Adapting an ancient practice to a networked society
For the better part of a year, I have embarked on a terrifying social experiment: Being kind on the internet.
I stopped getting in fights on the net, and tried to practice gentleness and kindness with people I found here. I didn’t defend myself, rally the troops, or pick sides. Instead, in the ever-growing Mexican stand-off of social media, I decided to put my gun down first.
This is all a complicated way of saying I have sought to adapt the ancient practice of Ahimsa to my online life.
I have not always succeeded, and if you search through the net you will surely find my many failures. But I continue to try.
It has been an extraordinary time, and I’m happy to say I hope now that I will continue this experiment for the rest of my life.
It was not an easy thing to give up the idea of winning the fights, especially online. I am naturally good with words, and I’ve known it since I was young. I have felt strong winning an argument, slamming people, sometimes watching them log off, in shame. I have slam dunked the response, and crushed egos under well-timed insults. But that strength was always so precarious by comparison to a practice of gentleness — what if they won the fight next time? What if I wasn’t fast enough, and I ended with the onlookers jeering me, telling me I should go kill myself instead of my particular bad guy? Sometimes I fought with people for a show, so that onlookers wouldn’t make the same mistake my opponents did. But in my year of Ahimsa, I found that the performative gentleness was, like the gentle mind, much more powerful.
I came to see the onlookers learned more from a gentle discussion than they ever did from the verbal wrestling. To keep the humanity of the person I’m talking to in my mind and heart at all times made every conversation better, even the antagonistic ones. Especially the antagonistic ones.
The internet is made of people. The internet only gets better if we get better.
Conflict arises out of needs, and the effort to satisfy them. But most conflict is tied to an incorrect idea of how to satisfy our needs. We live mainly in a world of gaudy plenty, yet fight bitterly as if everything were scarce. Often if we can get to that nugget of need, and find a way to satisfy that pain together, we can transcend seemingly insurmountable differences and do so much more than we could alone.
As my year went on, my failures of Ahimsa, which started off feeling more like excitement and even fun, slowly turned sour. I began to feel bad, feel like I’d spoken wrong. Animosity lost its enjoyment for me. No particular sensation took its place, but I did feel that I learned more things from my encounters than I had when they were fights. The difficult parts of life got a little bit easier when I decided that I simply didn’t have room to treat people as enemies.
To Not Injure
“Nonviolence is a flop. The only bigger flop is violence.” — Joan Baez
For so long the powerful have had room to speak, to say anything they wanted, and back it up with economic and violent force. For people used to power, speaking on the net gives them a granularity in their speech without precedent. It empowers them to speak in ever more sophisticated and persuasive ways.
But for those who have never had power, the difference is not one of subtlety. Internet speech is access to the world that has never existed, a chance to be heard for the first time, a chance to shout down those who have kept you silent all your life. You can say anything as horrible to them as they said all your life to you. And so it is not without trepidation that I say this: We shouldn’t speak hatefully to each other at all.
There is nothing in Ahimsa, the idea of non-violence, that requires surrender, cooperation, or compliance with violence against us. In fact, much the opposite. At its heart it is non-surrender to force, as either technique used against us or temptation for us. It is meeting anger with gentleness and understanding.
There are those who see any gentleness as surrender, and complicity with their enemies. You are either with them, and ready to fight, or your mere existence constitutes a violation against them. Sometimes they will even call this refusal of violence a violence itself. I have learned that it is my inescapable fate to always be a violent oppression to such people, to only be able to relieve them by ceasing to be. I wish it weren’t that way, but all I can do is hope they see that making an enemy of the world is terrible odds.
Ahimsa is not any kind of acquiescence. It is emphasized throughout history that Ahimsa comes from a place of strength; that the power to not injure is a power indeed. I can confirm from my own experiments that my failures to be gentle have always come when I am tired, frustrated, weak, and self-pitying. To be gentle and firm in the face of hateful or ignorant speech has come from a place of strength, and like exercise, that strength builds on its use. The more you practice the strength of Ahimsa, the acceptance of universal humanity, the stronger you feel.
The fundamental contention of non-injury, or Ahimsa, is this: all humans are human. That there is nothing you can think or do that makes you inhuman, except die. The only crime that can reduce a human to less than human is the crime of murder — not committing it, but being the victim of it. Killing and injury are tragedies, unneeded in the world, to be avoided, not just as a fate, but as the transgressor.
The Everyday of Other People
“Lmao. Please kill yourself” — Too many people online to contemplate
On the net, I can find myself talking to just about anyone, and they can find themselves talking to me. I learn and teach a lot this way, often at the same time. In practice, the compassionate mind can be very powerful. Some of my friendships and my most insightful moments started as flamewars.
Sometimes I go to the net for comfort, and that’s not what I get from it. I have learned that yelling at a dry well doesn’t fill it with water, and to go elsewhere to get what I need. I have also been humbled and brought to tears by the comfort and generosity of people on the net.
It’s difficult to just let the net be what it is, at any moment, especially when it’s not what you want it to be. But I’ve come to see it like the ocean — it has its moods, and as much as you love it, you have to let it have those moods.
I found myself on Twitter one night speaking to men’s rights advocates about sexual consent. I tried my gentleness, I tried to explain my concerns, my doubts, the outcomes I feared when people weren’t able to give sober and informed consent. I never got angry, but also tried to understand their fears. Eventually it resolved into a productive conversation. They were always hesitant, but they couldn’t seem to stay mad at me. I came to understand more about how men come to that position, and how to meet them where they are. Undoubtedly it won’t always work, but for those who only want to scream and never to talk, I can at least now see the depth of their fear and feel compassion for them.
One day I spoke with a man who hated the idea that he might have white privilege. I tried to explain gently what it meant, but he could only see his own suffering and misfortune, and those without his privilege doing better than him. I talked to him more about his story, looking for a place to explain in terms he would understand what this thing was, and why it was there even if he didn’t see it as benefitting him. Eventually he pulled his trump card: his life was so bad he was suicidal. The only reason he hadn’t killed himself, he told me, was that he didn’t have the courage. I realized this wasn’t a political conversation at all, this was a soul in pain, crying for help. I stopped that conversation and asked him if he was safe, and if he could reach out to anyone. I offered him alternative ways to talk to me which weren’t public. Whatever our political fights, the existential needs of those whom the gods place in our paths has to come first.
On social media, you can’t see the tears and searing pain screwing up the face of the person behind the updates. To my mind, it is never safe to assume they are not there. It is never safe to assume they are.
Beyond the text and pictures we see before us is the skin, and beneath, the blood and viscera, all the way to the cavern of the brain, the mind made of time and memories. We are, every one of us, creatures of need and connection, not merely eschewing disconnection but beings literally incapable of unconnected life.
We are the only vertebrate that survives in space: We do it by surviving together.
At any moment, anyone speaking to us could be a robot. They could be suicidal. They could be rich, or poor. They could be drowning in self-hate. They could be confused and trying out ideas. This could be their first month on the internet. They could feel like they finally found a group who loves and understands them, and whatever they’ve just said is what they need to do to not be alone anymore. They could have been born with a mind defective in moral sociality, and doomed to a life alone, no matter how many people are around them.
At any moment, anyone speaking to us could be a child.
We must never lose sight of the worthiness of the soul before us, no matter what state we find it in.
The Defensive State of the Present Moment
“Over breakfast this morning I lamented to R that you don’t get my jokes anymore, at least not online. Maybe not at all, but you don’t visit enough for me to be sure (<- joke). It feels as if you’re more careful with the whole world, not just me…” — From a conversation with a friend
The net is not well now. People get torn apart, people’s lives are disrupted and even destroyed by this conflict. We’re all ready for a fight, and ready to divide the world into allies and enemies. Occasionally people use the word ally with me, but I will quickly remind them that I’m no one’s ally. And I’ll be no one’s enemy, as far as I have that power.
Right now, you can wall yourself off. It often seems safest to. You have to fight not to. Right now you can get encouraged in your angry opinion by a million people, 10 million, and it feels really important. But 10 million is next to nothing on a planet of seven billion. The social body builds scar tissue around your anger, and you sit there, reinforcing your allies in a small nation with no future, and what you will say will die away. Like any closed system it is destined to failure. True compassion builds bridges between systems of thought, and this is to my mind the greatest gift of Ahimsa: being connected to a wider world, being part of a universal system.
What I have Learned So Far About How to do This
Before I began this online experiment, I studied the history and method of Ahimsa. It begins with the Jains in India, but the ideas have been adapted and reinvented all over the world in many ages. I’ve sought out commentaries from Islamic, Christian, and Jewish practitioners of non-violence. I read about the abolitionist and pacifist Quakers, and the Catholic workers. I read the speeches of MLK Jr., Tolstoy’s books and essays, and the mountains of words around Gandhi’s life. To study the history of non-violence is inadvertently to study the history of violence as well. I’ve confronted stories that I would have shied away from before; but I’ve found it’s easier to read about and understand atrocities after surrendering the violent mind. They are horrible, but they become something you are safe from imagining yourself doing. This is another gift of Ahimsa: in refusing to dehumanize others, you reject dehumanizing yourself.
I’ve come to realize there’s so much to read and learn on this topic I will probably be studying it for as long as I am practicing it. I’m not a perfect practitioner, and it’s often hard to practice face to face. But on the internet it’s easier, and perhaps at this moment of history, more important.
Ahimsa on the net means refusing to use words with the intent to inflict harm.
Contempt, perhaps even more than outright violence, is the opposite of Ahimsa. It’s the concern troll, advising people that they aren’t being themselves correctly. It’s the “I pity you” that contains no pity, no compassion, but seeks to put someone down. Contempt cleverly skips the step of physical engagement and moves straight to seeing the other person as a lesser human, unworthy of love. I think it is even less Ahimsa than straight-out hate speech.
To learn a practice of Ahimsa means focusing on outcomes, and not your internal state. You don’t speak to satisfy yourself, but to communicate, and that this communication is constructed to be a positive thing in the world.
Ahimsa is not surrender, it’s more than not giving into the impulse of violence, it’s not giving into violence at all. Self-defense in Ahimsa is gentle, reaching for facts and clarity and a sense of common humanity. It is accepting with grace when the other person won’t come to common ground, not only without surrender, but without requiring surrender from the other person.
A practice of Ahimsa often means not speaking in anger. It doesn’t mean not ever having a strident, even angry message, but that anger is never directed at another’s humanity. Angry messages are appropriate at times, but they shouldn’t be paired with an angry, out-of-control mind. Not speaking in anger doesn’t mean never being angry, but it means waiting, and thinking carefully before you speak.
My rule is this: never internet angry. If you are angry, internet later.
This is a practice of response-in-compassion. No matter how vile the attack, it means seeing those talking to you as children of the universe, first and foremost. But for me, this doesn’t mean being a humorless monk online. It means I examine my motives. Goofing off makes the world better, sarcasm and irony can let people think about issues that are too hard to think about any other way. There is a cultural aspect to this — Americans have a long tradition of critique and growth through humor and sometimes biting humor. Sometimes, I have to explain this to people outside of America, and in particular non-native English speakers. What might have been a fight or an exchange of insults has been headed off any number of times by realizing that my humor hadn’t made sense to someone without my cultural context, and on a global network, this is a daily occurrence for me. Letting people in on the joke is much more rewarding than getting angry because they didn’t get the joke.
This is not to say I don’t make people uncomfortable. I do, and quite often. Being uncomfortable is not the same as being harmed. In some ways, it’s harder.
To resolve conflict you have to fight, which is easy, to resolve discomfort, you have to change, which is hard.
To speak on important matters is to accept making people uncomfortable. It’s often uncomfortable to be the speaker, as well. I don’t want people to feel discomfort, genuinely. I believe that if they weren’t uncomfortable, they could take in important ideas more easily. But often that discomfort is a sign of a path of growth. If I avoid making people uncomfortable, I might not be able to speak on important matters at all. So there is a balance — I can accept making people uncomfortable, but I wish for them to be comforted, above all, by people who are also seeking the truth of the situation.
Truth, above all, simply is. It is not a violent or angry thing, it is the quietest thing, at rest, reflecting the state of reality. To Gandhi, one of the great political practitioners of Ahimsa, truth was God, and God was truth. The truth doesn’t require anger, or hate, or even complex words, in most cases. The truth is a rock you can rest upon, and something you can learn to seek.
So, keep bringing it on, internet. I know people will say hateful and threatening things to me, as well as flattering, and every once in a while even sincere things to me. And, while all of it scares me, I will do all I can to remember that behind every digital signal is a human being: fleshy, full of thoughts and fires, and endlessly miraculous.
“May we look upon each other with the eyes of a friend”
— The Yajur Veda