Goodness, this post from Noah Millman is challenging. It’s about those complicated situations when we mute, unfollow, or otherwise disengage from our friends who have become overly unpleasant online. It’s a two-way street, Noah says.
On the one hand, we as a society have become far too ready to shame, harass, disown, expel, and otherwise punish people who transgress lines that often didn’t exist until the moment the mob attacks. On the other hand, our provocateurs themselves are far too ready to get high on their own supply, indifferent to whether they are actually provoking thought in those they see as complacent or oblivious, or whether they are just making those who already agree with them less thoughtful, less worthy of anyone’s time and respect.
In the end, Noah wants to make two points to those of us who disengage (as opposed to those who are disengaged from). The first is this: “We need to be clear to ourselves that our disengagement is something we’re doing for ourselves, and not for any greater good, much less for the people we’re disengaging from.” And the second: “That’s no way to be a friend. And it’s no way to be a citizen either.”
I want to take these ideas on board, but I think I also want to dissent, at least in part.
First, when I have disengaged in this way I have indeed, and absolutely, done it for myself — but I don’t think that’s necessarily a reason not to do it. I find the online direhose of wrath and contempt and misinformation immensely wearying, and indeed depressing, and especially given the damage I have sustained from the unavoidable depredations of the Year of Our Lord 2020, I think there can be good reason for avoiding the depredations that are not necessary.
Second, I think that how you disengage matters. On many occasions I have decided to unfollow or mute or just ignore people I know IRL, and when these were just acquaintances it was a simple thing to do. But on the rare occasions when they were genuine friends it was complicated. In all such cases, I began by telling them that I had problems with their online self-presentation and that I wished they would behave differently. Memory may fail me, but I can’t at the moment remember an occasion when that intervention had any effect whatsoever. So eventually I unfollowed/muted/ignored — and I told them I was doing that, also.
Before you tell someone you’re muting their online presence you take a deep breath because you don’t know what the consequences will be. In one case, my friend was a bit hurt, but our friendship is as strong now as it ever was. In another, the friendship ended.
Why the difference? It may have something to do with the character of the people involved; about that I’m not sure. But two major factors were certainly in play. One: In the first case, I had a much longer and stronger history of face-to-face connection, so that a rejection of his online persona obviously did not mean a rejection of his whole being. Two: in the second case, the friend was much more deeply invested in his online presence — maybe to the extent that he couldn’t have accepted the rejection even if we had a stronger face-to-face history.
Looking back on these situations, I am not sure what lessons to draw — Noah’s column has got me reflecting and I don’t know where that reflection will lead. But at the moment I am thinking that in all the cases where I disengaged I was right to do so — some degree of self-preservation made it necessary. But maybe I should have done so silently, and not spoken of the disengagement unless asked. I thought at the time that friendship required honesty; but maybe there’s a place for reticence in friendship also, or at least more reticence than I demonstrated.