Just a few years ago, I was arguing in the comment boxes of a gay blog called Slowly Boiled Frog, a site that had gone after me hammer and tongs for years. I joined the combox conversation under my own name. I did it for fun, to sharpen my arguments, and, strange as it may sound, maybe even as an apostolate.
I was going at it with a bunch of these guys; I do not remember the topic. I mean that the topic was homosexuality but the particular aspect I cannot recall.
Out of nowhere, one of my interlocutors did something somewhat surprising, and even unusual in combox wars. He put aside his armor. He put it down and spoke to me as a human being. I think he brought up music. I took the bait, put down my armor, and answered as though he was more than an opponent. And he and I were off on a long conversation about our tastes in music—his classical, mine jazz. All animosity was put aside, and we were regular guys. You could say that for a time we were friends, and the exchange ended peaceably.
This is “breaking the fourth wall,” which is when an actor looks at the audience and speaks directly to us. The actor does not break character, but he does break the imaginary wall between us. Matthew Broderick did it to great effect in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
On a gay blog one day, a guy did this, a guy who had been hammering me only moments before. He spoke to me, not at me, and not past me. It was remarkable, and I think both of us were grateful for it.
A few days ago on Twitter, I was debating God-knows-what with a guy whose handle was JazzieeB. I think it was racism, Trump, lying, the whole schmear of tedious online debate circa 2018. This guy finds racism everywhere. Everything is about race.
I noticed that his header-photo was jazz guys, so I asked him about it. Turns out his dad was a jazz player from Detroit, and this guy knows a lot about jazz. We traded jazz recommendations, and I found his quite helpful. He turned me on to a jazz harmonica player I had never heard of. This exchange lasted for some time. He even started quoting Godfather movies, as guys do. Nothing bonds two guys better than fisticuffs and Godfather quotes. Sadly, he resumed the racism thing, and the exchange became tedious. It was pleasant while the fourth wall was broken, but he felt compelled to go back to the illusion.
Then there was the young kid who came after me on Twitter one day. I got him talking about his education and his aspirations in life. He wants to be a writer. I gave him advice and encouraged him. We parted as friends.
It is amazing how the temperature goes way down when you show some humanity and genuine interest.
Another young man from Australia spent the better part of a Twitter-day telling me how stupid I am and then the better part of several days talking with me about television shows. We found we had the same taste. He came back later to talk about a recommendation I had made and how much he loved the show.
I have tried to break the fourth wall with Mark Shea and others at the Patheos blog. I spent a few hours one day direct messaging Mark and one of his acolytes. I tried my darnedest to talk like a human being, or at least not as enemies. But he refused to come off the attack. At one point, I told Mark I hoped one day to make him lunch. Food for me is an expression of affection or at least peace and comity. Mark turned on me, accusing me of calling him fat. To this day, Mark and his acolyte say that was my intention. It wasn’t. It was an attempt to break the fourth wall, to be human, even if for a moment.
Once on Facebook, I engaged a whole host of Shea-ites on my book “Fake Science,” specifically the hunger chapter, which they hated. They said I hate the poor, and so on and so forth. I talked to them about how the poor rely too much on expensive fast food when cheaper and fresher alternatives are available. Specifically, I mentioned one of my own specialties—the rather modest and inexpensive turkey cutlet, coated in flour, and sautéed in butter with a squeeze of lemon. It is finished in minutes, loaded with flavor and, with a side of rice, a complete meal much cheaper and healthier than a Big Mac and fries. They laughed at me. To this day, they call me “Old Cutlets,” and not affectionately. We have never managed to break the fourth wall and speak like human beings. More’s the pity.
A friend of mine says we should try to find common ground with our opponents. He suggested we all agree on the importance of friendship and that honesty is essential. All this may be true, but I can see how this would go: “How could you be anyone’s friend when you are such a—pick ’em—racist, misogynist, hater, white nationalist, whatever? How could you believe in honesty when you lie all the time?”
It would never work. None of this is truly neutral. What we need is less common ground and more neutral ground. Let friendship appear even if momentarily.
And we are not so far gone in our culture not to find neutral ground in culture. You might find neutral ground with basketball: “What team do you follow? Oh, yeah, me, too. Didn’t you love it when…?”
You can find neutral ground in TV, movies, and music—and even if you disagree, blood does not have to be drawn. The gay guy likes classical; I prefer jazz. Big deal. Maybe we both like Daredevil on Netflix and Mrs. Meisel on Amazon. We really do have a common culture separate from politics.
I reckon my social media tactics are taken from the playground. Duke it out, duke it out, duke it out, and then become friends. You may recall I even became friends with David Hart, the proprietor of the gay blog Slowly Boiled Frog. He doesn’t come after me anymore and I kind of miss it. He did, however, just this week call my wife “smart, very nice, and a hater.” Daaaaaviiid! Time to talk.
By the way, Mark. The offer of lunch still stands.
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)