Recently, I made a mistake, sincerely apologized for it, and promised to do better in the future. I tried to be as civil and humble as I could, but there’s no consoling anonymous Internet trolls. Call it a symptom of “cancel culture,” a side effect of the Internet’s ability to instill us with a sense of impregnable fortitude while retaining the fortress anonymity. I believe that many of us have become too comfortable with not suffering the consequences of how we treat others. Other human beings.

In the schoolyard, we learn the golden rule. Treat others as you would want to be treated. When we’d slip up and call someone a name or pushed him off the jungle gym, we were held accountable for our actions. But now, in the golden age of social media, we’re dealing with a different beast altogether. And I’ll remind you now that one could simply shut it all down. Delete your online accounts and never look at, post, or comment on another entry ever again. This is the simplest way to avoid online bullying. But I fear it may also be the most harmful. Hear me out…

Right now, in the year 2021, we’re still facing the effects of a global pandemic and its consequential quarantines. I haven’t seen my grandmother and aunt in months, and they live fewer than ten miles away. All of my friends and family live in other states, and it’s not like any of us can simply go out and join a game night or social club. We’re starved for face-to-face human interaction. (For some, like those with severe social anxiety, this may not be as big of an issue, but I’ll ask you to remember that humans are social animals.) Social media, in theory, should remedy this deficiency. But stay tuned, folks!

Since many of us have more free time (or rather, at-home time) we’re getting rid of a lot of junk that’s piled up. Down-sizing. Minimalizing. Swedish death cleaning. Konmari-ing. Whatever you wish to call it. So I started selling things or giving them away for free on a local neighborhood app.

For the first few days, I loved it because the items I was disposing of would find a new lease on life by someone else who wanted them. I knew they wouldn’t contribute to the building garbage problem or sit on a shelf forever in a thrift store. I sold/gave away things like old electronics, clothes, and hobby materials. (I even donated a few iPads and iPhones to a local charity that helps seniors attend video conferences with their medical support staff.) It also gave me a chance to talk to my neighbors and connect with them on little goings-on in the community. It was nice, even if the interactions were brief and business-oriented.

But I made a couple of careless blunders. I followed the policy of “first-come, first-served,” which, when operating a garage sale works fine, because people are physically there to claim the items in question. But on an online forum, it’s a disaster. I offered a few items for free. A few users expressed interest and I coordinated with them when another user was able to pick the items up sooner. First come, first served. But my mistakes came around to bite me in the ass when I had already set up a time to meet and then gave the item away to another user. I know, it was wrong. I apologized and took the blame.

Here’s an overview of what ensued: I was giving away some bicycle decals. A gentleman by the name of Steve expressed interest and wanted to pick them up on Saturday afternoon. I agreed. Then another user also expressed interest and said he was available to pick them up Friday morning. Following my first come, first served policy, I agreed. I immediately sent a message to Steve explaining that someone else had already claimed them and I was sorry for the inconvenience and wished him a good weekend. His response was something unexpected:

“Seriously? Wow. I still had faith in humanity even during the pandemic but your inability to honor your word is beyond disappointing. Please do not commit unless you plan to follow through for future sales. The next person or persons may not be so understanding.”

I was floored. My first thought was, “Really? All that for some free fucking stickers?” I composed myself and then proceeded to compose the following reply:

“Steve, I understand you may be upset. But they’re just decals. Easily found online at specialty shops. They were offered for free, and I’ve been following a first come, first served policy. In the future, I will refrain from this and uphold my commitment to the first person who ‘reserves’ them.

“I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience, but I feel I must also point out that I fail to see the lack of ‘faith in humanity’ regarding free stickers, just as I fail to see the relevance of a global pandemic to what are, again, free stickers.

“That being said, I will take your advice and make an effort to improve my business standards.”

I apologized, attempted to explain my point of view, and promised to do better in the future. Isn’t that what we generally expect from people to begin with? Isn’t that how we should expect ourselves to behave? Nevertheless, Steve was adamant that this issue was about more than stickers, it was about how I treated him. So he responded thusly:

“Thank you for being understanding. I know these were free and I can afford to purchase new ones but I like to repurpose things as much as possible in doing my [?] to contribute to solutions in this disposable society.

“It’s not about the stickers. Just put yourself in the situation and see how you would feel. I tell my staff the same thing – to treat others as you want to be treated. Enough said.”

I couldn’t agree more. I love using “reusables” and I started selling/giving away things on this app for that very reason. My issue was simply with the way he conducted himself and the way he condescended to me. My nit-picky mind broke down everything he said and instantly picked up on, “I tell my staff the same thing…

There was no need to mention his staff and how he lectures them. This little phrase was there only to place himself on a higher pedestal in order to assert that he was senior and therefore superior. I don’t take such condescension lightly. We’re not living in a caste society, and I don’t give merit to appeals to authority– a common logical fallacy.

Still, I swallowed my pride and responded:

“I agree, and I try to treat others with the same level of respect. And as I’ve said, I geniunely apologize and will make an effort to avoid this in the future. But I also believe that putting such emphasis on an item when given 24 hours notice in advance is to over-exaggerate the inconvenience I may have caused.

“As adults we are expected to learn from our mistakes, apologize for them, and move on. We are also expected to assume others make mistakes and learn to forgive. I find it less than reasonable to assign a lack of faith in humanity to a minor incident such as this, and to drag in a global pandemic during which hundreds of thousands of people have died is tasteless and crude.

“Nevertheless, I stand by my sincere apology, and once again, promise to hold myself to a higher standard and practice more responsibility in these matters. I agree that I was in the wrong to give them away after we had arranged a pick-up time.”

My next mistake came when I turned to the Internet for backup. I blurred out Steve’s name and face (out of respect) and posted the screenshots to a social media site in the hopes that other people would similarly respond with, “Wow! Yeah, fuck that guy. Who gets worked up over stickers?” Thus, reinforcing my feelings– you know, the typical echo chamber we’re used to. (Confirmation bias is for another time…)

Boy, was I surprised to learn that I am, in fact, the asshole in the situation. The comments were, well, not ruthless, but certainly not reaffirming. It was mostly childish name-calling: “yea, ur the a-hole” and “ur a douche, u just wanted other ppl to think ur not a douche but u r.”

I continued my self-flagellation by trying to explain the situation further in the comments and insisting that I had already apologized. Still, the comments continued to demand that not only was I in the wrong but I am, in essence, a bad human being.

All I can say is that while I disagree, their comments made me feel terrible. I actually sobbed. I feel like an alien to have to explain this, but it’s harrowing to envision a world where strangers hurl insults and aggrandize their righteousness to such a degree as to compare a small issue of free stickers to the plight of faithless humanity and a global plague.

I believe that many of us have become too accustomed to not paying the consequences for how we treat our fellow man, that we forget or ignore the damage we cause. Where’s the empathy? Are we so jaded by nameless and faceless Internet trolls that we accept any treatment we’re given while doling out the same? Have we forgotten that we are not infallible? This is why I maintained some semblance of humility and respect for Steve because I wanted to pretend, for a brief moment, that we were two strangers in the world who may have been face-to-face, with nowhere to hide.

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