The Problem is the Medium


I always think of climbing as a microcosm for the real world. We have issues with racism, sexism, xenophobia, arrogance, ignorance, usury of the environment, love, hate, scandal, you know, the whole gamut.

So, it’s no surprise to me that climbing internet forums, or facebook pages of prominent climbers, or various climbing groups, or reddit, or any of that stuff is rife with the same kind of “trolling” “debating” and “arguing” that the mainstream media is full of.

You don’t have to go for, and I’m sure you can think of some examples. A quick surf of Supertopo, the Climbing Reddit, or Mountainproject will quickly reveal at least something where you read it, find yourself taking sides strongly, and feeling disgust about some of the terrible people that exist in your community. It happens to me all the time.

What I’d like to propose is that there’s an inherent problem here, yes. But the inherent problem is not with the members of your community. Look, I find racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, and a slew of other things absolutely abhorrent and unacceptable. That said, I don’t think the answer is to just cull the world population of things you don’t agree with.

No, the problem is not that the entire climbing community (or world) you surround yourself with does not agree with you ideologically 100%. The problem is the way we talk. The problem is the way we discuss our differences. The problem is the medium.

When has discussing our differences over email, or through public forums, EVER led to greater understanding? Ok, maybe there are rare occasions, but you know what I mean. There’s a lot that gets lost in translation over the interwebs. Meanwhile, we have billions of years of evolution that have gone into the recognition of vocal intonations, facial expressions, hand gestures, the way a person leans.

You might find that the same “troll” would actually just be a friend playing devil’s advocate around a campfire. You might find that in that context, her or his position wouldn’t enrage you, instead, it would make you think… maybe even come off your own position a little.

Look, I think the world would be boring AF if we all agreed about everything. And if there were no problems to solve, all the Bodhisattvas would just up and evaporate into Nirvana, which would be a bummer, because then China would almost definitely take over Tibet once and for all (among other things). So I think it’s ok that there’s work to be done, that the human race has somewhere to go, that social injustice still rears its ugly head. I know that as a male middle class straight white guy, that sounds like a horrible thing to say. What injustice have I ever known? Maybe the world would just be better if there were no privileged people like myself to speculate about whether or not the world would be better off with everyone walking around agreeing with one another.

That’s a fine position to take, probably even a good one. In fact, I bet you could get me to agree with you.

But not by yelling at me over the internet.

There’s a Buddhist concept called “Upaya” – skillful means. Upaya is the idea that there is a best way to achieve a desired end, and it might not be the most obvious or direct way. One example is to listen to your “enemy”, to treat them like a human, to give them the time of day. Often, the result is that your “enemy” comes to respect you, and at least can tolerate you and the position you stand for. That’s called winning, and all you had to do was treat them like a human.

It’s hard to treat people like humans on the internet because people aren’t humans on the internet. They’re avatars. When you lose your skin and your voice, you lose your humanity.

So put down the screens, and take off the ear-buds. Whether at the gym, or the crag, make contact. If you have a spat on the supertaco or the mountainproj, PM the perpetrator and ask if they would like to talk about the issue over the phone. Yes, I’m serious. Why not? What do you have to lose? Don’t tell me time, you’ve probably spent hours dissecting all 20 pages of the comments thread. You’ve got time. Just use it more wisely!

Image borrowed from DailyMail.

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