For those of us who spend perhaps too much time surfing social media, one thing has become apparent since Barack Obama was elected president and especially since the GOP initiated its most recent effort to defund the Affordable Care Act (if you hadn't heard, the government is shut down until further notice): There is way too much time spent on hatred in this nation.
We can understand being angry. After all, the economy is still floundering and the middle class is barely staying afloat as its wages stagnant and even drop while costs continue to rise. Meanwhile, the sharks on Wall Street who caused this calamity are counting stacks of newly minted Benjamins and issuing proclamations from the depths of their self-acknowledged wisdom. As if that's not bad enough, the regulators and the legislators who colluded with the sharks continue business as usual -- spinning that revolving door between government and the industry of finance, lining their pockets and turning a blind eye to, if not illegal, at least immoral and unethical, practices.
It could just be that Obama's presidency happened at the same time that social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, really gained a foothold in our lives and gave people a way to instantly and widely spread their judgments, but we have never before seen the likes of much of the hatred directed at our president. Historians can say that politics in America has always been particularly nasty, and can point to specific campaigns to prove their claims, but no one can deny that social media has exponentially increased the amount of nastiness arriving on our computer and mobile device screens.
Add on top of that the instant outrage machine that is known as cable news and talk radio and you have a recipe for rage.
And it's not just about politics. Cyberbullying of all kinds happens to the young, old and everyone in between. Recently we've learned of teenagers who have committed suicide after being the victims of online bullying and sexual assault victims who have been excoriated by rape enablers via Twitter and Facebook and other mediums.
As the comedian Louis CK said during an interview on a late night show, kids who use social media on a regular basis and are not monitored by an adult "don't look at people when they talk to them and they don't build up empathy."
Because texting, sending Tweets, and posting messages on Facebook results in no physical interaction, he said, children can't see what reaction their hurtful comments have on the targets of their animosity.
But we need not limit this to children. Many adults, who should know better, have decided that the anonymity of social media gives them free rein to be as cruel as their small hearts desire.
The results can be found on Facebook, where pages, nominally created to give like-minded people a forum to share thoughts, comments and opinions, are nothing more than a mechanism to vent hatred, racism, sexism and verbal violence.
Just as an example, here is a sample of some of the anti-Obama Facebook pages: Obama the Destroyer; Obama Makes Me Puke; I Hate Obama; Christian's Against Obama's Re-Election; Obama is the Worst President in US History; Obama Lied, Capitalism Died; and Obama and His Friends are Terrorists. While many of those titles don't seem horribly offensive, just take a few minutes to scan some of the comments posted on these pages.
But to point out the obvious, hatred is not partisan. There are also Facebook pages such as Republicans Suck and Republicans are Morons.
And throwing around words such as idiot, moron, fascist, libtard, thug, and worse, does nothing to facilitate an honest exchange of disparate views and opinions.
As Stephen Marche, writing for Esquire, noted "Cyberbullying and its adult cousin, trolling, are merely the most extreme expressions of the low-level, mean-spirited abuse that fills every comment board and social-media forum. The ‘nasty effect,' as research call it, has a polarizing effect in that readers react by becoming more entrenched in their previous opinions, whether positive or negative."
But, as Marche noted, though we might want to blame social media and technology for the vulgarization of our national discourse, that would be the easy way out.
"People are the problem, not technology," he wrote. "Every leap forward in our access to one another, every period in the intensification of discourse and debate, inevitably generates the question ‘What are the appropriate limits of speech?'"
Marche is optimistic that we are now in the Wild West of online engagement, and "civilizing efforts" are underway that will help to dial back the vitriol.
"The root of civilization is civility, and the rules of civility have not meaningfully changed in two thousand years. Cicero outlined them in ‘On Duties.' Speak clearly. Don't speak too much. Make sure everybody has a chance. Don't interrupt. Alternate topics so that everybody can talk about something of interest to them. Don't criticize people behind their backs. Don't be angry or lazy. These are the rules. You already know them."
Marche holds out hope that the urge to interact in a civilized manner will overwhelm our baser instincts.
"After you've been through one or two of these hatestorms, you recognize one simple reality: They change nothing," he wrote.
We might also note that people should realize that while they are engaging in verbal hate matches online, the powers that be are laughing at the antics of the hoi polloi. While we are distracted fighting with one another, they are sneaking out the back door with all of our material and incorporeal riches.
We have a lot more in common than the promoters of obfuscation, intolerance, hatred, confusion, distraction and division want us to know about and one thing we all could stand to revisit is the concept that no one -- on the right, left or in the middle -- has a monopoly on wisdom or righteousness.
Hatred and bile and hubris only serve to drive us apart and do not solve problems. Their most extreme manifestations are violence, warfare and genocide.
Before letting our differences get the best of us, we should think first of what we have in common, and how those things can help bring us closer together, if not on to the same page, at least in the same book. It's the least we can do to promise to our children a world with less bullying, hostility and brutality.