How to Stay Sane in the Cesspool of Internet Discourse

Taking a break from the Gnostic Worldview series for a sec, because I wanted to talk about the circumstances of discourse on the internet, and the fact that it’s mostly a nasty cesspool that erupts into flaming and trolling and ridiculousness.  From the standpoint of someone who maintains a blog focusing on “alternative spirituality” (yech– hate that term), this can be especially irritating when you’re trying to get some ideas out there, and all people want to talk about is what they think about how wrong you are about x, y, or z.  I think Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset summed up the problem all the way back in the 1930’s:

“The present-day writer… has to bear in mind that the average reader, if he reads does so with the view not of learning something from the writer, but rather of pronouncing judgment on him.”

On the internet, any man-jack with an opinion and enough fingers or toes to type is immediately an EXPERT in whatever subject you’re discussing, and scholarship/reason/common sense be damned. And you, as the person who is doing the writing, are responsible for DEFENDING yourself; you have a DUTY to do so!

For instance: in my last post, I mentioned off-handedly that I’m not a fan of entheogens. This was one small paragraph out of a whole long-ass essay, but when I shared a link to it in a couple of places, all anyone wanted to talk about was YOU ARE WRONG ABOUT ENTHEOGENS THEY ARE AWESOME WHY WON’T YOU REPLY TO MY INSISTENCES!

Seriously, here is a message I received in an online forum:

“I have some questions for you to mull. The Buddhists imply that Gnostic mythology and even direct experience of it are diversions. How do you reconcile this? Why do Buddhists never explain the simple math of non-duality implying infinite rebirth? What are the various suppression methods of this secret? Why has Empire from day one suppressed entheogens through brutality and assimilation? Or in the modern context, prohibition and … the culture conspiracy to desanctify them.”

To most reasonable people who take the time to read my posts,  this series of inquiries seems patently absurd. This asker obviously has an agenda, and has no interest in discussing the content of my work. Instead, he’s an EXPERT in something or another with no interest in the material I’m talking about, but wants to use my writing as a jumping-off-point for his own preconceived love of entheogens (and he tosses in some irrelevance about Buddhism to beat).

People who interact with me online know I’m totally keen on discourse and discussion, and the old me of a few years ago might have written an honest response to each question, just to be nice. But look,  I’m tired of tolerating this kind of nonsensical interaction just because it happens on the internet. Sure, the interactivity of writing online and participating in discussions is fantastic, generally speaking, but there’s this strange misconception that just because we’re online, all discussion is equal and deserves equal respect  (with obvious exceptions for obvious trolling and hate speech, etc). It’s “There are no stupid questions” write large, combined with this idea that “freedom of speech” should be unlimited on websites, that “both sides of an argument” should always be presented, otherwise we’ll end up in an “echo chamber.”

Sure, both sides of an argument should be presented, if both sides can be presented reasonably. But when one side of an argument is “I am philosophically opposed to the use of hallucinogens for spiritual purposes,” and the other side is “WHAT ABOUT THE CONSPIRACY TO SUPPRESS AND DESANCTIFY ENTHEOGENS AND BUDDHA?!” I feel pretty good about not publicly addressing that question.

Clearly, talking with other people online has the potential to be super-duper crazy making. So, in the interest of trying to help spread a little bit of sanity, I would like to share my version of:

The Rules of Staying Sane on the Internet: 

1. There are such things as stupid questions. You don’t have to answer them. 

Sure, if you’re in grade school, you should be encouraged to ask questions, even if you’re worried they might sound silly. But listen, once you’re past a certain age and have accumulated a little common sense, you should be able to figure out how to ask a relevant question. If you can’t figure out how to ask a relevant question, you shouldn’t be surprised if you don’t get a reply. This idea that “there are no such things as stupid questions” has no place outside of the paltry inanities of corporate training sessions– you don’t get to play that card past Grade 9. If somebody asks you a question and it’s no good, you have every right to ignore it. 

2. There are also stupid answers. You don’t have to reply to them.

You can substitute “ideas” for “answers” here.  This is one of the biggest bugbears for those of us interested in honest discussion of – yech – “alternative spirituality.” For every good site or discussion or opinion on the Gnostics out there, there are five dozen idiotic collections of wildly speculative hoodoo about Atlantis or the Templars or some dude named Weor. If you were to spend all of your time trying to refute the idiots of the world, you wouldn’t be able to break for lunch. You’d lose your hair. I’ve tried, and I’m only now getting over the hypertension.

This attitude is summed up most beautifully in John Shelby Spong’s “A Manifesto! The Time Has Come!“:

I have made a decision. I will no longer debate the issue of homosexuality in the church with anyone. I will no longer engage the biblical ignorance that emanates from so many right-wing Christians about how the Bible condemns homosexuality, as if that point of view still has any credibility. I will no longer discuss with them or listen to them tell me how homosexuality is “an abomination to God,” about how homosexuality is a “chosen lifestyle,” or about how through prayer and “spiritual counseling” homosexual persons can be “cured.” Those arguments are no longer worthy of my time or energy.

You don’t have to engage with people on factual stuff. We’re so concerned about “finding a middle ground” and looking for “many shades of gray” that we lose sight of the fact that sometimes things are actually black and white. Spong again: “I have been part of this debate for years, but things do get settled and this issue is now settled for me. I do not debate any longer with members of the “Flat Earth Society” either. I do not debate with people who think we should treat epilepsy by casting demons out of the epileptic person; I do not waste time engaging those medical opinions that suggest that bleeding the patient might release the infection.”

Yep. As long as you’re honest with yourself, and you’re honest about the purview of the information you’re disseminating, there is no need to debate with people with whom you disagree.

3. You don’t have to reply immediately to anybody.

It’s okay– essential even– to take some time to craft a response if you find that mulling it over is a good idea. I’ve often gone days or weeks without replying to something, and am much happier with the quality of those responses than I would have been if I’d immediately fired off a reply. Justin has a great post about this in re spirituality on Nascent Gnosis, but the idea is the same. You have a mandate to represent yourself they way you prefer to be represented, so take the time to do it right.

4. You don’t have to reply at all.

Even if someone crafts a thoughtful, excellent response to something you’ve written, there is no law that requires you reply. Obviously, it’s polite to do so, but it’s always okay to say, “Great response, thanks for reading!” or, “Great questions, I’ll think about them!” You don’t owe anybody a reply.

5. Deleting nonsense comments on your own work is not “censorship.”

I’m all about the freedom of expression, but not every expression should be freed. Somebody comments on my work, and I’m not inclined to approve the comment, I’ll delete that sucker. Like I said, I always welcome comments and questions, but if somebody seems overly judgmental, wants to hijack my comment space or thread to spew their own agenda or declare their own enlightened state, somebody posts something silly or offensive in a thread on one of my sites, and it’s goneI don’t have time for that kind of thing, and neither should you. Some jerkwads will claim that this amounts to “censorship,” or “creating an echo chamber,” or “being the Gnostic Police,” or whatever. This isn’t “censorship,” it’s “my house, my rules.” I’m sure what you have to say is important, but if it isn’t reasonable, there is a whole internet you can take it to that doesn’t involve me and the good people who frequent my site.

6. It’s okay to call people on their bullshit.

I wish people would do so more often. We’re too overly tolerant of things like intolerance, or dumb ideas that happen to be religious. Homophobe? Selfish conservative jerk? Tea Partier? I get to call you out on it on my own site. As long as you’re not slanderous, or libelous, or dishonest, there’s nothing in the rules against calling somebody a douchebag if they exhibit douchy qualities. Personally, my idol as far as bullshit-calling goes is Groucho Marx (vide his masterful Letter to Warner Brothers for one of the finest take-downs in history).  Oh, and I should underline that part of effectively calling bullshit is knowing when to stop.

7. You should be okay with all of this if you’re on the receiving end.

There’s a correlate item here, which we’ll label 7a. NEVER TAKE ANYTHING ON THE INTERNET PERSONALLY. 

I am consistently amazed at how significantly people take comments made online. Why, just the other day, on my obscure Facebook page with about fifty readers,  I called a self-declared Bishop a “douchebag” for not supporting gay rights within his church. He infiltrates my page, flies into a rage and says I’m using the same tactics as “Islamic Terrorists,” writing crazy rants all over the thread and ending with an indirect threat.  DUDE BRO, I have an entire PAGE devoted to attacking me (see for an example; no direct link because I don’t want to give this guy direct traffic from my site), but I just don’t mention it.  Why not? Because it’s just some crazy guy on the internet, just like me. His opinion carries about as much weight as a paper thimble full of helium. Just like mine. He happens to be a hate-filled anti-Semite, but that’s beside the point.   

The point is, if your ego can’t take criticism, even if it’s being delivered by some guy on an internet forum, I really caution you to have your cholesterol checked pretty frequently, because you may be in line for an aneurysm. 

Once again, I don’t have time for nonsense, and it’s okay if you don’t, either. If somebody asks a nonsense question, or says something to you that you have no interest in replying to, then don’t. If somebody insults you on the internet, you are allowed to ignore it. Your time is valuable and limited, and I strongly encourage everyone not to waste it if you can avoid doing so.  If somebody doesn’t reply to one of your questions, you don’t have to be offended. You can just go about your business.


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Filed under Boring Stuff, Essays, Miscellaneous

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