my energy for fighting.
I’ve begun to use the same exercise elsewhere. Some of my coworkers test my patience. Some infuriate me (sure, go ahead and concoct a story about me to our CEO, that’s my favorite start to the workweek). And it’s become clear to me that I enter my interactions with these people with shockingly little compassion. My guard is up. Ego is coming in hot. I’m ready to defend my ground.
But then I imagine how they got to this place. The taunts they probably heard in kindergarten. The slights they’ve received from people who look or sound like me. Their stress at home. Their fears of it all.
When I’m able to do this — and I’m just starting to learn how — I feel all of my defenses fall back. I am warm and open-hearted, even vulnerable. And even if I still don’t particularly like them, I at least recognize them as fully human, fully alive and broken in ways I know too well.
With luck I’ll never need to extend that kind of charity across a battlefield. But the battlefield reminds me of the work here at home.