When children of the Internet grow up
I’m an older millennial, which means I remember the days when we used our dial-up modem to log on to AIM and chat with our friends. We had to make sure no one was on the phone and we’d scream if they picked up the phone while we were connected. As I’m imagining it now, actually, it’s amazing that we had to multitask that way—you could either be on the Internet or your phone (now you are always doing both). Nevertheless, I grew up on the Internet and have been chatting and blogging since then. And somehow, even though I am fairly online, I am not nearly as conversant in the lingo as some of my friends—which is why I’m always asking what things mean (I’ll spare you those details, because they usually begin with mockery of my ignorance—in good fun, of course). And I’m also not as adept at the technology—which is I mistakenly group call the chats I’m in (that’s when they call me “dad”).
But life on the Internet is strange. We get a little more courage to say things in a fairly anonymous platform, sometimes even things we wouldn’t say to a person directly. The Internet can be a great place to expand our ideas and our minds and hear from people that are different than us. I think it is incredibly valuable for that reason. It’s also a great place to spread misinformation about the pandemic (yes, masks work and hydroxychloroquine is not a proven treatment of the virus), about the election (no, mail-in voting is not rampant with fraud), and about race relations (no, affordable housing does not lower property values). It’s also a great place to surround yourself by people that are like you, which can be super comforting if you aren’t used to that, but sometimes that commonality can lead to moral superiority that can translate into condescension and mean-spiritedness. We can lose the humanity of the people we are interacting with online if we resort to sarcastic quips and gotchas. But those do trend well, so it’s hard to resist our moment of Internet fame in doing that. But I don’t think it ultimately builds our character or one another.
The difference between directness and derision
But I don’t think that means we should be less direct or assertive. We should just name our truth plainly, in a way that is precise, maybe in an effort to convince someone, but also to defend someone else or simply speak the truth to power. So when I speak of the less effective ways the Internet has taught us to talk, I do not mean that it has made us too direct or assertive, because those are good things. Rather, I’m talking to the sarcasm, the dog-piling, and the personal insults that can occur when we are shielded by a screen. I’m not about to say that politics and theology aren’t personal—I know this because I’ve watched my body become a subject for debate—theology and politics are deeply personal (or at least they should be). Our entire faith is a bodily one, and so when we’re discussing the matters of our faith, I expect it to be personal. But a personal offense leading to a personal attack is not as good as being assertive and direct. And yes, naming someone’s prejudice can feel personal, but I’m not suggesting that as a personal attack. What I mean to say is what I’ve sometimes done: derided someone for who they are, instead of engaging in a better faith way.
It’s funny to do it and sometimes you can get retweets and likes for it, but I’m not sure how productive it is, nor do I know how kind it is.
For me, I was convicted the other day when I was tempted to reduce someone’s racist viewpoint to a matter of their generation. “OK Boomer.” It’s a dismissive way of addressing someone and it’s certainly ageist, for one thing, but it really does very little to advance an argument or a cause. As someone with parents as boomers, one of whom is sending me conspiracies about covid-19 and encouraging me to support Trump, the temptation to cheap shot is there. But doing so won’t point out the delusion, or get my dad (or sister) to not vote for Trump.
And while I don’t think it’s right to give a free pass to a generation of leaders who put us into the mess that we are in, mocking them doesn’t encourage repentance ultimately. It is both dehumanizing and ineffectual. It may be cathartic, but I’ve found that trust relationships in community, psychotherapy, journaling, and prayer to be more comforting than sarcastic memes. And it also permits others to share in that mean-spiritedness and hide behind the “joke.” It’s a recipe for pain and a potential excuse for bad behavior.
I see this in another meme that misses the mark, the Karen or Becky meme. Karen or Becky has been used by people of color to speak to white women who have called police or spoken to management when they have observed people of color doing things they didn’t like. BBQ Becky became famous when she called the police on black folks having a barbecue. And what was worse was when Amy Cooper called the police on Christian Cooper during a jog in Central Park. It may be useful to have a term to describe this situation, but I think terminology should be specific and incisive to be useful. Based on my experience with the meme (actually have had white men call me a Karen), I think it misses the mark. Reducing these situations to a meme doesn’t really help us. Reducing racism to a meme doesn’t really tackle white supremacy. And what’s worse, it can lead to sexism against women by entitled men. I want to guard against that, but I also want to caution us against how the Internet can encourage us to find comfort in making fun of folks and finding a cohort of similarly-minded people to just agree. There’s some comfort in the mutuality, but I want to make the world a better place, not just make fun of my enemies.
Save and focus your energy
The thing is, you might be able to justify the memes and the sarcasm. And there are much worse things than poking fun, but it all seems like a waste of energy. Every minute I spend defending a Karen meme or a boomer joke is one that doesn’t help make the world a better place.
What’s more, though, the joke itself may diminish our own feelings. It may “suck up” our emotions by giving them a release that doesn’t really allow for a full expression of them or even an effective way of asserting ourselves. We might get too much relief from the comfort we get from mutually mocking our enemies and that may undermine a movement for a better and more just world. So save the energy for the cause and the mission instead of letting it dissipate with a cheapshot.
I don’t think we should mince words, but let’s not lose the chance to be direct or even express our emotions for the sake of a joke that might not need to be told. Or a joke that hurts someone else. That isn’t to say that our directness won’t cause discomfort, but let’s allow it to cause the right kinds of discomfort. For my part, “OK Boomer,” doesn’t really do that, even if it makes me laugh at my parents a bit.