I've seen a whole lot of commentary online about people who had to unfriend people over racist Facebook rants yesterday. (On the conservative side, I'm sure they're talking about having to unfriend people who were secretly "social justice warriors" or whatever the Republican code word for "politically correct" or "empathetic human" is these days.) I visited Reddit for about two minutes last night before the virulent casual racism drove me off. In fact, I have never seen the internet so hopelessly turned over to racism as it is right now. I have never seen things so toxic in my life. You can't visit any sort of a website without getting into a fight. And internet fights, honestly, just don't do it for me anymore. You're not trying to change minds. You're brawling in public to score imaginary points in a game that doesn't exist.
Gamergate, earlier this year, also made large portions of the internet unusable. It seems to have faded a bit now, thanks in part to dwindling attention spans, the proliferation of strong anti-Gamergate statements from prominent nerd celebrities, and the creation of "block bots," which ban entire swaths of people from your Twitter feed. Initially, block bots were created to keep the nattering hordes of pro-Gamergate Twitter users from harassing feminists, but now Gamergate has started to use block bots to clear their Twitter feeds of feminists. So now nobody's talking to each other. And it's easy to shake your head at the shame of it all—no conversation is happening! How can we possibly learn from each other now?
But nobody was learning anything on the internet anyway. Nobody comes to Facebook or Twitter or a comment thread to educate themselves. We're apparently not advanced enough as a species to deserve this miraculous mass communication device, which allows us to talk to each other instantaneously and across continents. All we want to do is shout into the ear of someone else, to get a reaction, to start a rumble.
And don't get me wrong. I'm not piously tut-tutting our lack of equal conversation. I don't believe that the middle is a sacred ground. I think centrism is a falsehood used to keep the masses in line. I don't believe Gamergate has anything to teach feminists. I don't think racist Facebook users have anything to teach people who are outraged about institutional racism. We don't owe concern trolls our time and energy, and we don't further the species by engaging with men's rights activists in the comment thread of a movie review site. Further, I think these racist, sexist, bigoted assholes are a tiny minority, screaming as loud as they can in the one place where their words have as much weight as anyone else's. This internet conversation, I have to believe, is a misshapen caricature of what humanity looks like when it's not online.
I don't know what the answer is, or how this stalemate will ever be broken. Presumably, before the internet, Americans were all blissfully happy in our little fiefdoms, aware of people who disagreed with us in a vague sense, but not willing or able to engage with them in anything but the rarest of interactions. Maybe we weren't ready for this kind of all-encompassing town square, where anyone can say anything to anyone. Maybe we never will be. Or maybe one solution is to drag this conversation back into real life, to put a human face on it as we stare down the bigots across a dinner table and try to make humanity relevant to them. Maybe a Thanksgiving break is just what the internet needs right now.