No sooner had I finished writing an article for ptownie about how important it is for us in Provincetown to be nice to this summer’s refugees from Trump’s America, than I had occasion to post a query on Provincetown’s Community Space group on Facebook. I didn’t at the time view what I’d written as controversial, though I do see in retrospect how someone could perceive it that way. But what astonished me was the response, strong enough that I removed the post (which did nothing to stem the number of vitriolic personal messages that continued to come my way), and stunning me, not with its content, but with its anger. Its sheer unnecessary nastiness.
I don’t have a particularly thin skin. I’m a writer, which means I get rejected on a frequent if not daily basis. I’m also one of the elders of the Internet, having been on it (via a computer with a cp/m operating system, which you’ve probably never even heard of) when it was still the USENET. For decades I’ve observed people eviscerate each other with abandon. I’ve endured and seen others endure ad hominem attacks, insults, and even threats. People who would never say anything offensive offline find their inner trolls released as soon as they get themselves a user name and a forum. I get that.
What I didn’t expect was seeing it in a place called “community space,” especially when I’d just finished writing a piece talking about how this community is a safe place. I have to say: It didn’t feel safe to me. If we can’t be nice to each other, if we can’t treat each other with respect, then what’s the point? What do we have to offer that’s any different from any of the communities that we fled?
Here’s the thing: it’s not just me. If it were, I’d just whine softly to myself and move on. But I’ve since spoken with a number of people who’ve had the same experience, either by seeing their posts in Community Space hijacked and going in a dark direction they’d never intended, or by having people attack them directly, apparently simply because they can. How does this work? Do group members lie in wait, ready to pounce whenever a post appears that can give them the opportunity to be nasty?
If you’re offended by something, insulting the offender isn’t going to change anything. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that never in the history of offensive speech or behavior has insulting the offender made them any less offensive. Approaching them calmly and asking about their intentions might be a good first step. It might be a constructive first step. It might be a community-oriented first step. And you might even find that you misread the original poster’s intentions.
We spend a lot of time talking about how we’re treated “out there.” Almost everyone in Provincetown has a story about some act or expression of meanness or cruelty that drove us to want to be part of this place. Acting like trolls on the Internet, and most particularly on a forum called “community space,” is a Donald Trump-esque move, and it’s just not worthy of us.