“Are you absolutely clueless?”
“You’ve got to be a special kind of stupid.”
These comments and others like them show up time and again in online discussions, usually in response to statements about politics, religious beliefs or a hot-button social issue.
I saw this tone once again last week in a discussion I had been following. Replies to one comment suggested the person who had made the initial statement was stupid, childish or uninformed. Other comments on the same topic received the same responses. In short order, the discussion had moved from the initial idea presented and had devolved into an unfriendly exchange of insults.
Within minutes, I gave up reading any more comments. This was far too much online vitriol.
Still, I was left puzzled by what I had seen.
Instead of attempting to reason with each other, people on both sides of this issue had resorted to barbed insults and name-calling. What could possibly be accomplished by this tone?
If online discussions are supposed to persuade others, this one was failing. People don’t change their minds because they’ve been insulted or belittled.
I’ve shifted my views on a number of occasions and will likely do so again, but I can’t recall any time when it happened because someone said I was stupid for holding a certain view. If anyone has had a change of heart because of this approach, I’d be surprised.
If retorts about someone’s sanity do not result in a change of opinion, then what is the point?
Some would say that they are simply speaking the truth and telling it like it is. Others have claimed referring to someone as stupid or uninformed is a form of kindness. If someone who holds to an objectionable position is neither stupid or uninformed, the only remaining conclusion is maliciousness.
However, whatever the reason behind insults or attempting to discredit someone’s sanity, the result is the same. People are not berated into changing their opinions.
A better approach is to speak calmly, addressing issues and not personalities.
It would be worthwhile to consider the Four-Way Test, used by members of Rotary International. This test, followed by members of the service club, has been in place since 1932 and is intended to guide what its members think, say and do.
1. Is it the truth?
2. Is it fair to all concerned?
3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
The Four-Way Test was developed decades before the development of social media, but the principle remains the same.
More importantly, it is important to remember that differences of opinion will exist in any free and democratic society. In the end, these differences should be accepted, although not necessarily embraced.
Canadian leaders have emphasized the importance of this form of tolerance.
“Freedom is the right to be wrong, not the right to do wrong,” former prime minister John Diefenbaker said in 1958.
Former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, father of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, expressed a similar sentiment in 1971. “A society which emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate.”
Perhaps the angry tone of the online discussion has had a positive outcome.
After watching people spewing hate towards each other, I’ve given some more thought to the importance of tolerance and kindness. This wasn’t the goal of the angry speakers, but perhaps there are lessons to be learned from their tone.
John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.
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