Another day, another Twitter pile-on.
In September the singer Lizzo tweeted to her 1.2m followers that a delivery person had stolen her food order and posted a photo of the alleged culprit. The next day the tweet was deleted, followed by a mea culpa: “I apologise for putting that girl on blast,” Lizzo wrote. “I understand I have a large following and that there were so many variables that could’ve put her in danger. Imma really be more responsible with my use of social media and check my petty and my pride at the door.” This week it was reported that the target of her ire is suing.
Then just last week there was the rather complicated pile-on of a graduate student, Brooke Nelson, after she said in a newspaper interview that she had tried to prevent a book by young adult author Sarah Dessen from ever being chosen for a first-year university reading list. Dessen saw the article and tweeted it out to her 268,000 followers: “Authors are real people. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.”
Dessen deleted the tweet, but could not delete the pile-on. Nelson spent the week deactivating her social media accounts in response to harassment, fretting about the implications for her career.
We are now in year 13 of COC (call-out culture) and despite the casualties along the way – suicides, careers and reputations ruined, lawsuits and general agony and misery – we seem to be still no closer to working out a civil way to disagree on the internet.
Could it be we just don’t know the healthy way to process our rage?
The positive psychology movement, starting around the mid-1950s with the publication of popular books such as The Power of Positive Thinking, advised us to think positively and banish negative thoughts. It became a multibillion-dollar machine, “a swamp of books, DVDs, life coaches, executive coaches and motivational speakers”.
In this environment, to express anger or rage is a terrible thing – fundamentally damaging not only to other people, but also to ourselves.
But of course those negative feelings never went away. How could they? They are as much a part of the human experience as love or joy. And like anything natural forced to dwell in shadows or denied its full and legitimate expression, it found an outlet. The internet!
In the past 10 to 15 years, this is where suppressed rage, our collective id, has run wild. Rage is in the comments threads. Anger is on the Facebook pages of community organisations and parenting forums and Twitter.
Much of the emotion exhibited in these places is unprocessed and reactive. It’s not quite the same as that slow, hard-boiled hate that can fester within people for decades; it’s the sort of hate that we don’t really sit with and metabolise. It’s instinctual, primitive-brained, unmediated. Its closest modern relative is the impulsive flash of road rage. People express disagreement online with everything from mean comments about someone’s appearance or intelligence to threats to kill and/or rape.
This rage is so pervasive as to be banal. We are in a time of never-ending Twitter pile-ons. Sometimes the criticism is warranted: Twitter can be a place for marginalised voices to amplify or bring attention to an injustice they have suffered. But it is in the mob response that a lot of the unmediated anger is expressed.
So what to do with it?
The positive thinking movement put the brakes on real progress in acknowledging and metabolising negative feelings. One solution a therapist friend uses is to feel the rage when it arises, acknowledge it, but not necessarily act on it. It can then have the chance to work through your system and, like any passing emotion, dissolve or morph into something more akin to compassion or empathy.
But perhaps the answer is to be found with the ancients, who lived in a time as chaotic as anything these internet days can throw up.
“Seneca explicitly advised taking a deep breath and going for a walk around the block upon first feeling the uncontrollable rise of rage, which he considered a type of temporary madness,” wrote Massimo Pigliucci in How to Be a Stoic.
It is advice as much applicable now as it was in Roman times. That, and pausing before you tweet.