Among the greatest threats to healthy dialogue, creativity, and risk-taking in our society today are what Dr. Brené Brown refers to as the voices from the “cheap seats.” No, she’s not taking a shot at folks who score inexpensive tickets to sports or cultural events. Rather, she’s referring to those who relentlessly, sometimes maliciously, and usually anonymously criticize and belittle those who are attempting to “dare greatly” by playing bigger and putting themselves in the public eye.
Yup, we’re talking about the internet trolls who hide behind a cloak of anonymity to post unwarranted putdowns and mean-spirited, snarky comments and reviews. We’re talking about those who take to Twitter to ridicule, humiliate, and threaten others. And we’re talking about those who bizarrely assume knowledge of personal characteristics and motivations about people they’ve never met and then head to the comments section to trash them savagely.
All too often, the voices from the cheap seats succeed at shaming and intimidating. Dr. Brown discusses her own fears and apprehensions about the voices from the cheap seats in her online course, the Living Brave Semester, which I’m currently taking. It’s a remarkable admission from a strong, independent, and brilliantly insightful individual whose work has reached millions of people. (Her celebrated TEDx talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” has drawn nearly 24 million YouTube views.)
The Internet has revolutionized contemporary life, sometimes in very good ways. But it also has given rise to a lot of online bullying, incivility, and just plain meanness, sometimes fueled by the ability of the perpetrators to hide their true identities. Twitter has become a favorite spot for such exchanges, challenging people to pack as much vitriol as possible into short posts.
There are no quick fixes for this state of affairs. Humane education about how we treat each other is a core mega-need. Growing a thicker skin is important for resilience purposes. Picking one’s social media and online venues carefully can make a difference as well. Personally, I have endeavored to avoid Twitter like the plague, even while knowing that others have found it a useful communications tool. There’s way too much ugly stuff going on in that medium for my tastes.
The tone of civic discourse in America today tells me that at least for those of us in the 50 states, the voices from the cheap seats aren’t going away anytime soon. Changing that hardened dynamic will require courage, commitment, and — to quote my favorite President, Abraham Lincoln — the better angels of our nature.