Remember when you took Art History 101 and they threw this slide up on the wall? The professor (or more likely some bonehead grad student with a seriously over-inflated sense of self-importance) said, “The French words on this painting by René Magritte say ‘This is not a pipe.’ What did he mean by that?” And you were all, “Duh, you self-important grad student ass. He means you can’t smoke a painting.”
Or was that just me? I may have had some issues with some of the grad students that taught my college survey courses.
The same lesson had more meaning for me when I took my first course in creative nonfiction. (Not taught, incidentally, by a grad student, self-important or otherwise, but by a young professor who is as humble as she is brilliant.) The Adrienne you meet here in my writing is a representation of the live, flesh and blood human being. Not Adrienne the person, but Adrienne the character.
Does this mean I’m deceiving you? Absolutely not. Or at least not intentionally; human nature being what it is, I’m sure that I’m deceiving myself about a good many things and, therefore, deceiving you. But I put a great deal of effort into being genuine here, even at the expense of my pride, because I firmly believe in the healing power of Truth.
My point? Getting there, I promise.
I’ve been on the internet a long time. My dad gave me a computer and a 33k modem in 1995 and I’ve been talking to people via a succession of computers ever since. First UseNet, then email listservs, then message boards, and now the bazillion and twelve ways offered by Web 2.0. The people I’ve met online have offered me information and and advice through every major event of my life, from my divorce to remarriage, step-parenting to infertility, and health issues to parenting a high needs baby. The internet provided my first community of parents of children with special needs. Nothing can replace the love and support of people I can see and touch, but my ether people* have enhanced my life immeasurably.
In all these years of talking with people on the internet, often about sensitive and/or controversial things, I’ve seen battles. Fights, arguments, debates, wars, and more than a few total freak-outs by more than a few people. I’ve been fortunate never to be at the center of any of those (I’d like to think it’s because I’m a very nice person with excellent diplomacy skills, but it’s probably just luck.), but that doesn’t mean they haven’t affected me. To watch one’s community fracture, even when the fracture is timely and appropriate, is not fun.
I wonder how much of this heartache could be avoided if we all remembered that we are characters here in this placeless, spaceless world of the internet. No matter how honest we may strive to be, we are still characters, built of ones and zeros, presented for public view.
When someone attacks me on the internet, I know that they are removed from me, that they are attacking the character Adrienne, not the person Adrienne. That gives me some measure of emotional safety, something I sorely need as a writer who divulges a great deal of personal information for public consumption. I hope that I am open to the thoughtful opinions (positive and negative) that come my way, but for the mean-spirited attacks, I breathe deep and think to myself, “That person doesn’t know me.” Because that angry, bitter person who feel the need to call me names? Also a character, a representation.
In all of life, alone or in company, online or face-to-face, be kind. There is a real person behind every internet character you meet. Even when you disagree or someone treats you badly, show the world what it means to walk around wearing your dignity on the outside.
While you’re being kind, be strong. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who think that being mean is just “expressing an opinion.” Not so. There’s a great deal of difference between, “I disagree with your decision and I think it will have bad consequences,” and “You’re an idiot, but you’ll get what’s coming to you when the shit hits the fan!”
OK? Go forth and be the best person you can, then come back and portray your online character as honestly as possible. Be kind. Be strong.
Next blog post: Surplus Transfer and the Birth of Capitalism**
*I started calling them (you) ether people because it seemed bizarre that all these people (people who I could actually talk to, unlike the people in books or on TV) could come to me through a computer that lived, back then, in a playpen in my kitchen. When we went to high speed cable internet and you came to me via ethernet cable, the term entrenched itself in the family vernacular.
**Totally kidding. I was thinking about college and self-important asses and the term paper I wrote with that title arrived at the front of my brain.