Intersections: Online forum explores, perpetuates hostility

In November 2008, a Glendale resident logged onto the Internet forum Topix looking for answers about hostility between Armenian and non-Armenian residents of the city.

What, if anything, was the explanation behind the animosity and generalizations that this person had observed?

Nearly 3,000 posts, 400 pages and four years later, the thread is still active. In fact, the latest posting was this weekend. Over time, this forum, as is typical of a large amount of discussions on Topix, has turned into a two-way racist cesspool with little intelligent conversation, bruised egos and posts so ridiculous you can't help but laugh.

The Internet, in all its glory, has a dark side too: It has made it incredibly easy for anyone, hiding behind anonymity, to spew hate. Racism isn't a phenomenon ensconced within the borders of Glendale, but perpetuated throughout the world in virtually every community in some way.

In the four years that it has been active, I've occasionally come back to this thread, sometimes to laugh, sometimes to try to make sense of the dynamics in the city that a large portion of the Armenian diaspora has adopted as home, and sometimes to try to decode the misunderstandings that happen all too often between different cultures and people, leading to such a massive breakdown in communication.

Both the blatant prejudice on the forum and the inability to find common ground with members of our communities stem from the same deep well of misunderstanding and lack of dialogue.

If you don't take the time to broaden your horizons and understand someone, it's very easy to get lost in ignorance and resort to stereotypes. Of course, it's even easier to log onto an online forum and spew hateful anonymous comments directed at an entire ethnic group.

Obviously, there's more nuance here — there's experience that leads to sentiment on both sides, ingrained over decades, perpetrated into the cockles of history and manifested in different, cultural ways.

But after you've read more than 100 pages of the comments like I have (and then needed to step away because you felt your brain cells were atrophying), it's hard to tell if there is a very serious problem in Glendale, or just uninformed banter on an online outlet.

If there is a problem, the conversation should be taken offline and into spaces where there's interaction with people who have faces and real names and who can, without being anonymous, add to the conversation, instead of taking away from it. Only then can an honest dialogue occur about cultural oddities, as well as serious issues, forcing us to move beyond them and solve a few problems.

After a recent rendezvous with the Internet at its worst, I was in a conversation with my mom about the engagement of a close family friend to someone who wasn't Armenian.

“Is she happy,” she asked me.

“Yes, very,” I replied.

“Good, she said. “As long as she's happy. As long as whoever she's with is a good human being, that's all that matters.”

The sooner we all — whether arriving here 10 days or 100 years ago — start treating each other more like human beings and spend less time categorizing one another into boxes we deem untouchable, offensive or just plain different, the sooner getting along won't be so difficult after all.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic.

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