Fortunately, I’ve been at this for decades, and by now I am unable to muster much emotional reaction to the ill-wishes of strangers except a faint surprise that they still bother. Moreover, presumably in deference to the holiday, the insults were both less voluminous and less venomous than usual.
But it made me sad for them, if not for myself, because it was the day before Christmas. All around me were patients who were fighting for their lives. My mother, at least, was sitting up and talking, making us reasonably sure that she would be going home with us — as she ultimately did, on New Year’s Day. Other patients had families who looked desperate for just a few more lucid moments when they could voice all the loving thoughts that had somehow gone unmentioned over Christmases past.
So I read the bile trickling across my screen and thought, “Dear God, this is how you spend your holiday? Instead of wasting time telling a stranger you hate them, why not find someone you love and tell them that?”
We’ve created a political culture that has people canceling friendships and breaking off relationships over politics, and worse, taking pride in how nastily intolerant they can be — where rage is the paramount civic and personal virtue, and kindness is nothing more than collaborating with the enemy. What is anyone getting out of it, except distraction from the things that actually matter: the families and communities and day-to-day life that politics exist to protect?
I’ve had this thought before, of course; almost everyone has, these days. But it is the sort of thought that hits you harder when you can clearly feel the fragility of the bonds holding us to this earth, and each other.
Since I have voiced this thought before, I know the answer that many of those angry strangers would give: that I’m just oblivious in my privilege, unable to understand that for many people, politics is a matter of life and death; that it is too late for civility. To treat our political opponents with an ounce of respect is simply to normalize evil.
This might be a fair answer if rage-filled invective worked. But anger and shaming only promote change in people who view each other as part of the same moral community — which is exactly what the scream teams no longer do. Nor, after a decade of this, can the screamers really be under the illusion that they are making much difference. At best, they’re mostly signaling solidarity with other people who already agree with them.
Given the minimal effort it takes to type out an insult, the value of the signal is pretty weak and comes at a hefty cost. It may temporarily make us feel good, because rage short-circuits other emotions such as anxiety or sadness. (Why else, after all, was I looking at my phone in the ICU?) But rage also suppresses positive emotions such as love and joy and makes it difficult to have good relationships. This gives us more reason to feel depressed and anxious, which means we need to hit the rage button even harder. Far too many people on social media resemble addicts chasing a rush.
Perhaps more to the point, dragging perceived enemies often substitutes for more effective political action. Or worse, it lets us violate our professed principles in real life, because after all, we’ve already done our bit by being mean to virtual enemies.
Which isn’t the only way it makes us worse human beings. The next time you are tempted to scream at someone online, imagine yourself standing next to your target in the ICU, with their critically ill mother. Would you still be proud to deliver that nastygram in person? If not, take your thumb off the keyboard, because that may be exactly what you’re doing. And you can’t count on all the targets to be as inured as I am.
What almost all of us can count on is that someday we ourselves will be sitting in a hospital room and struggling to fit decades worth of unspoken thoughts into whatever seconds we have left. This, not some political battle, will be among the most important moments of our lives, and none of our righteous anger will mean as much to us as a single extra “I love you.” Except, of course, insofar as it stole the moments we could have used to say just that.