Quite often we have a gathering of ducks on the lawn in our backyard. Once they make their ungainly trek up from the edge of the river, they settle themselves in small clusters on the grass. They seem equally content on both sunny and cloudy days to sleep, groom themselves, and get up for an occasional waddle across the lawn or a periodic reentry into the water.

It’s quite peaceful to watch them blissing out in the sun, and nice to think of them each pursuing their separate needs—sleep, food, feather fluffing—while remaining part of a companionable group.

But inevitably one of the group will begin posturing, quacking, and making menacing head-lowering moves at a fellow mallard, for no obvious reason. Sometimes, the surprised duck under attack will take a stand and quack back, darting into the aggressor’s space, but he rarely gets any help from the crowd. 

Instead, the other ducks either stay neutral or they join the bully duck in chasing the hapless victim away. The alpha duck then beats his wings in the air and struts back to his place on the grass, while the neutrals return to grooming and sleeping. Until the next bully picks on a new victim.

I’m thinking of that today because I’ve been spending a bit more time on social media than I usually do, and I’ve noticed how often a seemingly innocuous or well-intentioned post or Tweet is met by the human equivalent of a madly quacking flock of ducks. If the poster attempts to explain the comment, or parry the thrust, it only intensifies the incensed quacking. Eventually the poster retreats to the margins to lick his or her wounds. It’s disheartening to see.

I get that we’re never going to always agree about everything, or even ever agree about some things. But we’re never going to get anywhere randomly squawking at others like deranged ducks, which seems to be the state of much of our online discourse these days.

And I’m not excluding myself from the problem. While I’m not prone to joining flocks or herds or social media mobs—as a committed introvert, I rarely join anything—I can be quite insistent on promoting my own point of view, both “in real life” and on social media. Which in turn means that I can also be quite resistant to ideas that conflict with it—and sometimes loudly enough to drown out information that doesn’t support my position.

Certainly staying off social media is an option—though it comes with the cost of less, or even losing, contact with people not in my immediate circle. Sticking only to “safe topics” is another, but sometimes we have to speak out. After all, there is that whole the-only-thing-necessary-for-the-triumph-of-evil-is-that-good-men-do-nothing thing to consider.

Instead, I think I’ll try making an effort to refrain from throwing stones in my particular glass house—and to avoid the online feeds of (and the real-life contact) with—people who substitute personal invective for persuasive evidence. If I falter, and an exchange of views has devolved to the point where I’m about say, “You are a moron,” I will substitute “Quack, quack,” spoken at a very low volume, as a reminder to myself to step away from the crazy. Wish me luck.