The Dangers of Unsolicited Discourse

When I was in high school, I learned about the impacts of climate change on bees. It sent me into a life-long love of these essential pollinators. When I was in West Virginia shooting a short film, I remember the fattest bumble bee I’ve ever seen, struggling to stay on the flowers in the vase in front of me outside. She was too heavy for the lily petals that were starting to die. So, in the greatest moment of my bee-loving life, I held my finger under the bumble bee to help her not fall as she drank the nectar from the various flowers. Her tiny fuzzy legs slipped onto my finger, so I gave her a little boost so she could return to her mission. I nearly cried from joy.

A small girl (the author) in a bee costume with brown hair stands on an autumn porch with pumpkins and flowers.
My dedication to bees started young.

Once I learned about climate change, I had several “discussions” (screaming matches) with my deeply conservative father. I was imbued with these ideals as a child, so when I listened to my parents about being well educated, they were upset that I had become a “bleeding heart liberal snowflake” as a result. I remember trying to talk to my bullheaded father about the bees and climate change. I remember emailing him the sources he demanded of me, which he never read. And most of all, I remember crying out of frustration and being told, “Stop crying. I can’t talk to you when you’re being so emotional.” Apparently the anger of a man doesn’t count as an emotion.

This feeling returns to me when I make the same mistakes of engaging with friends and strangers in high-level discourse through any of the social media hellscapes that exist. I’m used to going toe-to-toe with conservatives online, those who do not realize they stand against basic human rights, and those who have no empathy and believe their experience is universal. However, I recently got into an argument online with some of my very liberal friends, so I wanted to share the mistakes I made in hopes that you, dear reader, will not repeat them.

Welcome to the Internet

Mistake #1: I redownloaded Facebook onto my phone. I chose to use the evil that Mark Zuckerberg created, but furthermore, made it incredibly accessible. In my own defense, I redownloaded it to buy and sell furniture for my upcoming move, so it was required in order to post listings and respond to buyers/sellers. It was the first time in months since it lived on my smartphone, nestled into a yellow biodegradable case with bees and honeycomb engraved into the back. I found so much peace with the outside world, so my return to this nightmare of a social media site was incredibly distressing and a wonderful reminder of why I disabled it in the first place.

Mistake #2: I read a post from a friend. She is open about her hard internal work of healing her gentle soul and she shared a picture of a tweet from a generic looking white man. Here it is.

A tweet from a generic looking white man named James DiNicolantonio that reads, "Replace alcohol with water Replace Netflix with podcasts Replace influencers with creators Replace overthinking with actions Replace toxic friends with mentors Replace complaining with gratitude Replace spending money with investing Replace sleeping in with early mornings"
I don't think this man knows that periods go at the end of sentences.

There are a few of these statements that I agree are good changes. I’ve replaced toxic friends and my life has improved. I’m an overthinker, so reminding myself to take small actions is great. However, the tweet does have some more toxic productivity moments (and a total absence of punctuation). I don’t believe sleeping in, Netflix, spending money, or alcohol are things that need replacements. They’re wonderful ways to rest or find small moments of joy when they’re enjoyed with healthy moderation. And with the commanding tone of these statements, I understand that there could be a level of guilt or shame in people who enjoy these things. However, this is overall not a deeply harmful tweet, but a reminder of alternatives to behaviors that keep us in a negative headspace, even if we don’t agree with all of the substitutions.

Mistake #3: I read the comment section of this post. This is my biggest regret as my blood boiled with the ferocity of Pompeii (and honestly does again as I write this). I found several acquaintances sharing their thoughts about how harmful this tweet was. First, it was pointed out that it held undertones of toxic productivity and hustle culture. I agree with that statement. However, this sentiment was shared with the condescension of a “moral and just” person, with wishes that my friend could “learn from this mistake”. It was accompanied by some milder “this is a bad take” comments, but it quickly turned into a conversation on how we should research those we share content from and how damaging posts like this can be on a person. All of these people, with more than my 25 years on this planet, decided that this was the deeply offensive post that they, heroes of the masses, could use as a “teaching moment”.

However, my next mistake came after I saw my friend explain herself. She reposted the tweet early in the morning as a reminder for herself to make healthier choices. And sometimes posts are not that deep. As I read the comments under her explanation, it was clear that there was no reprieve in this conversation. Even as my friend revoked consent for this high level of discourse, two acquaintances of mine continued their crusade in the most disgusting, guilt tripping language I have ever read. Each comment of “I thought we had the kind of relationship where I could express these things to you and help you learn, but apparently I was wrong” or “you have to think of the impact posts like these have on other people. It took one quick google search to know the source is problematic” made my desire for verbal violence grow. These were the manipulation tactics I experienced as a child at the hands of my conservative parents. How were my liberal, generally empathetic, acquaintances partaking in the same manipulation? Aren’t we supposed to be the “ethical” side?

Mistake #4: I replied to those comments and tried to diffuse the situation. I discussed how the tweet was a bad take and their feelings of hurt are valid. I went on to remind them that while they are entitled to emotions, it is their responsibility to deal with them, not your friends who post less than perfect takes. There is no way of preventing harm from your rhetoric, as we’re humans and cannot tailor our words to every audience. I told them that sometimes it’s better to make your point and move on instead of lecturing others on the dirt on their hands as they do the messy gardening work of pulling out weeds and learning to do better. This level of philosophical discourse is inappropriate to have in the comment sections of someone else’s post, especially after they explained themselves. I thought I was very kind and nuanced in my discussion, validating both sides and encouraging an end to this conversation. However, the next mistake came shortly after.

Mistake #5: I read the replies to my comment. The next section of discourse happened between a strange man with long hair that I do not know and an acquaintance I have a lot of disdain for based on the actions I’ve seen from her. I was told that they were taking the time to have nuanced discourse because our friend didn’t intend harm. But, with that harm, comes responsibility and intention becomes irrelevant when it causes harm (“how deeply nuanced,” I thought sarcastically). The stranger responded with how unfollowing or unfriending people means “giving up on them” and if you don’t engage in discourse, you don’t care about the person. And while it’s impossible to be rhetorically unharmful, that doesn’t mean we can’t try. If we’re all gardening in this world, wouldn’t someone want help with their weeds?

These were laced with condescending personal attacks including “Saying it’s impossible to be moral or comfortable for everyone is a really ugly look”. They immediately contradicted themselves in their next point of “it’s impossible to be totally anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-ableist”, but that observation is more fueled by my petty anger than something entirely relevant to the discussion.

Mistake (?) #6: I stewed in my anger at these replies. I didn’t know why I was so enraged, but I knew I had to get to the bottom of it before I replied to these condescending comments. I talked to my partner about it, who just graduated from law school at the time of writing. He talked me down, told me to delete Facebook again, and preserve my peace instead of engaging. But, I was less concerned with being bothered by the comments than I was concerned with why I was bothered. What about these comments made me angry? I knew from my fights with my father that I had to know how to thoroughly think out my rebuttal and use logic over emotion. (Though, a bit of snarkiness did make it through to my final comment, of which I have absolutely no regrets.) However, as I thought back to my parents and our screaming matches and all of the work I’ve done in therapy for the past 10 years, I finally found what was wrong. And I let the fire rain down.

Good move #1: I called them out on their bullshit. I pointed exactly to where consent for this level of discourse was revoked. There was no consent to come into my friend’s garden. (And quite frankly, I would never let these people into my internal work garden as they would probably crush my petunias as they ran to the weeds they could pluck leaves from and pat themselves on the back for doing a great job, forgetting about the roots and my trampled flowers.) I put exact words to their guilt tripping tactics and pointed out how easy it would be to message my friend privately to discuss this as opposed to their public shaming steeped in disingenuous wishes for growth, as if they were the experts in the room on Justice and Morality. My particular favorite piece of snark from that section was, “Have y’all spent your lives studying these topics and you were given a pin by Plato saying you’re allowed to decide what’s Moral and Just on the internet?” Moral and Just are good aspirations, however, there is no great correct perception on it. If there was, philosophers would be obsolete and probably have to go into politics so they could argue about what is practically most Just and Moral.

I pointed out that their comments were, in my humble opinion, immoral as they were forcing their beliefs on people who did not consent. I think it’s immoral to assume everyone who posts a relatively bad take is ready for high level discourse and debate. The heavy undertone I hoped to convey was that they were behaving like pro-life protesters in their harassment and moral superiority, in other words, they were using the fascist's playbook. This entire conversation was more about public appearance and policing someone else’s social media posts. The goal was not to teach. The goal was to dominate and have someone submit to their rhetoric, which has heavy authoritarian vibes and is “a really ugly look”.

The next point was on emotional regulation and the social media tools to protect your peace, not “give up” on someone. I have PTSD from a selection of highly distressing events that have happened in my life. One day during the early pandemic, I came across a picture of an ex who was abusive and made me a survivor of domestic violence. I was sent back to New Years Day, 2020, as I was backed up against a wall by a 6 foot tall hulking figure, with tightly gripped fists that were used to express their anger on the mattress moments earlier. I remembered the glare of dehumanizing hatred that came from their eyes. And my friend posted a picture of the two of them smiling together. Was it her fault for posting the photo? No. Was I still thrown into the violent panic of a flashback? Yes. I was hurt. I was shaking. I was crying. So, I messaged that friend privately and asked to be hidden from those posts in the future. I asked her if she wanted to hear why it hurt me. I asked for consent for this discourse with the understanding that maybe she wasn’t ready for that conversation. Maybe she didn’t have the energy, the space, the strength to hold my story. And she, like everyone else, should be allowed to opt out of these dense conversations as sometimes discourse does more harm than good.

I closed with: “At the end of the day, I give 0 fucks on what y’all think of me. My self worth does not lie in your opinions. So, if you think I have bad takes and have a really ugly look for recognizing the complexities of consent and perceptions of morality, then have a lovely day. Make sure you stay hydrated. And in case it wasn’t clear: I am revoking my consent to having this level of discourse in the comments section on someone else’s post.” I wish I had the realization earlier that their rhetoric was authoritarian. I wish I had phrased things differently. But, I said what I said and I was satisfied that my message reflected my beliefs.

Mistake #7/Good move #2: I returned to the comments as I saw my last words receive hearts from people I love and admire in my life. There were people I didn’t know who also seemed to resonate with my words. One person thanked me for saying it beautifully and agreed that the non-consensual comments that are forcibly trying to elicit some type of response is not only hypocritical, but also just plain inappropriate. Granted, it didn’t stop the strange man from claiming that consent to be told that someone did something problematic (I HATE this word) is “Oof. Just… fucking oof.” He used a strawman argument about gun legislation and school shootings regarding my “radically warped notion of consent” to the point that it is unrecognizable. And he finished off with the so deeply clever and cutting line, “I guess nothing is certain except for death, taxes, and people claiming to have “a nuanced take” when they mean to say “a bad take”. (“Damn, he really got me with that one,” I thought to myself with all of the petty sarcasm in my tiny body.) Another petty point: that comment got two likes from the person I was arguing with earlier and someone else. Mine got nine hearts AND comments supporting my position. Take that, stranger on the internet.

At the end of the day, I don’t regret it. It gave my friend the reassurance that she was not a bad person. She stood up for herself and told them to stop. She told them she didn’t want to be “educated” by these people and that further internal work is needed for all of us. She continued calling out the extreme liberal energy driven on intense feelings and how “this and that being deeply problematic is such a white liberal Karen thing to do. It’s very woe is me because I rest.” And finally, it ended as she told them, “don’t care about respecting me enough to share and not give up on me. Give up on me, I don’t want or need convoluted spirally thought processes projected all the time.”

The rest was brief support for drawing boundaries and removing toxic energies. My rage subsided and I felt the sweet vindication of social media victory. I sold my items, got a nice blue chair and ottoman, and I removed the app from my phone again. However, I do recognize how I succumbed to the temptation of intellectually eviscerating someone online. I fell into the trap of forgetting that as much as I dislike these people, there are still humans on the other side as I sharpened my words for the kill. I lost my empathy in depersonalized rage on Facebook, where human beings are represented by small pictures and names.

A still lake at sunset reflects the yellows and blues with black silhouettes of trees and shrubbery
My friend, Honey Lake

I returned home after my first year of undergrad in 2016. I had been dropped by people I thought were my close friends, was threatened with physical violence and death on the regular by a large, aspiring cop, and was sexually assaulted by a man I was dating. But, I made amazing friends that I reconnected with during the pandemic, I was the first freshman of my BA program to be cast in the mainstage play (and as Elmire in Tartuffe, no less!), and I got my emotional support cat, Cleopawtra, who is sitting happily in a cardboard box as I write in my studio today.

My dad was on the back porch, overlooking Honey Lake through a frame of dense summer leaves hanging from ancient trees. Mom didn’t have a chance to repaint the deck yet, so the white paint on the railings was peeling badly like it did every year. Next to us were bushes of flowers, maybe white, maybe purple. Dad still looked like a lobster, with his Irish skin sunburnt badly as a kid. His gray hair that circled his head wasn’t completely white yet. And he was still a little overweight and always aggressive with the thermostat due to him running warm.

In 2020, I would get a call from him, letting me know he was going into heart surgery the next day. And in the summer of 2021, I would get the call in the middle of a workday with the news that he had pretty advanced throat cancer that would take the last of his hair and turn him into a skeleton of my size. He’s doing well and is very excited to be the poster boy of the trial he’s in. Hazel blue eyes alight with life as he told me all the jokes he made with his doctors and nurses, and how the treatment had maxed out at 75% tumor shrinkage before he broke that record with his 92%.

On that warm May day back in 2016, before we knew what paths our lives would take in the following years, he looked at me and said something I had never heard, and will never hear from him ever again.

“You were right.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, but it felt deeply important that my father was acknowledging for the first time that I was right with the heavy implication that he was wrong.

He saw that I was confused and clarified, “About climate change. I haven’t seen as many bees in the garden this year. Something is wrong.”

It’s hard to reconcile my love of my dad with all the horrible things he said to me. All the horrible political rhetoric he’s been brainwashed with since he was a kid growing up in South Bend, Indiana. I know my family has done harm. They’ve harmed me a lot, so when they helped elect Trump in 2016, they did harm to all of us here in the United States -harm that continues with the leaked decision on Roe v Wade. But there is one final thing that he was wrong about.

I’ll never forget the moment he asked me, dripping with venom: “Who would ever listen to you?”


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