Wrong on the Internet

The Internet is a terrific invention. Without it, I would never have found myself living on top of a pizza shop in Newcastle with my close friend Danni and a wheezy arthritic old cat, having to wear heavy-duty earplugs to block out the cheerful karaoke coming from the pub next door. (‘Mr Blue Sky’ and ‘I Am the One and Only’ were popular numbers, sung very loudly and with Geordie accents.) Without the Internet, I would never have found myself being force-fed vast quantities of dubious makloubeh by a Palestinian girl from Gaza in a kitchen in northern England. I would never have made the acquaintance of Shai (who has been quite invaluable in helping me with colloquial Hebrew – now I can even ask for a drug dealer and a wide selection of other things that I am unlikely to want). Without the Internet, I doubt that I would ever have smuggled an off-duty Israeli soldier into Bethlehem and sent him home wearing a kuffiyeh. (That story has yet to be told on this blog – I’ll get to it.)

Danni and I met on a forum for disabled teenagers, which was my intro to the power of the Internet in bringing about change for the better. That forum gave me some of my best friends. It provided advice for teenagers who were struggling to cope with their condition. It even saved a few lives (literally). When Britain’s coalition government began to draft in an unjust and dangerous series of welfare reform policies, disabled and chronically ill people took to the Internet to launch a counter campaign. Many of the participants couldn’t leave their houses – some even struggled to get out of bed – but they turned to their keyboards. I was particularly moved by people’s response to Ali, a severely ill woman who shared on her personal blog that suicide would be her only choice if her benefits were revoked. She had lived on the streets once, she wrote, and she would never go back there again. Within hours, a group of disabled people had conceived of ‘5 Quid for Life’. Donors contribute five pounds per month to the organisation, and the money will be distributed to people facing Ali’s trouble.

For something that has accomplished so much good in my life, the Internet is also a terrible headache. I read and comment on a variety of blogs – about Palestine/Israel, about disability, about feminism, special needs education, mental health, ecology, veganism, theology, and so on. Sometimes the comment threads dissolve into a cesspool of petty spite. The topic of discussion is abandoned in favour of having the last word or taking another commenter down a peg or two. When the topic of discussion is a family who has lost their home or a prisoner who is dying, this absence of compassion is inexcusable, and I find myself asking why I am joining in with these conversations. What does it achieve?

I have a hot temper and a sharp tongue. I can also be an insufferable know-it-all. Several years ago I realised that the Internet could help me to overcome these tendencies: it gives you time to think before you speak. You don’t have to hit ‘Enter’. Wait. Would you say this to a person standing in front of you? A friend? It is easy to forget that you are dealing with real people and not pixels unless you make yourself answer these questions.

In Palestine, I can usually temper my responses even when I feel angry: my desk is in a little alcove opening off the room where people gather for refreshments. The women of the choir troop past me on the way to the rehearsals in the big meeting room. “Vicky, hi, yallah, come and sing with us!” Teenagers from the youth group bob in just because they’re nosy and they like to see what I’m up to. Taghreed the housekeeper keeps flitting in and out with coffee and biscuits, clinging to the belief that without her tender ministrations I would pass out from undernourishment. Even when there is nobody in the office, faces look down at me from the photographs on the walls: elderly refugee women. Dabka dancers. Colleagues, family. The youth group on a field trip to Jericho, grinning for the camera, ice cream all round the mouths of the younger children. Non-violence is the ethos of this house. Not everybody who comes here is a pacifist; it would not be reasonable to expect that, or right. People of all political persuasions come knocking on our door, and everybody is welcomed as they are. But it is the pacifist philosophy that creates this atmosphere of welcome. Sitting at this desk, urges to get argumentative or spiteful are easy to push away. I am strengthened by the kindness of everyone who passes my alcove.

It’s not always so easy. I am in England now. I know that it is bitterly cold in Palestine; snow fell recently in the Hebron hills. Homes were demolished today in the Jordan Valley. A couple of weeks ago the bulldozers were flattening the houses (huts) of my friends in Umm al-Khair. I sit here in a centrally heated house, reading blog comments from people who characterise ten-year-old Hanadi and her family as illegal squatters who deserve to have their homes and livelihoods razed in the middle of a cold desert winter. Palestinian daily life always seems so much more brutal when I compare it with the normality of life here, the things that the neighbours in this quiet suburb take for granted. It takes me some time to re-adjust to the notion of being able to go where I like without encountering guns or checkpoints. Then I come online and read comments like that, from people who have never set foot in Palestine, never seen a home demolition, and the white-hot anger is like a whiplash. The mundane suburban tranquillity of my setting only serves to emphasise the unfairness of it all, and I feel bitterness taking root.

Would I say this to a friend?

Who cares? He’s saying that the ten-year-old children of my friends are to blame for being arrested in the middle of the night because they threw stones at the sodding occupation army! F*** him!

Keeping my temper in check in these circumstances sometimes makes me feel as though I am wrestling a Bengal tiger that has woken up in a particularly bad mood. Right now I haven’t got the arm muscles for a sustained wrestling match, so I’m taking a break from the Internet. I will still be keeping my own blog, but you won’t find me commenting on other people’s (unless the subject is poetry or how to crochet a tea-cosy or something of that sort).

Lent begins two days from now, on Ash Wednesday – the forty days of fasting and penance that lead to the celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection. A few weeks ago I decided that this Lent I would think a lot about gentleness, try to be more gentle. It’s a quality that is often disregarded as weakness in this world and something that I want to understand better, having a rather robust personality myself (where ‘robust’ means ‘the exuberance of Tigger combined with the weight of a Sherman tank’). My Internet break seems to fit with this exploration. I may write about it as I go, or I may not. I am taking as my starting-point two sayings from Jerome, a fourth-century saint who died in Bethlehem. “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength,” he wrote, and, “Have patience with all things, but first of all with yourself.”

P.S. If you would like me to pray for anything particular during Lent, please get in touch – my absence from online debates will leave me with a lot of extra time on my hands, and I plan to spend some of it on my knees. :) My contact e-mail is vickyinpalestine at gmail dot com.

8 thoughts on “Wrong on the Internet

  1. Wait. Would you say this to a person standing in front of you? A friend? It is so easy to forget that you are dealing with real people, not pixels.

    Yes. I struggle with this all the time. Often it disheartens me and makes me not want to engage with the difficult subjects at all; I wonder whether maybe I’d serve the world better by posting more poetry and more prayer.

  2. I have been away from +972 for about a week (because it is too easy for me to get caught up in all the rhetoric, thinking what I say will actually matter). Going through a few posts yesterday I came across your personal revelation. That was very brave. The real reasons we do things we often hide.
    Most on +972 know their rights and wrongs. I think they are valuable as a samping of other world views. +972 Hasbara is not going to change its mind–any more than you will, probably. But by reading (a little of) them one knows what one faces, and maybe gets some insight into their hopes, loves, and fears. This knowledge can then be used in other interactions.
    Your honesty will scare many. Know why.

  3. Vicky,

    For the record, you are one of the most articulate, empathetic and heartfelt commenters on my blog and I want you to know your words are always welcome. Having said this, (being a compulsive blogger/commenter myself), I completely identify with your frustrations. I’ve often found that an “internet break” can be just what I need to recharge and renew.

    May your prayers bear fruit during this upcoming season of Lent – and may your efforts guide you toward a gentle strength.

  4. Rachel, the first thing I saw when I stumbled across your blog was the anthology of poems on miscarriage. Last weekend I was at a conference, and I had a long chat with a Nigerian peace worker about non-violence in places where people are at immediate risk of being murdered (as is the case where he works). He said that he was interested in ‘disarming the heart’. We talked about what that meant. I think the content of your blog has that effect – you write about so many topics (some of them very personal) that everybody who reads it is likely to have something that touches them. I think it’s necessary to face the difficult subjects, but with this as a basis – an awareness of the people you are talking with, and regard for them and their lives. It gets harder and harder when you broach the difficult subjects, as then you start to attract people who only want to vent about these particular things, but I think an atmosphere of kindness will always make itself felt. It all comes down to the poetry and prayer.

    Greg, I presume you’re referring to my disclosure that I come from a military family? That was not a big thing for me to share, really, although other people always seem stunned by it. I was a member of the air force cadets by the age of fifteen, and I realised I was a cuckoo in the nest when I could never re-assemble my weapon after stripping it. Perhaps it was a cosmic sign that I am so much more suited to life as a pacifist – I’ve always had a special talent for rendering weapons unuseable. (Once I even got sent off the shooting range in disgrace!) As for the rest of what you write, it’s not specifically hasbara that bothers me – sometimes people hide behind that because they are genuinely sore and afraid and they need the comfort. It’s lack of compassion more generally. I don’t like to hear settlers being described as psychopathic, or to see teenage soldiers getting vilified. It frustrates me when people who are interested in justice for Palestine don’t get why this is. Kindness is vital. It’s the best weapon I’ve got, and I need to take time to re-assemble it. :P

    Brant, thank you for the good wishes. I will still be reading what you post even if I don’t venture into the discussions. There are a lot of Jewish peace blogs out there, but most of them seem to be written from a secular perspective – it’s always nice to read something on Palestine that is rooted in Judaism as a religious tradition. I’m glad that you appreciate my participation in your blog discussion, but I was also meaning to apologise. When I comment, it’s usually as part of a debate. I didn’t take time to say how happy I was to read that you took people from your synagogue to visit the refugees in Dheisheh, for example, and that is a more important thing to say than arguing the history of political Zionism. So, belated thanks for what you do. :)

  5. Vicky the way you react kind to people, but firm against injustice and often from a personal experience, is an enrichment for every blog. You might not convince all the tigers to become humane, but you surely let people think.

  6. The revelation was quite serious, not what you say at all, embedded in a long series of exchanges between a “Vicky,” “Passerby,” and hasbara others I remember not (on an administrative detention thread at 972). I was scanning the thread, and it popped out. I truly thought it was on a “Vicky” comment. The thread is no longer there, of today. Maybe I’m going crazy. Good reason to stop. I aplogize for the confusion. The context was whether one could have compassion for someone after a great hurt, the thread focus overall being (I think I recall) Adnan (+972 now annouces he has agreed to end his fast). So, again, sorry.

  7. A number of years ago (when the blogosphere first took off in the couple of years after 9/11) I found that anti-Arab racism was the norm on the American right-wing blogosphere, and at that time there was a blog called Little Green Footballs which at the time had a radically pro-war and pro-Israel position, and many commenters had obviously Jewish names, or names which suggested a familiarity with the Middle East and the knowledge of a few nasty Arabic words (like “Sharmoota” or “Son of a monkey and a pig”) and there were persistent uses of racial epithets (like “Palis”) and references to “Arab squatters” and so on, as well as Nazi-like dehumanising language (subhumans, vermin). It seems that 9/11 and the anti-Arab feeling it had unleashed in the USA had allowed people to openly air racist views they had always held. I don’t know the history behind the “huts” at Umm al-Khair, but squatters is how many Israelis, and their Jewish friends (and deluded born-again Christian friends) in the USA and UK, regard Palestinians in general.

    As for the benefits and harms of the Internet itself, I’m entirely in agreement about its benefits to disabled people (there are people with the same condition as Danni and far more severely affected who cannot have any visitors, ever, and for whom the internet provides the only serious opportunity for a social life) and it enables people to blow the whistle on harm going on in some institutional situations (I wonder if my school could have survived as long as it did if people had been able to share information on what was going on there). The downside is that it opens up the door to malicious behaviour and bigotry, especially on forums that aren’t moderated properly (I had to deal with an awful lot of it back in 2005 when my blog was one of the more high-profile Muslim blogs), and to very destructive pornography that gives young men the impression that the women around them are sluts and enjoy being degraded. There is no adequate way that the flow of junk can be stemmed.

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