If you have ever visited the internet, you likely noticed it is rife with hyperbole and lacking in nuance. All jokes are to be taken literally, and responded to with long, academic-sounding threads that explain why the joke, in fact, amounts to violence. Everyone we don’t like is a fascist. Those who disagree with our ideologies are murderers, and political differences are cause for excommunication. The response to foibles or disagreements is a days-long hounding of the guilty party, leading them to get down on their knees and beg for forgiveness or simply disappear. The best way to make the world a better place, according to social media, is by destroying someone else.
I have been told to kill myself, drink bleach, and die in a fire more times than I can count. False sentimentality is common currency on social media. Charity and empathy are rare. But while many are critical of such behavior when directed our way, the tables turn when the target is not One Of Us, but One of Them.
Last week, it was reported that Jordan Peterson, who has been struggling with addiction issues and other health problems, was suicidal, had been near death, and sought treatment in Russia.
The response online was disturbing.
One social media user named Emily Gorcenski tweeted a link to an article with the headline, ‘He nearly died several times,’ alongside his own commentary: ‘Look at how much it sucks to be a bigot when not being a bigot is free,’ adding, ‘We narrowly missed the first case of they pronouns killing someone,’ and ‘Imagine name searching Jordan Peterson, who died when he was crushed by a falling pronoun.’
In other words, he was joking about Peterson’s near-death, conveying that he felt gleeful at the possibility he might suffer and die. Another Twitter user named ‘Alexander’, who had the words, ‘anti-fascist’ and ‘They/them’ in his bio, wrote, ‘Jordan Peterson is a charlatan, a misogynist, and a grifter who got rich poisoning the minds of young men acting as both the Trojan horse and open gate for alt-right neofascism. The only thing regrettable about his current situation is that there isn’t a Hell for him to go to.’ A philosophy prof at the University of Virginia, tweeted, ‘Me, a disabled vegan feminist philosopher, reading the news stories about Jordan Peterson, while strongly committed to the idea that everyone deserves compassion and illness should never be mocked,’ alongside a Gif of a boy saying, ‘Is this a test?’ The implication is that she believed Peterson’s struggles should be mocked. The list goes on. Numerous people who would describe themselves as progressives gloated, mocking his addiction and mental health issues, crowing over the possibility he might die.
Social media is ruthless, you might say. Which is true. It does not actually hurt my feelings when someone tells me to die, because I’m used to it and I am a mentally stable adult. But I think this kind of behavior is dangerous, nonetheless. The same people who are celebrating Peterson’s health problems are also those who defend violent threats against women who challenge gender identity ideology. And they justify it for the same reasons. These people would argue that punching a ‘TERF’ (Trans Exclusive Radical Feminists) is acceptable since ‘TERFs’ are allegedly responsible for violence or are ‘fascist’.
None of this is even close to true, of course. Feminists are not responsible for violence, and do not much care for fascism. But that’s irrelevant to those who believe they are our enemies.
Far too many of us are too comfortable vilifying and dehumanizing those with whom we have disagreements. It is not enough, on social media, to say, ‘Well, I agree with some things she says, but not others.’ Or ‘I think he is wrong.’ Or even, ‘I think this person is painfully stupid.’ If a person doesn’t share our views, only hatred and hyperbole will do, otherwise you aren’t truly serious about your politics.
A friend described it as ‘performative sociopathy’. It shows those you wish to demonstrate allegiance to that you are so committed to your politics, you literally don’t care if those you disagree with live or die.
I do not relate to this sentiment, and have trouble believing many others do either. I don’t feel seething rage towards those I disagree with, to the point that I would publicly wish them harm. Unless a person is actually violent, abusive, sadistic, or horrible to animals, I cannot muster the level of hate I see online.
I am not asking for niceness. You need not like everyone or be polite all the time. Certainly I do not and am not. What I am asking is that people not dehumanize one another and express violent sentiments towards others, in general, and particularly not in the name of ending dehumanization and violence.
I am not some Jordan Peterson superfan and have zero reason to defend him. I have not studied his work closely (and suspect most of his haters have not either, which makes me skeptical of their hatred). I have found some of his older lectures interesting (and others less so). I am interested in ideas, in society, and in thinking, and therefore I find a wide variety of public intellectuals intriguing, even when I don’t agree with or relate to their perspectives.
The point is that even if a person is not ‘on my side’, I still don’t think they deserve addiction or death. I do not believe only those I like or agree with deserve to live. I do not think that only those who fit within certain ideological boxes deserve defending. Were we to only defend the rights and humanity of those who shared our views, the vast majority of the population would be thrown to the wolves.
Where is the line, in terms of who deserves to die, rot in hell, or to suffer addiction or health issues? It is only in the eye of the beholder. A pro-lifer might relish in the demise of doctors who perform abortions. I am told by trans activists I deserve the wall. Maybe some of Peterson’s fans would like to see a liberal feminist drink bleach, I really don’t know. Either way, everyone is wrong. No one should be celebrating the suffering or death of others simply because of ideological or political disagreements. Any of us who have been threatened online (or elsewhere) due to our views or politics should understand this.
I’m sick of the way we treat one another on social media. I’m sick of the mobs, the slander, the gossip, the conspiracy theories, the circling of wagons. I can guarantee that you hold views someone on the internet finds offensive and who could quite easily twist you into a vile human being, deserving of death, should your thoughts be emptied out into the public realm, repackaged, and distributed as isolated screen shots or media soundbites. And I suspect that if this ever happens to you, you will hope even those who think you are wrong about a variety of things will defend you from this level of viciousness.
Peterson may have an addiction to Benzos, but too many of us have an addiction to hate.
Meghan Murphy is a writer in Vancouver, BC. Her website is Feminist Current.