Thursday, July 3, 2014

Enough With The Vitriol

Twitter is a place for vitriol. To expect otherwise would be naive. Yet over the past week, vitriol over in the Middle East corner of the Twitterverse (yes it really is just one teeny corner) has reached new lows. Participants in the debate on all sides have shown a lack of respect for each other and the complexity that characterizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Justifying their rage on exactly one-half of the relevant facts, each side paints the other as violent, untrustworthy, and evil. Such constructions create a conflict that is in reality a fight against an imaginary version of the other, rather than the other itself.

The script is old - all that changes are the events, each more harmful than the last: Rockets shot at civilians, hundreds of civilians arrested, teenagers killed, revenge murders, attacks on civilian infrastructure. But the tired melodrama of the past week has been exacerbated by each side scrambling to claim tragedy and victimhood as its exclusive purview. As if those in the public sphere keep a scorecard of who suffers more or less based on how many shares, likes, or re-tweets a certain statement (verified or otherwise) gets.

This vitriol is motivated by legitimate grievances, based on fear, and driven by pain. Behind the exclamation points, poor spelling, and capital letters, people are hurting. This speech is harmful, but it is also understandable. At the same time, the understanding of this pain must be mutual for either side to have any semblance of progress.

While vitriolic nasty speech may have genuine motivations, its effects are actively harming both Israelis and Palestinians. Fights with strangers on the internet do not make Israelis safer or Palestinians freer. Rather, they disrespect the human suffering - to different extents and degrees - on both sides of the conflict, and the resident of the Middle East whose engagement doesn't end by signing out of a website.

Back home, this vitriolic discourse is driving smart, humane, caring people away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Turf wars (in which this blogger is guilty of participation) and nastiness are alienating the very people we accuse of negligent apathy when something terrible happens in the region. When the very act of asking a question draws spurious accusations of bias, racism, Orientalism, or anti-Semitism, good people become jaded and complacent. This abandonment is a strategic loss for everyone in the region. People will not support a side with whom they cannot honestly engage.

To make real progress - a safe Israel and a free, independent Palestine - we must collectively make an appeal to our commonalities rather than further exacerbate our differences. The status quo is broken, and that includes our status quo mud-slinging in the place of real and painful dialogue. Genuine engagement is harder, less fun and it doesn't get you a ton of Twitter followers. However, we owe it to ourselves and to the people of the region to act like adults and stop bickering like children.