“Bad stuff happens, people are mean, there are no steps you can take to ensure the world leaves you alone. All you can do is try not to be one of those people who contributes to the bad.” –Holly Bourne, Am I Normal Yet?
Amidst what we would expect to be a shower of glory and accolades from winning an Olympic gold medal last week, American gymnast Gabby Douglas instead found herself in a hurricane of negativity. The trolls of social media came out in full force to disparage everything from her appearance to her love of the country she has spent the last several years proudly representing. They told her she had bad hair. They told her she wasn’t cheering hard enough for her teammates. They absolutely ripped her patriotism when, during the playing of our national anthem after she and her teammates won the gold medal, she elected to stand at attention with her hand at her side rather than over her heart. She actually felt compelled between events to apologize if she offended anyone by standing that way (never mind that if you look around before a game at a big stadium, hands to the sides during the anthem is completely common). By the time she got to her final press conference of The Games, the vilified Douglas could barely get through it without tears. Apart from not performing as well as she had hoped, she talked of all of the social media haters and how “hurtful” it all was. She walked down the hallway alone and broke down.
That is a two-time Olympian and multiple gold medal winner. And that is what passes for normal on social media these days.
Last weekend, my wife was explaining a project she was working on at her job, creating a public service video designed to bring awareness to sexual violence prevention and how we should all empower ourselves to stop it. She pulled up a YouTube video for me as an example of what they wanted to do, this one done by celebrities. It was well done and well-intentioned, and of course, its message is extremely important. Just as the video was ending, though, she quickly warned me to NOT look at the comments below the video. “All it is down there is nastiness. Just mean-spirited stuff.” So, I didn’t look. For days, I didn’t look, disciplined in my philosophy that my mind shouldn’t go wandering in the mud unless necessary.
But then, my curiosity got the best of me. I mean, how could you possibly be nasty about a public service announcement against rape? Right? It didn’t make sense to me. So, literally just now, I looked.
I don’t think of myself as a prude at all, and I like to think I am aware of what is out there in the world. But, oh my goodness, I am beyond disturbed by what I just read! Beyond!
I guess I am not shocked that some people think these awful, mean-spirited things. But this painful, dark sensation in my heart right now—honestly, I am a bit crushed and totally stunned by this experience—seems to be from the sheer volume of people spewing this hate and negativity. It is endless! I couldn’t believe the first few comments I saw, so, like a fool, I kept looking. It was an endless onslaught of vulgarity that ran the gamut of topics, all equally disturbing. In the end, I guess that is what I feel most right now, in the immediate aftermath: DISTURBED.
The questions come racing to the front of my mind. How could someone have that much hate in them? How could SO MANY people have that much hate in them? How could an innocent public service announcement stir all of that up? If there are this many people commenting with hate on something as innocuous as a PSA for sexual violence prevention, do I dare even imagine how many and how negative the comments are for more normal pop culture things, like celebrities or politics or athletes? Who ARE these hateful people? How did we get to this point where this level of negativity is so common that it feels normal, like just part of the deal?
As these questions relate to the real purpose of Journal of You, they lead me to wonder not just about our society in general but about my personal inventory. That is where it all starts. The issue that keeps spilling out of my churning mind is, “When did it become so easy and acceptable to be so negative?”
I know that for myself, because of my interest in politics and my natural leanings to one of the far ends of the spectrum, it can be easy to dismiss or rail against people on the other end of that spectrum. I think that is especially true in the company of other people who think like I do. One of the things I have done lately to check that tendency, though, is to institute a personal “No Negatives” policy on social media posts. So, even if I come across a meme about Donald Trump that I find hilarious, I am not going to share it. If I find an article about something that I despise, I am not going to share it with my comments about “I hate it when…..” or “This lady is a piece of….. .” Even in response to other people’s posts, I am not going to go down the road of telling them how awful the idea or person they believe in is. I have watched how those interactions spiral, and it is just not productive.
I will, however, on my own page, post about issues that I believe are important or stances that I support. Basically, I want the pattern of my pages to say, “I feel positively about this, and I support that,” rather than “I feel negatively about this, and it is stupid to support that.” (It reminds me of my years of coaching sports, and the important lesson it took me a long time to learn: Better to show and explain to the student what you DO want them to do, rather than keep saying, “Stop doing this” and “Don’t do that.”)
It will probably always be a mystery to me why someone would spend their time and energy to go on social media to disparage an Olympian’s hair or rail about her lack of patriotism (as she wins gold medals for my country while I sit here on my sofa eating ice cream). And I will certainly never understand why someone would search YouTube for public service announcements about preventing sexual violence so he can comment about how “rape is natural” and “they deserve it” and all sorts of other bigoted swill.
What I can understand, though, is the power of a voice. (After centuries where so few people had a voice that could reach an audience out of earshot, today anyone with a keyboard might reach millions immediately. Maybe that newfound power is what we are all fumbling with now, trying to figure out how to best harness it.) My promise to myself is to be aware of my voice, to understand that it is my choice which way I go with it, and to use it for good. I am going positive.
How about you? Which way do you go with your voice? Open up your journal and get clear on what your vibe is. How easily do you slip into negativity? How would you categorize your most frequent negativity? Are you inclined to rip on people, such as Gabby Douglas, for their appearance or perceived personality traits? Do you share snarky memes about people (e.g. politicians) that you disagree with? Do you find yourself writing or saying stuff like “I hate….” or “You know what really makes me mad? …..”? Would people who talked to you or followed you on social media tend to think you were more optimistic or pessimistic? Open-minded or narrow-minded? Friendly or mean-spirited? In which forum do you let your negativity out? Do you save it for only someone closest to you (e.g. spouses who rip on everyone else, but only to each other—a partner in mockery)? Do you save your more negative commentary for people in the room with you, i.e. in the form of conversations? How much do you put your feelings out on social media? Are you willing to comment on other people’s posts with negative reaction to what they are in support of? Are the things you post or share on your own Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat page more “This is what I believe in…” or more “This is what I can’t stand…”? Have you ever been the person in the Comments section of an online article, video, or chat room who uses the space to be mean to people (either the creators or the other commenters)? Does the anonymity and invisibility of the Internet allow you let your negativity to flow more freely? On the whole, are we more negative these days, or are there just more ways to spread our negativity than before? What is behind this willingness to go so negative? Is it the impersonal nature of the Internet and social media, where we can hide behind our screens and mine from the very worst of our character traits with impunity? Is it the general decline in respect for authority figures? Is it the increasing distance we keep from other people, which lessens our feelings of empathy? With zero being very negative and ten being very positive, how would you rate yourself in terms of the way you are using your voice? Are you willing to do better? I dare you! Leave me a reply and let me know: How can you speak more from the positive in you?
It costs nothing,
P.S. If this letter made you check yourself a bit and consider a different way, please pass it on. Let’s build this thing together!