The Essential Nature of Empathy and How the Internet Screws It Up.

If you ever want to feel bad about yourself, hang out in the comments section of any website.

After sitting amidst the maelstrom of pieces on Prince’s death yesterday, I clicked on the comments section of a piece on NJ.com. I’m not going to link to it. It bummed me out in its racist, queerphobic litany. So I closed my browser and went on with my day.

When my Guardian piece was published last June, I soared over how it seemed to resonate with people and how often it was shared…and then I read the 1000+ comments on both the site and on Facebook. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. I wasn’t smart enough. I wasn’t Christian enough. I wasn’t gay enough. Everyone had a prickly opinion on me and my faith. I thought I was tough enough to take it. I was and I wasn’t; going back and reading some of these today really hurts.

Two days ago, the brilliant, open-hearted writer Stephanie Wittels Wachs published an amazing and stirring piece on the dangers of the internet and how it deadens empathy, framed around the death of her brother, television personality and writer Harris Wittels. I wept a little when I read this, and its companion piece from almost two years ago about Harris’s death.

She nails it:

Maybe people are just shitty. Or maybe it’s the internet’s fault. Or maybe people are just shitty and it’s the internet’s fault.

Regardless, it’s time to resurrect the Golden Rule. Let’s all take a breath, shake it off, and declare a do-over. Let’s start listening to each other, especially when we disagree. Let’s value our differences instead of vilifying each other for them. Let’s be inclusive and kind. Let’s be compassionate and empathetic to the plights of others. Let’s be human beings. Because we’re never going to get anywhere if we continue to treat each other like garbage.

A wise man who I loved very much once said: “Let’s stop finding a new witch of the week and burning them at the stake. We are all horrible and wonderful and figuring it out.”

It’s so easy to roboticize our personalities and those of others on the internet; I read those comments on my piece and I get my Irish up, ready to say unconscionable things to people who might feel comfortable calling me a faggot and worse from the comfort of their laptops, wherever they may be. And sometimes, those comments are deleted, and sometimes they aren’t. I can’t control that. But I can control the context and level of response and adherence to the Golden Rule, if I so choose.

So, let’s be better. That’s the root of the root and the bud of the bud of all of this.

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