Back in the not so distant past, I remember watching the O.J. Simpson murder trial with some of my college friends and our discussions became heated. No, we didn't come to blows and we didn't stoop to name calling, but we did have diametrically opposed opinions when it came to whether Simpson should walk or fry. I would make my points, my buddies would offer their counterpoints, and the cycle continued.
Even though we never came to a consensus, a beautiful thing happened: We had a respectful debate. We felt energized and empowered to believe what we believed while also empathizing with those who felt differently. I learned from my friends, they learned from me, and the issues were spoken about thoughtfully. It was a clichéd win-win situation.
I remember my parents having the same thoughtful discussions with me and my brothers when similar hot button topics came up in the news. That's just how things were handled back in the day. Then Al Gore invented the World Wide Web and respectful, open-minded discussions began to take a nosedive.
Do you know what's great about the Internet? Everybody gets a voice.
Do you know what's not so great about the Internet? Everybody gets a voice.
Oftentimes those voices create noise that distracts people from the true issues at hand. In the online version of kangaroo court, otherwise known as social media, seemingly every viral phenomenon or human interest story is quickly and harshly judged by the masses. Simultaneously, strangers will attack other strangers with drive-by insults and not-so-clever memes to argue their points. And after the vitriol is spilled and the social media shares/retweets dissipate, the angry mob forgets all about it and moves on to the next shiny object trending in the newsfeed. No lessons are learned, very little thoughtful dialogue occurs, and the cycle continues.
The best analogy to use here is that of playing chess with a pigeon. It will clumsily knock over the pieces, take a crap on the board, then fly back to its friends to brag about how it won the match. The Internet is overrun with pigeons. It becomes almost impossible to find a good chess game in today's climate because the critical thinkers are too busy cleaning up all of the poop left on their proverbial chess boards. Sometimes, they even give up and join the massive pigeon population themselves.
Why is this happening? Because it's easy.
It's easy to park in front of our laptops or hunch over our smartphones to engage with strangers in real-time. Social media has created a "now" environment. An environment ruled by hashtags, anonymous bullies, and a "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality.
As a dad raising two young daughters under the age of 4, I'm concerned about where we're heading. What happened to the powerful conversations I used to take part in during my college years? What happened to the days when people discussed issues and ideas instead of lazily hurling grammatically incorrect indignities online?
In case you think this is hyperbole, please take a look at what's happening in Ferguson, Missouri. A grand jury decided that there will be no indictment for police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of an unarmed black man named Michael Brown. Despite pleas for peace from President Obama and the victim's family, rioting and looting ruled the night in Ferguson as millions of
people pigeons offered their thoughts about it on social media.
"What a bunch of looting thugs."
"The police should shoot all of these animals in the street."
You guessed it: They pooped on the chess board and flew away.
What if our kids read the Ferguson-related comments flooding social media? Will they take them at face value and believe them to be true or will they dig deeper to find their own truths by seeking out other perspectives?
Allow me to illustrate this point by offering my perspective on Ferguson as an African American. It isn't about looting or a grand jury verdict, it's about an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness that affects many black people. Said hopelessness can bubble over and become rage.
It's about the black toddler who had a stuttering problem and was immediately written off as having a learning disability, even though he aced all of his tests. It's about the black man who pretends to talk on his cell phone or loudly whistle a tune in an effort to appear "non-threatening" while riding on the elevator with someone of a different race. It's about the black man who would love to wear jeans and a T-shirt when shopping at a nice boutique, but knows he needs to wear slacks and a collared shirt so he's not labeled a "thug." It's about the black man who will refuse to wear a hoodie in the rain after being harassed by a college security guard for being unable to see his face.
All of these things have happened to me. I've never stolen anything in my life, I don't get in trouble, I smile often, my family is educated and accomplished (it includes a healthcare executive, a Harvard graduate once named one of the 100 most influential African-Americans in corporate America by a popular magazine, a Ph.D., and a published author), but that didn't offer me any sort of immunity from such treatment based on the color of my skin.
Even today it happens. It makes me angry and sometimes I find myself wanting to scream until my lungs explode, but I've learned not to become destructive.
However, for a handful of folks, the struggle becomes too much to bear and they decide to lash out in ways that make observers think that all black folks are insane. Keep in mind, St. Louis is 51 percent black -- if all of them were looting and rioting, the entire city would be destroyed within hours.
We're talking about an extremely small pocket of individuals here. The overwhelming majority of blacks who chose to protest did so peacefully, but in a news climate dominated by the "If it bleeds, it leads" mentality, all of the cameras were predictably trained on the burning buildings and shattered windows.
That said, I'm by no means condoning looting or violence. I despise it because it victimizes businesses that are completely innocent of wrongdoing, but in any event, one needs to understand the psychology of oppression before making blanket statements. Unless you've lived it, you have absolutely no clue what it's like. None.
These are conversations I hope parents will have with their children. We need to urge our kids to discuss ideas instead of disseminating hate through their computers and phones. We need to urge our children to meet people of other ethnicities, so they can understand that they're not just people waving around a mythical race card to garner sympathy.
In the same vein, we need to urge them to meet feminists, so they can understand that they're not cold-hearted, man-hating demons, as well as members of the LGBT community, so they can grasp how painful it can be to have your love persecuted and ridiculed on a daily basis. In doing so, our children will undoubtedly learn that we are all similar rather than different.
Parents raising young children hold the key to the future in many respects. It's easy to become depressed when observing the witch hunts taking place on social media, but there is hope. For every nasty comment left online, there are 10 people who are disgusted by it. They want to have civil conversations, they want to learn from people and, most importantly, they want what's best for society, themselves and their children.
We need to urge our kids to read books, so social media doesn't become the default textbook of choice. What's the alternative? A world where our kids' minds are shaped by the pigeons of the Internet -- that scares the hell out of me. We owe it to them to understand the value of healthy dialogue and to see the value of having face-to-face conversations instead of taking shots at faceless strangers. We can do better. We have to do better. The course of our future rides on it.
Now, who's up for a game of chess? No pigeons allowed.
This article originally appeared on AskMen.com