Read the comments section on any yahoo news story or in online newspapers or big sites and it's quickly revealed just how many people use the internet to let their asses hang out. I mean, really, it makes any comments on any of my blog posts look relatively tame (and any of the people who've chosen to critique me look like veritable cuddly teddy bears--you know who you are!).
People can be mean, hateful, spiteful jackasses and the more they are assured of anonymity, the more likely they are to engage in that kind of behavior. And man, when they do it to you, the temptation to sink to their level and name call can be almost irresistible. It feels releasing to name call. Cathartic, even.
It doesn't do any good-the people who engage in hateful rhetoric are not going to be swayed by reason or by name calling. It's probably beneficial to remember that people who didn't reason themselves into a position aren't going to reason themselves out of it. And even smarter to remember that some people are just being trolls and spoiling for a good fight.
One of the things that can be really frustrating is that you have no control in how people receive your words--if it's misinterpreted, misread, or flat out ignored because the people already have you pegged, then it was always out of your hands.
Consider, if you're pro-science and a fan of neurodiversity, Age of Autism and the names of any of its writers and commenters probably immediately raise your hackles--you're closed from anything they have to say. You're going to consider anything they write to be wrong.
Here's the thing, though. Even people who are wrong about some things can be right about others--and the opposite is true. Claims really do matter--not the people making them--the evidence is what is important. Good stories, positive stories, are so easy to accept on the face of them--we want miracle stories, so we don't question them, don't analyze the support to see if anything's actually being said or if it's all just hot air. Far worse, though, are those places where tragedy is made out of everything and conspiracies rule the day...we're inclined to either believe wholesale (depending on our perspective) or reject out of hand any claim. Take for instance, the idea that vaccines might be responsible for some injuries and that some of those children might receive an autism diagnosis. Or the question on whether the rise in autism diagnoses reflects a true increase in the disorder or a broadened categorization and better recognition. What you believe about autism is going to influence your willingness to consider new evidence.
In general, can we choose to discount a website and a person's perspective as a shortcut after the site or the individual has been shown to be consistently incorrect? Yes, but. Whale.to, Mercola, Mike Adams, and the like have proven to be consistently inaccurate and inflammatory (and worse), so it makes sense, when looking for good information, to just avoid known hotbeds of woo. However, that doesn't mean they'll always be wrong. And that's the conundrum when one is insistent that the evidence for claims is what's most important, not the person making the claim.
It eats up our time when we consider each claim and the evidence for the claim. And deconstructing people's responses, especially the more far-fetched or fallacy-ridden, can take up considerable effort, energy, and time--and it's not always going to be worthwhile to do so. And we're busy people, bombarded with constant information and we do not, as a natural habit, stop to question everything. In fact, those of us who do tend to analyze carefully will often annoy and frustrate the hell out of others. We might even get called overly pedantic (as if one could be overly pedantic!).
We have to decide when we can cease to engage directly with people who simply want to suck up our time and when direct engagement, even if tedious, is worth the effort--not because of the possibility of appealing to reason for the person we're rebutting, but because other people will see and read, and maybe, just maybe, reconsider their position. Our goal shouldn't necessarily be to convince people we're right and they're wrong, but perhaps to work to be open to new evidence, to be aware of cognitive biases and heuristics, and for those of us in dialogue with each other to really listen to the actual claims and the evidence provided without getting into a pissing match. Boy, I know that's Pollyanna of me, but if you believe in the tenets of science, it seems to me that it's a laudable goal.
The internet is a mixed bag at best, but it sure does allow for lots of opportunities for restraint, for empathy, for dialogue and growth, and, unfortunately, even more chances to let your ass hang out for the world to see.