Saturday, October 5, 2013



US vs. THEM. If you aren't with us, not only are you against us, but you must be bent on destroying everything we hold dear. Because you are one of THEM.

I have been thinking about variations on this theme a great deal lately. Specifically when I talk to people who are actively weeding their social media feeds of anyone who makes them upset. It's that uncertain balance between viewing the social media network as "enjoyable entertainment" and "real human connections". Among the people I know these tend to be issues of religion (or anti-religion) and politics.

So people remove the dissent. A news item surfaces, a person takes a side, and people unfriend, unfollow, hide and block. And the remover then talks about the removee to their many connections. The connections that disagree unfriend, unfollow, hide and block. The remover gets frothy hurrahs from the more extreme connections that do agree. And over a time a certain tone emerges.

And that tone is pretty loud. And intolerant.

And that's a shame, because I had thought the point of the internet was the ability to be connected to lots of people and lots of new ideas. It seems like instead there's a lot of focus on the self and not a lot of focus on all the billions of people around.

Occasionally people do confront an opinion with another, but often these devolve into unfortunate brawls.

I think as this is why the internet becomes a crazy cesspool of hate. Unchecked, an opinion can become a very dangerous thing indeed, because humans only have the one brain inside their heads. And that one brain's opinion can only come from the experience that brain knows and has dealt with. And adventures do not necessarily comprehend the experiences of the other 7 billion human brains on the planet, who have all had very different adventures. This is where discussion and story-telling is supposed to come in.

But instead the tendency is to remove those discussions and stories, partly because they tend to get vitriolic, and partly because it takes away from our "enjoyable entertainment".

Come to think of it, I don't think I would necessarily consider socializing in the real world "entertainment". Going for a cup of coffee with a friend, walking with someone to the park, having a big pot-luck get together somewhere. A PTA meeting. A game night. A long session at the bar after work. These things may be pleasant, therapeutic, enjoyable -- but I wouldn't refer to them as "entertainment". Entertainment is a television show, a movie, an opera, a concert, a board game. And you don't go get beers with a television show. You don't expect a movie to dog sit for you over the weekend when you suddenly have to be out of town. All you demand of these things is that they hold your attention, so that later when you pile into a friend's living room you can talk about it. I want a distinction between "entertainment" and "social situations"

And I guess the main problem here is social networks online are both. There's ads, there's businesses vying for your attention, and there's your friends who are starting to stop generating their own ideas but are instead parroting others' with that handy dandy "share" button. (I'm doing it too! I need to stop.) And a person weeds out the hurtful ones, because they'd rather have their feeds filled with comfortable, non-threatening things -- things that make you happy rather than things that make you sad.

And maybe this is where the vitriol comes from. When we don't even KNOW anyone who shares the views of the "opposing side", then it is easier to vilify that side as out of touch, self-absorbed and narrow-minded.

To allow the "opposing side" to stay in our feeds -- and allow the dissent, the angry-making opinions, the hurtful slander -- it takes the saccharine, easy-to-swallow passivity out of the social networking experience. And that might do us a world of good, in all honestly. I spend an embarrassing amount of time scrolling downward through my update feeds, hoping to find something interesting from my closer friends. (It's an impossible feast, and that's what makes it so addictive.)

In an ideal world, this allowing of dissent would bring the tone back down to a respectable level, as I would hope people would begin to resent the hurtful noise they experienced, and would endeavor to send out less hurtful noise themselves. (Constructive noise, dissenting noise, by all means. It's the outright slander I'm objecting to.)

I don't know if this will actually happen -- and would have to emerge gradually -- but it's a comforting idea. As it stands I've noticed that some people are gently starting to take people to task on their declarations. There's genuine skill in asking questions of an Extreme Declaration and not simply getting removed from the circle. But I think we all ought to start trying. Learning to gently ask questions -- developing it as a habit -- could encourage others to do the same, and make this dream of mine grow. This dream of calm, civil discussion.

Because I'm worried about the alternative.