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I think it’s fascinating when you stop to consider what people “give up” for Lent. Americans swear off all kinds of things and I was no exception this year. More often than not the things we give up are harmless luxuries or petty vices that we can easily do without. The usual suspects like chocolate, fast food, chewing gum, smoking, alcohol, cursing, etc. seem to make everyone’s list. One year I gave up caffeine, but I really don’t think it made me a better person. All it succeeded in doing was make me very irritable. I wasn’t exactly engaging in solemn spiritual reflection. I was just jonesing.
Why do we do this? What do we accomplish, or hope to accomplish, when we give up something for Lent? More importantly, why do we keep choosing trifles to “sacrifice”? It matters more than we think. But the vast majority of us who give up something for Lent don’t give our decision a second thought. Lent comes and goes every year with all the life changing power of our New Year’s Resolutions.
The word “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “lencten”, which simply means “spring.” It begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. It lasts forty days (not counting Sundays) and is intended to represent the time Jesus spent in the wilderness to strengthen and purify himself before his ministry in the world began. For Christians, it is intended to be a time of repentance and self-examination as we await the coming of Easter. It is a time of spiritual renewal. It is a time to remember Christ’s sacrifice and if one pauses to consider what Christians believe he gave up for humanity on the cross, abstaining from eating candy bars seems a trifle immaterial if not completely frivolous.
Well, how about “giving up” something that might make a real difference to one personally? Something lasting that actually has meaning other than some painless self-denial. This year, the minister at my church presented our congregation with a far more compelling challenge this Lenten season.
How about giving up hate? How about giving up resentment, mean-spiritedness and bile? How about giving up bitterness? How about giving up anger? Think about that for a minute. Given today’s social and political climate, this is likely a far more difficult and daunting prospect for Americans than simply eschewing soda for a few weeks.
So this year, I gave up something different for Lent. I decided to give up being angry on social media and refrain from political commentary.
Do you know how hard that is? Especially if you’re somebody like me who reads the Washington Post and the New York Times daily, watches MSNBC and CNN whenever possible and generally tries to consume as much news as I can. It usually takes only about thirty seconds for me to become blind with fury at something this bone-headed administration has done, is doing or is trying to do. And usually, I vent that frustration on social media. When I stepped back, I saw that my Facebook feed was filled with politics and fury at Donald Trump. So were the feeds of most of my friends. They tend to be just as angry with the state of our country as I am and it fed my frustration and rage.
And you know what? I found that it wasn’t particularly healthy and furthermore it generally accomplished nothing. Not for me at any rate. I discovered I was one of millions in the choir preaching to millions of others in the choir. I hated anyone who didn’t share my views on Issue “A” or Candidate “B” or just posted an opinion contrary to my own personal orthodoxy. I was paying attention to the commentary on my favorite evening political shows only in the hopes of catching a snarky soundbite to post.
That ended, at least for a while, on Wednesday, March 6, 2019 and what a difference 46 days makes.
The only “current event” I posted about during Lent was the fire that all but consumed Notre-Dame in Paris. Everything from the college admission cheating scandal to the release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report to the failure of Congress to override Trump’s “state of emergency” at the US-Mexico border are things I normally would have spent a lot of time online railing about. And it would have accomplished nothing except making me upset and sick to my stomach.
In choosing to step back from the keyboard for a while, it occurred to me that nothing ever changes just because of social media anger. Everything was, regrettably, just as screwed up on Ash Wednesday as it was on Easter Sunday. The only way things really change is when people vote. And when we are between elections, things change when people march and demonstrate, volunteer, donate and make phone calls. When people give of their time and their talents to make this country the place that it should and needs to be, that’s when the ground starts to shake beneath the White House’s feet.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I don’t wish to imply that people who are politically active online and only post about current affairs are somehow wrong. I didn’t wander into the desert and have a vision that taking a break from political and social commentary is The Way Everybody Should Go. Make no mistake. It’s still important to keep writing. It helps keep people aware of what’s going on and is an important way to make our voices heard. But fundamentally, nothing good ever came from just bellyaching nonstop on social media (unless your last name happens to be Putin) and that became crystal clear for me personally during these few weeks.
I consider myself to be an educated man. I think I know the issues. I’m fairly certain know the candidates. I unquestionably know what’s at stake next November. But in no way does any of that mean I have to angrily broadcast what’s on my mind in all caps to everybody on the planet every chance I get.
During Lent, I continued to read Facebook but through a different lens and it was a joy. I learned some really neat things about my friends. I know a lot of very talented and creative people, full of humor, warmth and compassion. You just have to cut through all the garbage other people post, which can be a Herculean feat on some days. And life became better offline. I rediscovered my love of Stanley Cup playoff hockey. I spent more time on the phone. Not texting…actually on the phone talking with friends instead of just messaging them. I was able to dedicate more of my mental energy to helping my denomination, the United Methodist Church, fight a renewed effort from within the church hierarchy to crack down on gay marriage and the ordination of gay clergy. You can’t do that on Facebook. When there weren’t constant voices yelling about the issues, I could get more out of what I did read from “traditional” news sources. If you go away from social media for a while and then come back, it becomes really clear how easy it was for Russia to screw with our election process. It sometimes seems that everybody out there is a troll of some kind.
Not being so angry all the time also gave me the ability to focus on the more personal matters that came my way. A childhood friend who lost her husband and just needed to talk. Another who is dealing with the loss of his best friend and his mother in the same week. Trump’s Twitter antics seem really unimportant when you are confronted with things like that.
All of this is not to say I personally won’t get political again on Facebook. Of course I will. I’m me. I just will likely do it a lot less and let The Contrarian Blog do it for me. His job is to be an opinionated prick. Mine is just to try to be a decent person and a good friend.
Online and off.
Do you know what the most crucial component of social media is?
In a world where the internet provides us with news every hour of every day and countless views on every subject, it’s the ability to leave a comment that has proven so invaluable to the average person online. It is the means by which we can, among other things, challenge established ideas and openly question political and religious dogma. The anonymity that most online comment platforms provide allow us to ask hard questions and discuss social issues without fear of being ostracized or ridiculed. We are able to interact with people around the globe for the free exchange of information. There are few tools that can give one person so much ability to have their voice heard. It may be the one of the few instruments for social change that rivals the effectiveness of the ballot box.
The ability to leave a comment, however, is also perhaps the most insidious and destructive component of social media. It gives the angry, spiteful, bigoted and ignorant among us all a method to spew hatred for its own sake. Blogs, online media outlets, Facebook, Twitter, digital newspapers, etc. have all had to contend with this problem. It’s a new kind of predator that exists only in cyberspace: the troll. We all know what one is. The dictionary refers to a troll as an ugly creature from Scandinavian mythology that typically lived in caves or under bridges and was rarely helpful to humans. In some stories, the troll would exact some kind of task or toll from unsuspecting travelers who dared cross his path.
It’s no wonder that the troll was the perfect choice to describe the vilest inhabitants of the internet. Wikipedia describes an “internet troll” as a person “who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement.” Suddenly, the verb “trolling” takes on a much more sinister meaning than just quietly searching for fish. It becomes synonymous with people searching for conversations to infect with hate and rancor.
There is nothing good about a troll, not one thing, so I’m utterly astonished at how many there seem to be out there. Some people will read articles posted online and in their own twisted minds conclude the writer is making a personal attack on them. Safe and secure in our Liquid Crystal Fortresses, many of us have become unbelievably thin-skinned. So it was that I found myself in awe lately while reading my own comments page. It’s unnerving and I believe everybody who takes the time to post or reply to comments on a blog has had this feeling. You write something, not even anything incendiary or controversial, and then POW! You feel like someone reached through the screen with and swung at you with a baseball bat. Wow. Unsettling, isn’t it? So as a public service to one and all, let’s get a few things crystal clear, shall we?
There isn’t a single blogger I know, amateur or professional, who doesn’t appreciate positive and grateful commentary. Even comments from those who disagree with you but have something intelligent and logical to say are of great use because in no small measure, that’s how we learn things. That’s what democracy is all about. As for myself, I like to think I’m a fairly tough cookie. I really don’t care what you say about me personally. I’m a big boy who understands that writing about politics will subject you to a lot of abuse. But even if you disagree with everything I write, making a strong and compelling argument will get you a lot further and a lot more respect than just calling me a f***ing idiot.
As to my most recent blog, I find it wildly ironic that so many supporters of Donald Trump, a man who insults everybody under the sun, uses 5th grade name-calling and boorish tweets as the centerpieces of his campaign, has put forth no serious or credible policy proposals and as I previously wrote, “makes racism, sexism, misogyny, nihilism and ultra-nationalism the pillars of his candidacy” are upset when somebody says their support of him is stupid. It amazes me just as much when people perceive I am actually telling not to vote for whatever third-party candidate they want to. It’s your right as an American to vote for whomever you please so long as they meet the qualifications set forth in Article II of the Constitution. What I do state unequivocally is that such candidates have no mathematical hope of winning the Presidency and that is an inescapable fact. In any case, if I bruised delicate feelings, then mea culpa. I’m not trying to change your mind. That appears to be a lost cause which is why the piece was written to begin with. I will, however, point out how completely absurd your support for Donald Trump is or how a vote for anyone else under in the present political system will accomplish nothing…at least not this year.
On the other hand, there were far too many individuals who made comments, and not at me, but at others that crossed an intolerable red line. There is a maxim on the internet of “Please Do Not Feed The Trolls”. Good advice. Well, just this once, I’m going to. So here it is.
Do not call any woman who reads and comments online, or anywhere else for that matter, the C-word. Ever.
It’s galling that somebody needs to make this plain to grown people and to do it this clearly and forcefully. It apparently has to be done, though, so I may as well do it. That is a repugnant and disgusting term and you are scum if you use it. Believe me, I’m no choir boy when it comes to cursing up a blue streak. I freely admit there are plenty of times I need to wash my mouth out with soap. But on a public forum, what kind of person in God’s name uses that word in so cavalier a fashion toward people they don’t even know? I know what kind does and probably so do you. They are little people, in mind and everywhere else, who are threatened by intelligent women with an opinion regardless of what that opinion is. For context, see Scott Baio. And by the way, you shouldn’t even use it when talking about the candidate, either. Granted she is in politics and is therefore is open to scorn and derision from her detractors. Love her or hate her, there is no doubt she can take care of herself. But I don’t care if you’re madder than holy hell about whatever offense you think she has committed or whatever character flaw you perceive she may have. Were you raised in a barn?
Some readers of late may have been put off or offended by the liberal use (forgive the pun) of the F-Bomb and my sarcastic tone; that it perhaps detracted from the argument or obscured what were otherwise good points. Those are very legitimate critiques and I heard those of you felt that way. Fair enough. To be honest, however, being a little profane and snarky was kind of the point. Given the subject matter, my aim was to shake the reader up and I seem to have succeeded. But don’t believe for a second that gives anyone carte blanche to be abusive and needlessly vulgar. It’s like people using the N-word when talking about President Obama. It was rotten in 2008 in and it’s rotten now. And while we’re on the subject, do not use racial or ethnic slurs at people you think are supporting Hillary Clinton simply because they are black or brown because yeah, I’ve had to read that garbage along with everyone else. Do you talk to people like this in their face? Probably not, but if you do, I suggest having your Thorazine intake adjusted.
I want to get your attention because with so many pundits on TV and online who analyze absolutely everything about this year’s election, it’s hard to make even one singular point unless you metaphorically slap somebody in the face. I want to use words like a proverbial bucket of ice water and pour it over the reader’s head when discussion, debate, reasonable arguments and well, just being polite haven’t worked. When facts are dismissed as “your opinion”, “talking points” or just “lies”, I will sometimes write like my keyboard is on fire because like so many of you, I also get angry.
But I will never deign to use bile and filth aimed randomly and applied at point-blank range like a shotgun to demean people who are just trying to put their two cents in. If everybody were to think and speak a little more sensibly and calmly, for lack of better terms, maybe the climate of political discussion everyone finds so abhorrent wouldn’t be so negatively charged. It would be so much easier to make our stands as voters and citizens. How’s THAT for a contrary idea?
Aristotle once said “Anybody can become angry. That is easy. But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”
In short, if you’re just a troll, if you can’t stop hating and denigrating ordinary people using the most base and contemptible terms possible because they disagree with you, then yes, you are a moron, you are stupid and yes, you deserve every rotten epithet I can muster. Your bridge is over there. Go crawl back under it.
NOTE: This was dedicated to readers who made comments and then were verbally abused. You didn’t deserve to be. The offending trolls have had their comments deleted.