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It’s a jungle out there …

Justine Toh is being trolled on Twitter, and she’s learning as she goes how to handle it

It’s a jungle out there …

Eat or be eaten. Kill or be killed. The ruthless inevitability of the law of the jungle divides the world into those that survive and thrive, and those that are dead meat. But this jungle logic doesn’t confine itself to the wild, as it were, but appears with increasing frequency online. Our political climate is so polarised, and our habits of shouting at those who disagree with us so stubbornly entrenched, that a baser, tribal instinct begins to assert itself. It’s the prospect of making someone else your “repugnant cultural other” and/or becoming one yourself.

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This tendency to divide the social world into the virtuous “us” and the evil “them” becomes all the more inevitable given our groupishness: our habits, both online and off, of huddling together with those who already agree with us.

The term, and its abbreviation to RCO, appears in Alan Jacobs’ book How to Think: A Guide for the Perplexed, and describes the way we stigmatise our ideological, political, social and religious others as enemies, regarding them with a toxic mix of suspicion and hostility. This tendency to divide the social world into the virtuous “us” and the evil “them” becomes all the more inevitable given our groupishness: our habits, both online and off, of huddling together with those who already agree with us.

Note the repugnance, because it’s critical to the phenomenon. When we talk about our opponents and when we talk to them – or, more accurately at them – typically, we’re not being neutral. Rather, our speech is charged with the double ick factor of heated dislike (at best) and outright disgust (at worst). We lead with our animal instincts, activating visceral responses a world away from the cool rationality we often pride ourselves on.

I recently found myself the unwitting target of one such spray online because, surprise surprise, it turns out that I am someone’s RCO!

Lyle Shelton, the former managing director of the Australian Christian Lobby, who will run for a senate seat with the Australian Conservatives at the next election, had tweeted his enthusiasm for the Centre for Public Christianity’s documentary For the Love of God: How the Church Is Better and Worse Than You Ever Imagined. One of his followers immediately trolled him back, but because myself and my co-presenters were tagged in the initial tweet, all and sundry suddenly found ourselves accused of gross bigotry against the gay community and the deliberate cover-up of a culture of sexual abuse within the church.

I saw that this conversation was going nowhere fast, and just stopped responding. I ghosted her! This encounter has to be chalked up as an unmitigated “fail” in the effort to promote civil discourse.

If the portrait our accuser had painted of us was true, I’d hate us too. But it’s not. I tried to answer her objections as best I could, and gently dispute her characterisation. I was trying to channel David Abitbol, whose persistently friendly tweets to Megan Phelps-Roper, a member of the Westboro Baptist Church (infamous for telling certain groups that God definitely hates them), ultimately meant she exited her community.

But nothing could dent this woman’s fortified conviction. She just resumed her tirade against the church and kept berating me over Twitter. I managed to do something that has so far eluded me as a mum: continue conversing in a calm, friendly but firm tone in the face of incessant aggravation. It probably helped that I only tweeted back hours after reading her latest reply.

My ability to remain calm is basically the only win I can report, because my story does not have a happy ending: we did not continue to exchange a flurry of tweets, slowly come to understand each other, eventually decide to meet up for a cult screening of Roadhouse (a guilty pleasure that, we discovered, we shared), and then, over time, marvel at the realisation that we’d become friends without even realising it, even while continuing to think the other was seriously mistaken about everything.

It’s easy to forget the human behind the screen when we bomb our RCOs with tweets full of bile and rage, or treat their contemptible position on controversial topic X as the sum total of their being.

Rather, I saw that this conversation was going nowhere fast, and just stopped responding. I ghosted her! This encounter has to be chalked up as an unmitigated “fail” in the effort to promote civil discourse, which means any advice I offer now is, surely, not at all worth taking. But precisely because I recognise my impoverishment, I’ve actively gone looking for pointers on what I should have done instead.

Here’s what I’ve found:

1. Humanise everyone.

As Megan Phelps-Roper tweeted back and forth with David Abitbol and others like him, she found, to her great surprise, that they were funny, kind and interesting. “I was beginning to see them as human,” she told Adrian Chen, who reported on her story in The New Yorker. And that made all the difference.

It’s easy to forget the human behind the screen when we bomb our RCOs with tweets full of bile and rage, or treat their contemptible position on controversial topic X as the sum total of their being. We never get the chance to discover that we have more in common than we might think. Objectifying someone as our RCO, says Alan Jacobs, “prevents us from recognising others as our neighbours – even when they are quite literally our neighbours.”

Trying to remember that everyone is a bewilderingly complex mix of beliefs, attitudes, emotions, experiences and loves – “a universe unto themselves,” to tweak a Jewish saying – goes some way to rehumanising everyone. And this commitment to the fundamental humanity of all is especially crucial for Christians whose faith obliges them to seek out the face of God in everyone else, regardless of their politics, their beliefs, or anything else. Which leads me to the need to …

2. Campaign on behalf of the injuries others have suffered, rather than any done to me.

I responded to charges levelled at the church, and myself, but didn’t say anything on behalf of anyone else caught up in the crossfire. I regret that I didn’t take issue, for instance, with the way our accuser rechristened Lyle as “Vyle.” Sorry I abandoned you Lyle! No matter how strongly she may disagree with his beliefs or actions, calling him “Vyle” made him seem less human, a despised figure any reasonable person would not listen to, empathise with, or interpret charitably.

I have to admit, I hate my own counsel on this point because it is so profoundly unfair. To meet others’ hostility with grace and patience, and to absorb the impact of their verbal attacks takes great reserves of strength – far more than I can ever hope to muster up on my own.

Of course, someone could say that I’d be standing up for Lyle because, as a fellow Christian, he’s in my tribe. So to ensure that this doesn’t become another instance of tribal warfare, I’d have to commit to taking a stand against the dehumanising rhetoric of anyone, regardless of their tribe or politics.

From what I understand, sexual minorities regard Lyle’s stance on marriage as pure bigotry, which in their minds disqualifies him from the respect they’d offer anyone else. But it’s hard to grasp how going along with the dehumanisation of RCOs does anything to promote understanding despite deep differences, or helps us to find common ground with each other, even if no one can agree on a common good. But of course, this will mean I’m asking for us to …

3. Expect to be injured, but don’t strike back.

I have to admit, I hate my own counsel on this point because it is so profoundly unfair. To meet others’ hostility with grace and patience, and to absorb the impact of their verbal attacks takes great reserves of strength – far more than I can ever hope to muster up on my own. It’s much easier, and way more satisfying, to retaliate. But then an intractable question arises: are we doomed to trade blows forever? If that isn’t to be our fate, then someone has to lay down their arms first. And it may as well be you or me, given that it’s a bit rich to ask something of others that we aren’t prepared to do ourselves.

Since that option makes zero sense within the human realm, perhaps we’ll have to call on more than merely human means if we want to take it. For the Christian, the single most compelling reason to do so is Jesus, and his forbearance in the face of suffering. His willing self-sacrifice for the sake of his enemies refuses jungle logic and the neat carving up of the world into friends on my side and foes that are fair game.

Rather, Jesus chooses reconciliation by moving towards especially repugnant others (a category in which, according to the biblical diagnosis, the whole of humanity finds itself) in recognition that all of us are also beloved members of the same human family, even if we actually prefer being estranged from each other. By doing so, he treads a path of peace for all of us, otherwise locked in intractable tribal conflict, to follow.

* Whether or not I encounter my particular accuser again, I’ll be keeping those points in mind. But even if I don’t, the trolling and tribalism doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. So I’m sure there’ll be no shortage of opportunities to try, and try again.

Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

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