A few years ago, I got sucked into a local debate over whether or not smoking would be allowed inside restaurants and bars. The city had already passed a no indoor smoking ordinance, but it was being fought by small business owners, mostly, who claimed their livelihoods depended on their smoking patrons. It was not a liberal-conservative, Democrat-Republican fight. It was a personal liberties fight between people who believed their right to smoke trumped that of other people’s right not to breathe their smoke.
It actually wasn’t even my fight. I had quit a decade earlier and didn’t much care if people smoked as long as it didn’t roll up my nose as I took a bite of food (or was on the breath of someone I wanted to kiss). After a couple of drinks, I actually liked the smell. But it seemed irrational to me at the time that a city that already had the ordinance on the books would go backward and overturn it in light of the irrefutable evidence of the harm second-hand smoke does, and the clear path to wide-spread smoking bans the country was on in general. The overturn came up and was to be voted on all in the space of twenty-four hours, so I jumped into action, telling City Council, the newspaper, and anybody who would listen how idiotic I thought it was. Clearly I didn’t think it through.
My friends and supporters cheered my efforts and then retreated to their quiet (“I don’t want to get involved but good for you!”) corners.
The other side had no such qualms. They tore me to shreds online, in the paper, and by anonymous personal message. I found it disheartening, disconcerting, and truly scary. I lived alone in a big house with floor-to-ceiling windows, and I felt like a fish in a bowl. It was not my best couple of months.
When it was all over, the ordinance was overturned, smoking went back into the little taverns (which was always fine with me), most mainstream places still banned indoor smoking of their own volition, and life went on.
And I learned that I do not have the intestinal fortitude for public scrutiny.
Problem is, I’m a writer and a political junkie, and writing is no longer a one-way street. Feedback is instantaneous, unfiltered, and unfettered. It’s also the Breakfast of Champions when it’s considered and considerate. But online forums, typically, don’t offer that.
So along comes another local fight — this time over rebuilding public housing on an island after a hurricane — and during a moment of weakness, I got sucked in. Over a period of about three months, I dropped in a few times to add my two cents, and was always surprised that the blowback from my posts seemed to be harsher than others with my same perspective received. I could only assume this was trickle down from the smoking thing.
This time around, I was being burned in effigy on a blog hosted by one of my main smoking critics, a man about my age who I’ll call “Bo.” He had frightened me — not directly, but through his bluster — during the smoking thing, and I didn’t love the fact that he was blogging about me. Naturally, some of his anonymous followers claimed to know me, supplying partially true ammo probably given to them by somebody who actually did know me a little and had an ax to grind (pretty sure I know who), so there was a lot of bad information swirling around. Every time I posted anything, it swirled again. It wasn’t harmful, exactly. Obviously, it was meant to shut me up. But mostly the whole thing was just so distasteful.
People who really do know me can attest that I can’t stand anger, animosity, or ill-will of any kind. Years of therapy didn’t change that. This thing with Bo and, by extension, a bunch of other people, got under my skin. I didn’t like not knowing who my anonymous haters were. It undermined me on a number of levels.
It’s so damn easy to crucify someone you don’t know based on one or two pieces of arbitrary information, especially if you’re hiding behind a computer monitor and an alias, and have no reasonable expectation of having to confront that person face-to-face. One of my best friends went to school with Bo, and she told me he was a good guy with a big personality and big opinions to match, and when we met, we would really like each other. I heard her words on an endless loop in my head for weeks. I wanted to know the Bo she knew. Finally, one morning, bolstered by a hot cup of coffee and a little good news, I took a deep breath and clicked “Post.”
Bo replied within minutes. We went back and forth on his blog a few times, tentatively at first, and finally LOLing and poking innocent fun. We wound up in a private conversation offline where we took off the gloves and gave each other a notional hug. We agreed that we will seldom be on the same side of public policy issues, but we also mutually respect that we’re both passionate about our convictions, that they are born of deep caring for a place we both love, and that moving forward we can hash out our differences with more diplomacy and less mud-slinging — kind of like Parliament meets the Girl Scouts.
I slept better that night. I had confronted my fear and it had embraced me. I think Bo feels better, too. I’m proud of us both.
On to November!
P.S. I’m gonna practice what I preach: Why is Everyone on the Internet so Angry?