Practicing Kindness Online

Pick an online news story. Just about any one will do. Then read the comments. Even if the story is about something as innocuous as a child’s lemonade stand, sooner or later the comment section will devolve into biting sarcasm, contempt, and hatred — things that we would never say to each other in person. Why are we so mean online?

Most people credit — or fault — the anonymity of the Internet. But that anonymity is mostly an illusion, because it’s not hard to discover a poster’s real identity. I think it has more to do with timing. There’s a lag that isn’t there in face-to-face conversation. Sure, that gives us a chance to swallow our angry retorts. But it also gives us the chance to sharpen our words into weapons that vanquish our imagined enemies. But just because we can … should we?

Quinn Norton decided that the answer is a clear, “No, we shouldn’t.” So she made a vow to spend a year living Ahimsa, the Indian practice of nonviolence, every time she got online. But that didn’t mean staying away from debates. Instead, she participated in those debates with the goal of learning and teaching, rather than winning. She focused on crafting her arguments with gentleness, compassion, and understanding rather than with contempt, aiming for common ground above all else.

Was Norton’s experiment with Ahimsa a surrender, a virtual display of packing up her toys and going home? Not at all. In fact, Norton says she found that “gentleness was, like the gentle mind, much more powerful. I came to see the onlookers learned more from a gentle discussion than they ever did from the verbal wrestling. To keep the humanity of the person I’m talking to in my mind and heart at all times made every conversation better, even the antagonistic ones.”

There are many topics dividing our society today, and it can be both fun and educational to debate the ins and outs of these issues. But it’s important to remember that, no matter how abhorrent another person’s views are to you, not one single thing about those views takes away from that person’s humanity. Clever, harsh words may help us score points, but they don’t win hearts and minds. If you want to do that, practice gentleness and kindness, even from behind a screen.

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