Thursday, September 1, 2016

Angry Men on the Internet, a.k.a. "Dude, where are my words?"

It's rough to be left behind. Or, as a wise person once said, "The bus is moving, dig? Get on the bus."

A Facebook friend recently wrote a much-shared column, about alcoholism, feminism, her experiences with "booze culture" and how those lessons intersect with her work in a west-coast tech-y job where the patriarchy is still alive and well and the beer and wine cart makes the office rounds each Friday.

It's a smart, erudite piece, which doesn't -- and shouldn't -- make it immune from criticism, but I don't think that I expected that it would generate this sort of response, sent to her by email:

"I learned a long time ago that arguing with a feminist is pointless, due to their lack of intellect and use of reason, but I still want you to know I think you're a disgustingly selfish bitch that has no needs or wants yet constantly scrambles to find new ways in which they are oppressed. Classic munchausen syndrome from an insufferable cunt. How's that for mansplaining, you nasty post-walled cunt?
Sincerely, Hater of Cunty Women."

"How about a little wine and then maybe you won't be such a bitch?" 

Those are just two. There are many more insults where they came from, and the remainder don't get any prettier or better-reasoned.

The World Wide Web recently turned 25 years old. If there were an award entitled the Single Greatest Invention of My Lifetime, really, the web would win hands-down. It's not even a close call.

Facebook alone is proof incarnate of that truism. It's a platform through with I can interact with a bevy of folks whom I rarely, or sometimes never, see in real life. I know what my friends from a very long time ago are up to in a frequency that simply could not be matched by any of the pre-WWW technology. Can you imagine telephoning your old (or new) friends up every few hours for an update on their lives? (Uh, no. Believe me: neither can they.) But it seems perfectly normal -- dare I say a complete blast? -- to learn of the travails and glories of their day-to-day, often hour-to-hour existence via "The FB." Add to that the convenience and the "Here! Now!" appeal of email communication -- seriously, when's the last time you mailed a personal letter; when did you ever, actually, mail a personal letter? -- and the web is flat-out killing it in the Can't Live Without Its Effortless Communication sweepstakes.

It's a self-created bubble of articulate smartasses that I tend to associate with, in real life and on the internet. My Facebook and Twitter feeds are almost entirely constructed of the musings of folks who can throw down a highly-crafted well-written beatdown of racist nativism one minute, and charm and delight you the next with a wordsmithian rant extolling the artistic and cathartic virtues of, say, "Celebrated Summer."

My friends are artists and lawyers and carpenters and weightlifters and musicians and all sorts of folks with varied skill sets, but, man, are they funny and able to express themselves well. So, knowing that I am often breathing rarefied air in that regard, I try not to impose too strict of a standard on others outside that circle when it comes to evaluating their written expression.

But there are limits. When the dreaded Comments Section rears its ugly head, I find myself quoting the guys from one of those NFL analysis shows: "Come ON, maaaaan!"

The web is a wonderful, empowering place, unless.... you never really had to express yourself in writing. I'm afraid the power and glory of the internet has, unwittingly, shone a bright spotlight on the linguistic underclass. And, Jebus, they're angry.

Imagine the world in, say, 1985. You have graduated high school and are headed into college, or maybe straight into the career of your choice. You took all those English courses. You read all those books the teachers assigned to you, or at least you faked it through the Cliff's Notes version of them. You got your passing grades and you moved on. You learned, technically speaking, how to write a letter. But, really, outside of English class, you've never really written a letter. Outside of school, you've never constructed an essay about, or a written assertion of, well, anything. But it's 1985. You are a person that, like many of your fellow 1985-ers, is going to do just fine never needing any of those skills. Your chances of having to express in writing why you think or believe a certain thing are the same as your chance of ever using trigonometry in real life: zero. You will meet the man/woman of your dreams and that person likely will never learn what your written-language skills are, because you will never need to employ them.

Shift forward in time. Abruptly.

Hello, World Wide Web. Suddenly you have to send emails. Hello, Facebook. Now you are thrust into a world where written expression is beating the daylights out of most other forms of communication. Chances are in 2016 that you send a lot more text messages than you have real phone conversations.

In a way that your 1985 brain can't even process, it now matters that you know how to communicate via the written word. Bonus points are scored by those who do so with some charm and sophistication, perhaps even exhibiting traits like humor, empathy and kindness. People are now going to judge you -- because that's what people do -- on the way you communicate in writing. Sure, the judgment won't be at the same level of scrutiny for your text messages as when you decide to email your kid's teacher with a question, or if you decide to voice your opinion as a comment in your favorite newspaper or on your friend's Facebook page, but, no matter what, if your written words present the specter of you being significantly sub-par in the linguistics department, you now have a new flaw that might never have been evident back in 1985.

Those flaws are causing some serious consternation in men. And they are flailing, hard.

Being a dude has always come with a whole host of privileges that your average woman is not handed. In a face-to-face setting, most men invariably get to use the toolbox of their testosterone to their advantage. And that's not, by any means, always a bad thing. There are lots of skills -- weightlifting for one -- where strength and power come in very handy. And you'll never find this author of a health and wellness blog, where the benefit of being a well-rounded human in all respects is part of the message, telling you not to hone those attributes. But there's a time and a place for developing and harnessing all that androgen. Most guys -- and this definitely includes me sometimes (but I'm trying to get better; life as a constant self-improvement project, y'know) -- interrupt women in mixed-gender meetings as if the last thing they'd ever have to do is wait their turn. The basic facts of bigger/stronger/louder evolution mean that, in those face-to-face encounters, the average woman has to struggle just to be heard, let alone to have her opinion seriously evaluated. And forget any notions in many face-to-face situations of an "equal playing field" when boys are being boys and stomping all over women trying to express themselves.

But there's hope. With all the subtlety of George Clinton landing the P-Funk Mothership in the middle of a board meeting for Patriarchal, Inc., the web has (begun to) change all that. 

On the web, it simply just does not matter how big, strong, loud, pushy or imposing you are. But it sure as hell makes a difference how convincingly you express yourself. On the internet, we're not in a barroom where the loudest or strongest meathead wins the argument. Instead, points are scored and lost -- good lord, are they lost -- based on linguistic skills. Drop "C" bombs in your retort to, well, anything and you have probably been defeated by the fact that the majority of ears closed to your nonsense as soon as you uttered it. When a woman expresses an opinion on a matter of, say, politics or gender equality, the too-common internet response of manscreaming, "PROVE IT!!!!" -- which is a sucker's line if there ever were one because such things aren't really matters of "proof," but of nuance and reason -- is now self-revealing code for: "I'm a dimwit with no game when it comes to self-expression." The often-seen internet retort of the cornered male -- "DEAL WITH IT!!" -- is just an alternate version of those old "I'm with stupid" T-shirts, but it's pointing back at the wearer.

But, unlike the barroom -- where, if you show up a big, loud buffoon with your intellect, you will enrage him and be lucky to be carried out still breathing -- on the web he'll still get furious, but here's the thing: he'll have nowhere to go with all that rage. It's sort of sad, you know? They just get left behind.

There's a scene in one of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books by Douglas Adams that involves a contraption called the Total Perspective Vortex. The point of that device is to show, in cold harsh terms, the "importance" of an individual in the grand scheme of everything. The answer for everyone: none of us is very "important" at all. In the story, the shock of the person's insignificance immediately kills him or her.

The web, bless its 25-year-old self, is a TPV of sorts for us all, just in a more limited, less-fatal way. Are you fairly articulate?  You'll do just fine in this vortex. But it'll chew you up and spit you out if your shtick regarding self-expression is primarily anger-based, like so many men who are just incoherently venting online.

Back to my friend....
She just got a book contract for her efforts. Good for her.

"Hater of Cunty Women?" I don't know what's up with him, but I suspect we can all guess. He's really angry. And he's not going anywhere, particularly with women.

And the rest of us? Pick your battles intelligently. In a virtual platform where brains and coherent, measured self-expression rule the day, women and men really are playing on a level field. You just have to be ready for it, with your words. Or... not. You thought the Wu Tang Clan ain't nothin' to fuck with? Try an empowered, educated, articulate citizenry. Thanks, World Wide Web. You've upped our word game.