I’ve been online since online ever existed! Back in the day there were no forums like this one, it was another service that you used with your email, some sort of a mail-list that we called the use-nets (or also news-groups). This of course was also before the dogma/ideology/culture war in the world which, as we speak, is now separating friends and family who could have otherwise remained intimate! So back then we celebrated the very fact that it was possible for people from around the world to get together so easily. Difference of opinion was of course prevalent, and it got frequently hot; but you see, it took a telephone line to connect which made noises like this:
… and you needed to retry several times to get through, (once you got in it was way more robust than the cellular though!). so you wouldn’t go through all that boring process to dispel boredom; you did it with some strong purpose; even trolls came in with a contribution that was certainly highly amusing to themselves and others! Now that it is too easy, it appears to me that many people have lost precisely that purpose that used to bring people together around discussion forums in the past! The internet has become a weird place where people come for easy and immediate doses of pleasure, and so aversion toward that which is not pleasurable has become vividly noticeable now. People cannot put up with what they don’t like in it. A situation that is not very good for a discussion forum.
If you are the kind of person who doesn’t like to discuss and argue, or who have difficulty distinguishing between a criticism directed at something you said and a criticism directed at you personally, or if you have the idea that an online forum is not a place in which serious stuff can be discussed, then begin with yourself and stop bringing up serious things or express controversial opinions in it, or stop participating in it altogether and save yourself even from the possibility of having to defend anything you say and promote.
This is a good advice simply because you cannot have it both ways: you cannot express important views on a public online forum and expect to receive no criticism at the same time. The only way to have it both ways is either to speak to your own self (that is, ignore criticism and remain silent after having received it), or repress or intimidate other opinions. One of the well-known ways through which such intimidation happens is by ganging-up on counter-arguments, however much softly or in a sophisticated manner, and worse, instead of discussing arguments further, talking instead about the speculated “negative intentions” of the person who expressed it. It is precisely such a behaviour that is aggressive and disrespectful. The same applies -and this is basic- to discussing the “quality” of the posts of others, or making an evaluation of the manner by which they express themselves, especially when this is not being done in a friendly and respectful manner. Such behaviour does nothing other than discourage and intimidate people from participating freely and without worry as to how they will be received, and the reason it is disrespectful is because you have other options to do it, if you are really concerned to communicate with the other person: contact them privately if it is possible to discuss their intentions and what you regard as their shortcomings. You are full of shortcoming from the perspective of others too, and if you allow yourself to address the faults of others, then others will do the same to you, and instead of a discussion forum we end up with people pointing fingers at each other’s imperfections and nothing more. The fact that you opt for doing such a thing publicly means at best that you’re either precisely socially insensitive and immature, or at worst you’re out for blood and seeking to challenge or diminish the social currency or status of the other person. In between, there is of course the vanity of just wanting to show off.
Always remember that you might not be the only or last sensitive person in town, and that the people with whom you are engaging may be even more sensitive than you are. And remember also that your sensitivity is no excuse for exclusivity of any kind, don’t go about demanding any special standards of communication toward you, however much special you may be in the eyes of some people. Everyone is special in the eyes of some people, and the proverb says “a beast appears like an angel to the eyes of its own mother!”. If you are being selective in your interactions, showing warmth and love and respect toward some and withholding such toward others in a visible manner, this is perfectly your right and is totally understandable in a public space where people are mostly strangers to one another. But then don’t act all surprised when, having now taken an initiative to communicate with those others, you found that they ignored you in turn or turned a cold shoulder toward you, and at least don’t expect friendliness from them and go about complaining on the absence of metta and receptivity and so forth; for it was only you that created the momentum of negativity, and others also have every right to be selective just as you are. If you are driven by a passion to “help others”, then recognise that it is not easy to be “concerned for others” without antagonising or harming yet other others! There are very few people who have what it takes to help everyone without exception; most people practice “helping others” by antagonising and hurting some other others! And then it is really a mess!
Though it is a forum on early Buddhism, it has developed a certain kind of social identity to it, and of course, on matters which have nothing to do with early Buddhism. Though this is understandable and its causes are understandable, nevertheless it aught be noted that such identity is one that may at times be intimidating to certain kinds of people. I’m not saying that the development of such identity or that the intimidation are necessarily intentional, but I’m saying they are real, and I know that they have driven a number of participants away. Part of that intimidation comes from sheer numerical conditions, as Frederick Engels noted long ago, the nature of the social environment is a question of “how many people” are doing what in it. I would not be surprised if the response will be something like: “we are satisfied with the forum and we will run it as we please”; all I wanted to do is to show that, while some participants may express their gratitude for the efforts others have made to welcome them here, others whose uneasiness is caused by controllable causes, and who have repeatedly gave expression to their uneasiness and discomfort and sense of intimidation and alienation, have never received any explanation, let alone consolation or support.
Of course, if one was to boast of his godlessness in the middle of devout believers, you’re bound to attract a lot of dangerous attention to yourself! That’s why people generally tend to boast and speak so confidently of their beliefs mostly when they are surround by their likes and by people who like them. There is the question about what’s the point of having a public discussion forum where nothing happens beyond the expression of one view and the subsequent cheering and celebration of it, and mostly nothing more. But since no censorship and repression are enforced, then it takes only one person in order for the opposite view to be expressed, and at this point the majority will have to deal with it one way or another. That’s what’s so valuable about freedom of speech: Engels was wrong; a social environment can remain balanced irrespective of the existence in it of majority views, even if they were belligerent and intolerant, and lacking in compassion. The Buddha himself was able to establish his doctrine because he lived in an environment that allowed for the freedom of speech. It wasn’t necessarily or always a tolerant environment, but at least it wasn’t repressive or violent. Remember that before setting out against other views that you don’t like. At the same time don’t confuse confidence or passion with aversion, nor humility with diffidence. It’s not always easy to draw the line or see the difference; especially for those who are struck by a habit to speak and comment more than observe and listen. You can always understand the other by focusing with what they are saying rather than on the colourful and possibly idiosyncratic details of how they’re saying it. If you have doubts about what a person is saying, ask them about it, don’t judge too soon or act upon a poor judgement.
When you know that there are others in the social environment who can criticise you, you yourself will improve, you will be more self-aware and careful about what you say, and more self-aware and careful even about what you don’t say. And then if you are not up to argue with others and prefer to withdraw, or don’t think it’s worth it to discuss seriously, then you will certainly remember that you shouldn’t say anything serious in the first place, because now you know that there are others, at least someone out there, who will point the finger at it. The result is precisely a higher quality of speech and a more balanced social environment. A situation that is far better than that when arguments of all kinds are being tossed around recklessly, promoting all sorts of values, without the slightest criticism or analysis. Indoctrination happens precisely thereby; it is not always an intentional pedagogy, but frequently a process of declaration and celebration of views without careful examination, which, through sheer repetition, become finally ingrained in the mind of the inexperienced oblivious listener as true and unquestionable.
With what intention does the other person point his finger at these views with which he disagrees? Don’t go about speculating on that, or speculate as you like, but don’t embarrass yourself by bringing up your speculations about someone else’s intentions. No one could know the bad intentions of others with certainty, not until they manifest in a clearly observable unlawful behaviour according to known and agreed-upon rules, not arbitrary ones. Only then could you act, hopefully not with anger and hatred and cruelty. But even if you are endowed with heroic patience and saintly compassion, do not discussing a violation publicly, but maybe privately if you think the other person will accept you, or else by taking it to the moderators and leave it at that. Leave at that also when the moderators fail to respond appropriately or make a mess themselves! There is nothing to do at this point other than forgetting the whole thing and dwelling on how much imperfect human life is, and how hard it is to be in a position of practical and moral responsibility, and how renunciation is blissful because it offers one freedom from such responsibilities.
With such clarity and purpose I make my best effort to think about what I say here before saying it, and I am always aware of the ramifications of saying anything publicly and am willing to put up with those ramifications. Speaking recklessly, without purpose, without self-awareness, only reinforces itself as a terrible habit that is not suitable for any Buddhist practitioner. That’s why most of what I say, here and elsewhere, is “responsive” to precisely IMPORTANT arguments and ideas proposed by others, though they may be uttered by others so recklessly and casually or in a perfunctory manner, simply because they are not expecting to meet any resistance or criticism.
But it is worth it to give one’s criticism. Why? Because these responses, however much unpopular they may be, can sometimes be the only ones which give expression to the alternative view on such important issues, and their absence costs a lot now and for the future. And you might not know it, but I know it for a fact, that these alternative views do have a decent and sizeable audience for it, and one that even seeks and requests their expression alone side what’s being otherwise popularly promoted.