News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Assuming the worst

The year was 2001. I had been immersed in an online community — a predecessor to social media — for nearly 10 years. One of the wittiest women there came into my real-life orbit. Let’s call her Rose.

People argued about politics and media online, of course, but many delved into our personal stories. We shared expertise and resources. When someone got sick or their house burned down, we put on virtual barn-raisings to help out.

The conversations bubbled with buoyant verbal hijinks, sometimes with a snarky, sarcastic bent — especially in our Generation X crowd. Rose was a master of smart zingers and tart rejoinders. Having grown up in a sharp-tongued Irish-American family, I thought it was a hoot.

As Rose and I became closer friends, she revealed how much these online conversations hurt her. I was astonished.

When someone got in an amusing dig at me, I usually laughed and moved right along. It hadn’t occurred to me that behind their banter might lurk genuine ill-will. My own remarks were meant to be lighthearted, not cutting.

My friend, though, had come to feel insulted by many posts. Others she viewed as people crowing about how great their lives were, to impress and depress everyone else. For example, some in our crowd were getting married, having kids, buying homes. People like me and Rose still lived in rentals, posting about boyfriends instead of husbands, or about our lives as single women going out to shows.

When a married woman posted every day about the inconveniences of her extensive home remodel, I viewed it as sharing about her life. Rose felt the home remodeler was showing off, well aware that others would envy her money, house, and family.

Seen through Rose’s negative lens, these online conversations cast long shadows. Posts I would normally read as chit-chatty check-ins now reeked of one-upmanship. Witty or silly posts of high snarkitude — including my own — could be read as heartless or deliberately mean.

I realized that my joy in the patter and arguments arose not just from my love of words, but from my assumption that folks were bringing a big heart to the proceedings. Some were not, turns out, but you could never be sure based solely on a few disembodied words. Online communication brought out people’s negativity and paranoia.

The current climate of sociopolitical discussion brought this story to mind. There’s a disturbing trend to assume the worst of anyone who speaks their mind or puts up a sign in their front yard.

Commentators make much of alleged “virtue signaling.” Oxford’s Lexico Internet dictionary defines this as “the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.”

An editorial in The Nugget recently scolded citizens for exercising “performative wokeness.” It called into question the sincerity of Bend activists who objected to a culturally insensitive billboard.

The problem with both terms? Rarely does the commentator flinging them around know what’s genuinely going on in the minds and hearts of those they’re insulting. How could they? Did they invite them out for a cup of coffee? Sit down and listen to their story? Look them in the eye and consider their concerns from a non-judgmental point of view?

Of those I’ve confronted about it so far, nobody has done their human, heart-level homework before casting those words about. Some accusers of virtue signaling and performative wokeness may have done their homework; I do hope so. (I recognize that I, too, may be painting with an awfully large brush.) But, like my friend back in 2001, some seem content to assume the worst of others, based on zero personal experience with the individuals in question.

Taking action is hard work. In my experience, a great deal of it consists of annoying slogs through bureaucracy and meetings. I sure as heck wouldn’t take the time unless I felt genuine dedication to the issue at hand. There are far easier ways to preen for positive attention. Writing a column, for example.

It’s possible that whoever requested the insensitive billboard’s removal cares deeply about how symbols of white pioneer courage feel to folks whose people have been killed, displaced, stolen from, raped, and stripped of their culture and language by colonists and their descendants. (Personally, I’m just a confused hypocrite in the middle, celebrating the pioneers and my heritage as a white Westerner one minute, despairing the plight of Native American Indians the next.)

The communication tactics of these folks may indeed consist of “cancel culture” methods that don’t promote greater understanding of history. I’m not here to talk communications strategy; corporations pay me good money for that. I’m here to talk about the motivations of these folks. I can’t tell you what their true motivations are, but common decency suggests I consider them innocent until proven guilty.

To impugn their motivations out-of-hand, to project some sense of ego-preening on an everyday citizen you haven’t met, strikes me as dangerous. Like the insidious idea that anyone who doesn’t agree with your ideology is peddling “fake news,” knee-jerk accusations of virtue signaling promote a divided, nasty, mistrustful society.

Are people sometimes hypocritical? Do we wear crosses around our necks while complaining about people in poverty rather than offering a helping hand? Praise the idea of veterans who have served our country, all the while voting against candidates and programs that would help them and their families? Do we parade around with signs promoting environmental causes, then jump into our gas-guzzling SUVs and enjoy a food-cart meal served on disposable plates?

Yep, sure do. We are humans, after all, which is to say we are flawed and inconsistent. This does not mean that our every move, bumpersticker, and political action is a mere performance, enacted for applause and attention.

Sometimes, performativity is in the eye of the beholder. Rather than casting aspersions upon those who seek positive change, perhaps each of us should turn that critical lens upon ourselves. Better yet, throw the darned thing in the recycling bin and find a better, clearer, more positive lens through which to view our fellow humans and ourselves, too.

As for Rose: she fell in love, got married, and bought a sweet old house that started falling apart shortly after they moved in. Her posts about the remodel were hilarious.


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