Imagine what aliens would think of us if they scrolled through the comments on a YouTube video. Most “conversations” do not involve any attempts to understand another person’s opinion. Instead, people tend to make sweeping generalizations, insult each other unfairly, refuse to recognize the validity of other people’s thoughts and decide that the f-word can be substituted for any adjective.

Maybe I’ve led a sheltered life, but in my experience the vast majority of people are not nearly as awful as the Internet would lead me to believe. If I make a controversial statement to a friend or even an acquaintance, that person is likely to at least try to understand my point of view. Even if no one agrees with me, I do not have to worry about people hurling unprintable abuse at me.

Part of the reason for the disparity is that people often feel anonymous on the Internet. However, that explanation doesn’t satisfy me completely. I don’t know any pleasant people who would turn into hateful maniacs if they put on a mask.

I think people get into flame wars on the Internet because it’s easy to hate a person you’ve never met. Imagine that I posted “Hitler was a great leader.” It would take the world about half a second to decide that I was an awful human being whose opinions were completely invalid. I most likely wouldn’t be able to redeem myself with any explanation or justification.

But what if I said the same thing to someone who knew me well enough to know that I’m not a fascist? That person might listen long enough for me to explain that of course I think Hitler was a bad person; I was merely referring to his ability to use mob psychology to influence and control people.

On the Internet, we have very little to go by when we judge strangers. We take a single comment and use it to construct our conception of a person. They become what they wrote and nothing else. It is nearly impossible for us to “imagine others complexly,” to borrow a phrase from John Green. It’s easy for us to believe that no one understands us, but we don’t often stop to think that maybe we are not fully understanding of others. We create boxes to fit people into, forgetting that everyone who writes a comment on the Internet has been shaped by unique experiences and is just as complicated as we are.

When we read a comment on the Internet, more than likely we will never know the story of the person who posted it. It’s impossible for us to understand why they believe what they do, whether or not they’ve thought it through carefully, or how smart they are. We usually don’t have any context in which to put their statements.

Therefore, it’s especially important to remember that whether or not we see the context, it exists. Some people are just trying to incite a blowup, but most are trying to make us understand something, and I think it’s worthwhile to try.

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