A few years ago, I was an active commenter on a blog. For a while, it was a terrific place for me to frequent. I admired the author’s writings a lot. There were several commenters whom I enjoyed interacting with. But something happened over time. I started witnessing several negative, hurtful, sometimes distasteful comments. There were a handful of people who abused the comforts that anonymity afforded them. A subset of these comments was directed at me – I had clearly set up myself for this. In my comments, I would come across as righteous, indignant and, worst of all, sensitive. I thought that I was doing the right thing in standing up for fellow commenters, spouting philosophies on what I believed the rules of the online universe must be. After a while, I decided that I would not be part of that blog anymore. And I signed off with a rather dramatic, longwinded comment. My experience on that blog was an unforgettable one. And as is the case with key experiences in life, the exam came first, the lessons later.
I thought of my experiences on that blog and what happened later while reading Mark Manson’s rather deceptively titled book, “The subtle art of not giving a f*ck.” The book is a lot more profound than the seemingly flippant title suggests. And one of the most thought provoking lines in the book flips the famous Spidey line. Before I get to that, let’s start with the Spidey line – “With great power comes great responsibility.” If my memory serves me right, I actually quoted Spidey in one of the several holier-than-thou comments that I had posted on that blog! But let me hasten to add that I do not regret the fact that I said that. Far from it. I am glad that I voiced my opinion that the internet affords people the kind of freedom and liberation that can easily be misused. People can be brutally honest, hurtfully blunt or tastelessly vulgar all without a care in the world. Well, maybe not completely. Cyber crime is serious business and people do get caught for serious crimes. But what about the comments that are not a crime in the legal sense of the word? Nobody is going to be charged with “verbal assault aided and abetted by sarcasm!” I digress. My comments on that blog were many a time a plea for decorum and civility. The responses that I got were varied.
A number of people could sense that the pain I expressed was genuine – some of them are my great friends today. Others – including the author of the blog – displayed tough love by saying that I was doing myself a disservice by coming across as touchy. That I had to accept the fact that the online sphere was going to always have people that would misuse the freedom and prey on folks that are openly expressing the remnant scars left by prickly words - well-meaning advice for sure. A small set of people gleefully enjoyed the anonymity and subject me to verbal volleys which now seem funny when I think of them but no, I wasn’t laughing then! After a while, as I said earlier, I quit. I was steadfast in my refusal to veer away from my beliefs. In the past 2 ½ years, I have been writing a lot more regularly for my own blog than was the case before. I still do follow the author’s writings but of course, have not left a single comment on his blog, the comments section of which, I am happy to say, has become a lot more civil over time. So yes, all is well now.
But at the time I ‘quit’ the blog, I definitely felt hurt and downbeat. I had done one thing that Manson wrote about in his book even before I read it. But I wish I had done one other thing that he so passionately describes in his book. The thing that I did followed one of Manson’s deeply affecting lines – “Negative emotions are a call to action.” Very soon after my rather dramatic final comment on that blog, I decided that I would revitalize my own blog and use it as an avenue of honest expression, be it on films or people that have made a difference in my life. That part worked out well. So, what did I not do?
What I didn’t do is summarized by a sentiment expressed in Manson's book in lines of differing lengths but of similar depth. One is the aforementioned flipping of the Spidey line. Manson writes, “With great responsibility, comes great power.” The other line that expresses a similar sentiment is, “We get to control what our problems mean based on how we choose to think about them, the standard by which we choose to measure them.” While I was a part of that blog, I didn’t exert full control of myself. While I was responsible as a commenter, I was not taking responsibility for my reactions towards the reactions that resulted from my actions. I depended on people’s good graces and expected people to interpret my words with the intent that was behind them. I did not say to myself, “Okay, if I sound earnest and directly, even if civilly, call people out, some are bound to retaliate.” I worried as much about people’s perceptions of me as I did of what I wanted to express honestly. In Manson’s words, I did not have the “control” to define what the problem meant to me. I have made this mistake in some relationships too, not being content with my authentic expressions of affection but also in craving relevance in the way I define it. There, right there, I lose “control” when I shift my gaze away from an inward focus. But owing to thoughtful well-wishers and insightful books, I sincerely feel like I know what I must continue to work on, in order to silently experience the power and lightness that comes from taking full ownership of actions and a level-headed awareness of varied reactions that can result.
In the recent past, I witnessed two unrelated instances - actor Prasanna and singer and MeToo activist Chinmayi – of celebrities being subject to vile comments on Twitter. Both responded with guts, gumption and grace. Instead of stooping to the lows plumbed by the originator of the abhorrent comments, they displayed the kind of “control” that Manson describes. Of course, the comments would have caused them pain. But their responses showed that they were willing to face the unfortunate realities of the online world. I can only hope that the voices, also anonymous in their own way, that came out in support of them must have warmed their hearts at least a little.
Until the day comes when people realize that abusing free speech is bound to have costly implications for others, I can only hope that we all empower ourselves with the priceless riches of self-control, self-preservation, an unwavering focus on our own values and genuine ways of expressing those values. That way, even if we don’t ace every one of life’s exams, we can at least be well-prepared to get through them relatively unscathed!