This is a terrible idea. Please reconsider it.

Why? I don’t want to reconsider it. I want to fight that person who is saying mean things about me. 

Personally, I think good rules for one’s social life are the following:

  1. Talk to nice people.
  2. Don’t talk to jerks.

You, my friend, are currently violating rule #2, and because of opportunity cost are probably also violating rule #1.

But the person I’m talking to isn’t actually a jerk.

It happens! Sometimes there is a person who is generally a nice and lovely person, pets dogs, gives to charity, doesn’t have a mean bone in their entire body, but there is just one issue that sets them off and they are completely irrational about it. I have a couple of those issues myself. It can be worth it to try to respond to the person and deescalate– maybe they’re having a bad day, and if you talk to them with kindness and compassion, they’ll chill out. But if they don’t chill out, it’s okay to go “welp, that guy is mostly okay, but he’s just a complete jerk about alpacas.”

(Notably, deescalating does not involve insults, snark, ALL CAPS, or multiple exclamation points. If you feel moved to engage in such behavior yourself, it is probably a bad idea to respond even if they are having a bad day– you’ll only make the situation worse.)

The question to ask yourself is not about the moral character of the person you’re considering arguing with. The question is whether there is any chance that the discussion is going to be productive. If the answer is no, why are you engaging in it?

Because they’re saying mean things about me! I have to stop them from saying mean things about me!

No, you don’t.

All of our instincts are horribly miscalibrated for the Internet. Our genetic instincts are designed for tribes of a hundred and fifty people, in which a person constantly misrepresenting you and going on about how you’re an asshole means you’re going to be ostracized and dead in short order. Our cultural instincts are designed for communities of a few thousand people, in which a person constantly misrepresenting you and going on about how you’re an asshole means you have a serious problem on your hands. The Internet, however, contains literally millions of people, and of those millions of people some of them are going to be dickbags.

Over time, however, I’ve come to notice that the only way that jerks on the Internet can hurt me is if I let them.

Is this some sort of Eleanor Roosevelt shit? No one can make me feel inferior without my consent? That’s not actually how human psychology works.

No, I mean what I said literally. If you’re seeing someone saying mean things about you more than once, it is almost always because you made a decision that lets you see the mean things they’re saying about you. Stop making that decision. It’s a terrible decision.

If someone is sending you nasty messages, block them. If you’re on Tumblr and people keep reblogging them, blacklist their name or unfollow the people who reblog mean things about you. If someone is saying nasty things about you on their personal social media accounts, don’t read the nasty things being said about you. You don’t have to. No one is tying you up and forcing you to read what the douchebag is saying– or if they are, you have a much more serious problem than what someone is or is not saying about you on the Internet.

But what if I actually am a terrible person? I have to check and see if they’re saying some reasonable and valid criticism!

In general, people who actually want you to benefit from their criticism will make an effort to phrase it in a tactful way. People who are calling you a vile hypocrite or writing haiku about how your mom fucked a goat are not trying to improve you as a person. They just don’t like you.

Also, why would you trust the judgment of a person who is writing haiku about whether your mom fucked a goat on the subject of whether you’re a good person? They don’t exactly seem like they’re an expert in the topic of good personhood. Best case scenario, they’re irrational on the topic of you and are likely to condemn things that in a saner moment they would think are fine. Worst case scenario, they’re a terrible person, and the things they condemn are likely to be completely uncorrelated with things that are actually bad.

But what if my friends believe them and none of them talk to me and now I am socially isolated?

It’s possible that your friends will all go ‘wow, I didn’t realize so-and-so was a vile hypocrite, now I’m going to mock them mercilessly as well.’ In that case, your problem is not that a jerk is saying mean things about you. Your problem is that you have terrible friends. It is a basic requirement for friendship that they don’t agree with people saying unfair and mean things about you. You should, if anything, feel grateful for the douchebag for enlightening you about how terrible your friends are, so you didn’t have to find it out when facing some actually important issue.

But what if the harassment explodes and I become a trending topic on Twitter because of all the millions of people who want to tell me how terrible I am? Or what if the person is a stalker and eludes my attempts to block him?

It’s true that I’m tacitly assuming that the jerk on the Internet is going to stay one jerk, and not turn into a thousand jerks where you can’t block all of them and some of them might try to get you fired from your job. In the latter case, you have a serious problem. And you might get a very determined stalker who eludes your attempts to block them. However, it is very rare for isolated jerks on the Internet to transform into thousands of jerks or a stalker; the vast majority of the time, blocking the person and no longer reading their stuff will end the issue.

The question to ask is what benefit you’re getting out of the conversation. Talking to stalkers only encourages them. And preventing the one jerk from turning into thousands of jerks implies that you can get the one jerk to stop writing goat fucker haiku about you through reasoned argument and/or insults. So far, I have never actually seen a case of this working. It is hard to argue someone out of being completely irrational on a particular issue, and even harder to argue them out of being a dickbag.

You’re saying I should just let the jerk GET AWAY WITH IT?

No, I’m saying that the jerk should experience the natural consequence of their actions, i.e., nobody wants to talk to jerks except for other jerks. This is a reasonable and proportional consequence for assholishness, which– crucially– does not require you to pay attention to them at any point.

Actually, I’m a supporter of an important cause that that jerk is slandering!

Well, then, it might possibly be worthwhile to talk to a random jerk on the Internet. However, when you do this, remember that you are advancing the cause. You are not arguing to convince the random jerk. You’re arguing to convince someone who happens to be reading your blog. It’s really important that you make the people reading the argument think better of your cause, rather than worse of it.

So you have to use all the tactics people use to convince others to be on their side. Respond calmly and kindly to insults– ideally with a little bit of not-mean-spirited humor. Be willing to point out times you agree with someone. Don’t lecture: ask questions and let the other person draw conclusions. Look at things from their point of view. Leave them an easy way out where they can admit being wrong without losing face. Unfortunately, all of those are really hard when you’re angry! If you’re not going to be capable of doing that, step away from the argument. It’s bad enough that someone is slandering your important cause; there’s no point making it worse.

So what, I’m NOT supposed to get angry that someone is saying mean things about me? 

No, you can totally get angry if you want to. However, continuing to interact with the jerk is a bad way of responding to your anger. Instead, you can try a bunch of other coping mechanisms! You can take a warm bath and light a scented candle and do progressive muscle relaxation and the rest of that froo-froo self-care stuff. You can distract yourself with a sad movie, music that makes you happy, or watching stand-up comedy. You can angrily clean your room (highly recommended). You can pull the covers over your head and refuse to get out for the entire morning. You can complain to your friends about them, but only if that won’t increase the temptation to respond (it always does for me). It’s probably a bad idea to vent, as that seems to increase anger.

I sense a secret evil motivation here.

I totally have one! Some people are just dickbags, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Dickbags gonna dickbag. But in my experience the #1 cause of preventable assholery on the Internet is that someone feels like they’ve got to respond to every asshole who drives them up the fucking wall, because they have to SHOW THE ASSHOLE THE ERROR OF THEIR WAYS and PUNISH ANTI-SOCIAL BEHAVIOR and KEEP ALL THEIR FRIENDS FROM ABANDONING THEM or what-the-fuck-ever. Naturally, when you’re angry, you have really shitty judgment about whether your tactics for engaging with someone are (a) the sort of thing you approve of in your better moments, a reflection of the kind of person you want to be (b) going to accomplish your goals, like, at all. Therefore, not only will the tactic recommended in this FAQ keep you from interacting with jerks, it will also help reduce the number of jerks on the Internet by keeping you from being one.

Ozy, you are terrible at not responding to jerks on the Internet.

Why do you think I wrote the FAQ?