[I started drafting this before my recent travels, about which I have 1,001 things to say, so in the spirit of Imperfectionism I’m going to do quick edits and schedule to post so I can move on. The ideas here may be deeper and more complicated than my meandering draft captured, so don’t be surprised if I revisit this topic again in the future. As always, constructive criticism is highly encouraged!]
Two questions you hear a LOT on the internet that I see as strongly related:
“How could this happen?”
“How can you be friends with that person?”
I don’t believe the first needs much elaboration: we’re mostly all shocked (SHOCKED, I SAY!) at the thoughts and actions of people we don’t really notice until they burn their way onto the front page in fire and/or blood. No one ever foretells disaster and tensions flare up randomly; this space rock humanity calls home is basically one big laboratory for random events being communicated at high speeds and necessitating an ever-broader range of emoji and inflections for the word “tragedy” (except not in the classical theatrical sense, because a tragic hero must have a tragic flaw that foretells his — it’s always a he — tragic downfall).
The second statement, I fear, will seem equally random. For as long as I’ve tried to live an open life (which coincides roughly with as long as I’ve had a social media presence), people have taken issue with my broad selection of friends:
“How do you hang out with them?”
“I had to hide her on my feed, she’s just too negative.”
“That’s when I blocked him.”
“They are all just idiots; I don’t see why you bother.”
“Where’s your loyalty?”
But I’m increasingly of the opinion that they are two sides of the same awkward coin: inattention.
I don’t know why I can absorb a lot of information without it weighing me down, but I can, and I choose to do so. I’ve been saying for years that my “superpower” is perspective (thanks to a life lived along the fringes, between identities — some of my advantages helped offset otherwise confining societal expectations), so I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to approach either news or social media with my sense of openness and possibility. As is my habit, I’ve attempted to apply my personal privileges and skill sets to exploring possibilities and, hopefully, expanding them for others along the way.
But perspective is not just spotting silver linings for every dark cloud — it’s about balance. It’s also finding the dark clouds for every silver lining, and recognizing how light can play tricks on you.
For better or worse, I didn’t begin to curate my Face-friend list for length until it approached 500 (and such curation remained minimal; I didn’t excise the profoundly hard/negative until I was knee-deep in caregiver isolation and felt ill-equipped to find balance with the, what, three people I ended up de-friending?). I didn’t turn away people who were contentious, different of opinion, or generally negative, because perspective has shown me that people don’t behave in such a pattern without a reason. Although I’m sure I came off at times as a collector, someone who wanted only digital notches on my social headboard, I saw every single person I added as a friend or potential friend. I could have accumulated twice as many Face-friends if I’d wanted, but it wasn’t about the number to me, it was about the (potential for) connections, however narrow the range of commonality. My “Aquaintence” and “Restricted” lists were the mere dozen or so people whom I might hug in person but couldn’t hand off information without having a sit-down conversation about how they might receive it.
As for the rest, perhaps people thought I couldn’t see how contentious and negative “those people” were (note: “those people” were not consistently the same people; sometimes they would even talk about each other). But I saw the negativity. I could further see the pain and isolation of individuals from one another, and I would notice the way some folks insulated themselves with cynicism, skepticism, or misanthropy. I continually see the hard topics that drive wedges between us. And I don’t have to agree with someone else’s perspective to interpret and understand it; experience has shown me the humanity in people who don’t agree with me (even in people who are hateful toward me), so I endeavor to seek out the humanity always. Not because everyone can, but because I can.
And because I now habitually see the gray coexistence and subjective lighting of stormy clouds and silver linings (or is that silver clouds and stormy linings?), I look at the agitated, inflamed, overwhelming dis-ease of opinions on the Internet and I can see something of a familiar trajectory. I’ve learned to look past tone and education and shared experience, to squint and turn my head and check my eyes when I look at strong opinions, to see behind them people who have rare experiences and who are struggling to be seen and heard. And I believe the Internet is *giving everyone the opportunity* to do the same.
Okay, too silver, let me fix that…
I believe the Internet is *forcing us all* to do the same.
(But hasn’t the Internet shown us that awkward can be okay?)
The thing about Internet hate is that it isn’t Internet hate. There’s a lot of data out there that says humans so rarely change our minds about anything, it’s hard to blame anything for anyone’s opinion. The internet hasn’t transformed anyone who wouldn’t have been just as transformed if exposed to the right radio programs, scientific journals, newspapers, governmental edicts, wrapping paper, cheesecloth or parchment scrolls of yore. The challenge of our time isn’t new hate, new ideas, or new resistance to progress — it’s that old hate has found a stronger, louder voice on the Internet. This has been documented since the days of AOL chatrooms, and BBS systems before that. People just let it all out there, in part because we feel less accountable but also because we assume we’re in like-minded company. The small, self-selected spaces in which we participate online allow us to see in others much more of of ourselves than might actually be there. This is the macro level of what my favorite book on communication calls “The Usual Error”. You might tell yourself that the 200 members in your Facebook Fandom group aren’t all on the same page as you, but you are way more likely to assume you’re in the same book than with 200 random strangers driving on the highway or waiting with you at the DMV.
Online, we each express ourselves a little more boldly than we do in person (aggregated together in one place, most any viewpoint can garner attention — isn’t that the point of movement-building?). Advocates of peace and love as policy can be just as intense, just as intimidating, just as prone to cherry-pick data and memes (especially in the eyes of their opponents) as their opponents. The more significant difference is that, thanks to social media algorithms, a worldwide archive of material that can never quite be deleted, and the way sensational tweets can become ratings gold for what’s left of earlier forms of media, we now actually KNOW what is being said and thought by people who don’t agree with us. It shocks us. But only because we haven’t been paying attention.
And by “we”, I mostly mean white people, men, cis-persons, and/or those with better-than-average academic credentials. Practically everyone else grew up knowing about the deep tensions and the daily acts of unreported violence; they were a fact of life you only got through by doing what you were told, moving away, or perhaps fighting them with whatever means you had available (hint: these means did not include most governmental channels until fairly recently in American history — there’s a reason why unions and affinity groups were so important for the first half of the Twentieth Century and why they were so effectively undermined in the second half). So today’s viable ideologues are not representative of some mass hysteria, stupidity, willful ignorance, or swell of hate and misunderstanding (although sometimes the media and/or machinations will feed these aspects — sometimes deliberately, often tangentially to other goals — in their own interests). These patterns in voting are a reflection of viewpoints that have remained largely entrenched for generations in pockets that didn’t quite have the stage they now have. But just because you didn’t know this view of the world to persist while you or your parents sang “Kumbaya”, doesn’t mean they didn’t exist.
There never was a center, a normal, a mainstream. There was only the polite effort to minimize our differences until they absolutely necessitated response. That the myth of a mainstream “truth” lasted this long was a function of wishful thinking: that our incendiary melting pot was actually chill and balanced, that all those awful ideas that presaged the culture wars of the 60s were resolved and not surrendered to least-common-denominator banalities (like how much voting mattered and how so OVER racism we were as a country), that legislating anything from moral high ground and simple majorities (as opposed to, I don’t know, consensus and really fucking hard national conversations) wouldn’t invite generations of political resentment.
People fear what they do not understand, no matter how popular or moral it is (or seems). and the more polarized our leaders seem, the harder it gets for them to build common ground. Just as many conservatives are bewildered that not everyone arms up every time they hear the word “socialism”, so it is that liberals are bewildered that some people still like guns more than they like broad political inclusivity.
For one, maybe two generations, everyone got roughly the same inoffensive news coverage from roughly the same handful of inoffensive news outlets because it was so convenient (and the lack of an apparent agenda — which is not the same thing as a lack of agenda — was better for ratings and readership). Subtle, even unconscious biases convinced most of us that we were all equal under the law and that meant all old grudges were to be forgotten and America was, at long last, the only and best home to opportunity. With a handful of notable yet unspoken ground rules (religion and cops are generally on the right side; respectability of tone reflected respectability of argument; the majority and the customer were right unless the Supreme Court or the Board of Directors say otherwise), coverage allowed people to believe whatever we wanted, and the need to keep peace between disparate groups invited a lot of talk about unity, tolerance, and acceptance until every bigot, xenophobe, and extremist could answer accusations with, “I know you are, but what am I?” It wasn’t the absence of opposition that existed all this time; it was the absence of its mention.
Internet hate is not hate born on the internet; it is the same old hate externalized like never before. The startle here shouldn’t be what we now know they’re thinking; it’s how long we hid our heads in the sand and could believe otherwise before the Internet!
The “mainstream media” as we think of it, operating with a broad audience in mind and some attempt at objectivity in presentation, is less than a hundred years old; before World War II it was standard practice for not only editorial boards but all sections of any newspaper to coordinate around a specific political slant and to use its circulation to promote the political agenda of its publisher. To some extent, this practice only became subtler as television news emerged to carve out a middle ground and newspapers had to adapt; as news institutions fall or get bought out in waves, we may not be seeing the death of journalism so much as the end of its golden age of neutrality and a return to its polarized roots.
I would not wish harmful outcomes on any community, but they may just be the proverbial chickens coming home to roost. With every Trump victory, the good white liberals of America have to confront the fact that people of color have been right all along and we never really did lick that whole racism problem and laissez-faire capitalists (when they’re not lobbying for favorable laws and gargantuan tax breaks) have to begrudgingly consider that their economic gospel is especially bullish for loud, media-savvy blowhards. With every gruesome, unarmed death at the hands of a police officer, more civilians are forced to pay attention to how police are empowered, trained, and galvanized with fear that is too often nonspecific and/or coded to reinforce and entrench officers’ every prejudice. With every poisoned American city and collapsed bridge, activists are forced to recognize that polarized, single-issue elections fill government with ideologues who can only rehash the same battles over and over for inching social change, while miles of infrastructure and mundane policy age gracelessly until people (far more often than not, the very people our leaders swore they’d include in their big tents every four years for the last forty) die committing such innocent acts as drinking water and driving to work.
These are not shocking, spontaneous disasters; they are the fourth act of America, and they can be directly traced to incomplete victories of one and two generations ago, when short-term solutions made long-term problems look solved (if you didn’t look too long, which we’ve totally turned into an American value) so the victors wouldn’t have to look any harder, any deeper, at themselves, and no one would have to look at the losers at all. (I suspect there are parallels to Reconstruction after the Civil War, but it would take someone more familiar with that era than myself to draw clear connections.)
Our great American narrative has said that this land is great and we’re all great because we were born here and that’s all you need to be empowered to win, so all those losers of unfinished business and unvoiced resentment, the unequal equals who know they’ve been lied to their whole lives but not always about what and why, well they all think they’re winners, too, and they’re wondering when you’re going to start treating them as such. This is one thing the advocates of #BlackLivesMatter and Trump voters actually have in common: they have no more buy-in to American culture than they had before upper-class white folks declared racism was wrong but it was over now anyway and we should all go home and get some sleep because everyone’s got to go to work in the morning. Until such folks find authentic involvement and representation in their own lives, they’re going to keep raising a lot of fuss on the Internet.
There was a time when “community” was perceived largely around geography/proximity: your neighborhood, your town, your coworkers, the family who lived nearby… You and your community were in roughly in the same “place” at roughly the same time. The roots of this phenomenon touch on immigration, urbanization, and no small amount of housing discrimination, but it wasn’t hard to see the commonalities because you actually had a LOT in common. Areas were settled, resettled, sold, rented, blighted, gentrified in waves as people with a lot in common followed one another from one destination to the next. Before there was an internet, even the most urbane American was unlikely to encounter THAT many types of people, and it made it easier to hold beliefs and unchecked assumptions about everyone else.
The internet gave people the chance to reconnect in ideological “communities” after suburban sprawl and myths of normalcy made it hard to tell whether your next door neighbor was actually just like you or completely different, and in doing so it is pulling off the band-aid of American tolerance to show we’re still deeply scarred.
Call-out culture, when it is authentic (and not just white people looking to score brownie points by talking over others rather than engaging in an actual dialogue in a relatively safe space — although this is STILL not what activists mean when they say we need more jobs for communities of color!), is not a genesis of whining and/or entitlement; it is the culmination of generations of lived experiences not being taken seriously, of people with privilege being taught that their privilege doesn’t exist and/or could be overcome with good intentions alone (okay, maybe also a token black and/or gay friend), of well-meaning idealists declaring victory too soon after small achievements and failing to evaluate their success with the rigor of, say, a pedantic capitalist.
It’s not too late to find common ground, but we’re going to have to let go of those reflexive block buttons and actually talk with our ideological opponents once in a while. Find out what makes them tick. Share a link that didn’t come from an inflammatory Op-Ed, but includes relevant storytelling and enough research to ground that story without hitting someone over the head. Note: I’m again talking mostly to people with a lot of privilege here; self-care is revolutionary for people who already face daily oppression, and they should be judicious with their boundaries; but, for example, white people defriending other white people over racist microaggressions will only show that we want to avoid the problem of perspective, not that we want to engage or discuss our ideas or challenge ourselvses.
At our worst, Americans are lazy, and our oversights always have a way of coming back to haunt us.