Comments sections provide a blank, free speech forum where we can discuss an article, get into the nitty-gritty production details of YouTube videos, and share great ideas to transform the world — that is, in another universe. In this world of all possible worlds, the comments sections are reserved for posturing, political parrots, and pointlessly insulting others. Part of why people do this comes down to what David J. Pollay wrote: “Many people are like garbage trucks. They run around full of garbage, full of frustration, full of anger, and full of disappointment. As their garbage piles up,they look for a place to dump it. And if you let them, they’ll dump it on you.” Our nation’s trucks are overflowing — its people are overflowing — with rage, loss, and confusion. When we get caught up in an online argument, we’re not changing the world, but instead letting people dump their garbage all over us. Luckily, so-called “internet tough-guys” tend to hold normal conversations in everyday offline life. The best thing is to ignore the trash, and make real human connections outside the internet, where we can see each other, read body language, and face people directly.
For me, in March of last year, one of those places was at an airport bar, waiting for a flight. A fellow patron and I watched Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump paraded across CNN’s feed for a few minutes. We exchanged work stories and duties, and it turned out he was a Border Patrol agent. Of course, the conversation quickly turned to politics, as the news ticked on about Trump’s border wall proposal. The agent told me his decision was between Sanders and Trump, but he said he liked Trump for his sincerity and lack of political entrenchment, where Sanders is a career politician. Then I asked about the wall. “Trump isn’t going to do it,” he told me. “It’s just rhetoric.” As a border agent, he was against the wall, saying the barriers down there are about as effective as a physical barrier can get. Then we discussed other solutions, like tech and immigration policy (which he agreed were better solutions, after years on the border), until he had to get on a plane and never see me again. What I assumed would have turned into a bicker-fest actually helped us find some common ground. While we didn’t change each others’ minds, we did learn each others’ views, which is a big step in unifying two people with conflicting ideologies. We didn’t fight, we didn’t bicker, we just explained our views and moved on with life, both happier for having learned something.
It’s not easy to convince someone of a mistake, or a character flaw — change is hard, and we can’t force someone to change, but the world sometimes reveals the truth in astounding, painful ways. Allen Wood, a retired Army Sergeant who fought in Vietnam, wrote in a Facebook post about how he was taught to hate, growing up with a father in the KKK in southern Georgia. “I grew up in a racist society and I willingly participated in it. I cannot deny that I used the ‘N’ word many times. Maybe you grew up the same way. That was my world and I had to belong in it.” However, one day, he changed. “The truth came on a very very hot morning in Vietnam when we were ambushed by a small group of local Viet Cong irregulars,” he wrote. “A man almost gave his life to save mine. He did not stop to ask if I was white, black; Christian or not. I was his friend and buddy and he willingly placed his life between me and certain death.” Turns out his hero was a black soldier, but in this moment of crisis, preconceived notions of race didn’t matter. Wood’s arm suffered an injury, and his new friend, George, suffered an injury to his side. As Wood tended George’s wound, their blood mixed right there on the battlefield. “There was no hatred, no distrust. Just two men in a bad situation and wanting to survive. …. After that singular incident, watching his blood mingled with mine, I looked at the world totally different. George and I talked about our different worlds and were constantly struck at how, in truth, they were the same worlds.” Sometimes, to let go of hate, we have to see that we all share the same dark-red blood as everyone else.
Without a doubt, we all live in the same world, even if Socrates was right that “The only wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Reality may differ person to person, depending on individual brain chemistry and impressions and histories. After all, the world we see is relative to the tools we have in our heads and bodies. Even so, through careful conversation, through shared experience, we erase the illusion of The Other and find common ground. Take a breath, smile, ask for your fellow human’s name, and then ask more questions.