I have been feeling rather introspective lately about a lot of aspects in my life. I’m sure I’ll cover each of those in the coming weeks but, for this blog entry, I wanted to share some recent insights I have gained about the widening divisions within our society. Namely, the perpetuation of an Us versus Them culture.
Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, and subsequently was elected president the following year, it seems that the divisions between people, no matter how small, are exaggerated and exacerbated to the point that we cannot communicate with eachother, recede within our own biases and likeminded groups, and react in ways that can foster extremism. Basically, a sense of tribalism.
While now it seems like this communication breakdown is so prevalent in 2019, I had been feeling some inkling of dissatisfaction with public discourse for a while now. Coincidentally, right around the time social media became an increasingly pervasive factor in all our lives.
Facebook was still rather exclusive when I started college in 2006, only allowing college students at the time, but it soon evolved to include everyone thus making it easy to collect and monetize data. My use of social media is so much different now than how I used it then. Throughout my collegiate years, it was commonplace to argue and debate with people writing whole dissertations that would get ignored. All of it felt supremely unnatural and ineffective to me. I couldn’t eloquently at the time explain why, but those kind of exchanges just felt empty.
Now, it is very rare that I’ll respond to a heated thread with an opinion. It isn’t that I’m afraid of the reaction, but I do consider what could be misinterpreted or lost in translation, whether intentionally or not, and I just decide that it isn’t worth my time. I no longer view social media as a soapbox as I had used It in college. Now, it is a means for me to share with family and friends vacation photos, see how they are doing, and post book reviews. All of this was a conscious decision to shape how I used various social media platforms as a member of the first generation to come of age with social media as a communal space.
The criticism to that viewpoint is that, as a white cisgender heterosexual male, I do not recognize the equalizing power that social media platforms offer. To the more marginalized members of our society, it is said that social media has given a voice to the voiceless. And with that, a sense of justice and a fair shot of contributing to and redirecting social dialogue. It is one of the reasons why proponents of social media, oftentimes people who generate income through their interaction with it, say that social media offers more good than it does bad. That everything can be utilized in both positive and negative ways.
All of that is true, in theory. Social media is still a relatively new phenomenon and we have yet to understand the long-term impacts social media has on our society. Though, that isn’t to say we have not seen immediate effects. Ones that we are just now becoming aware of and taking time to truly understand.
During President Obama’s second term, I began to understand exactly the issue I had with social media. I was reading articles about people who made off color or racist remarks and then would be publicly shamed online. I don’t disagree with someone facing consequences for hate speech, but social media allowed even innocuous, or misunderstood comments, to be blown up resulting in these people’s lives being ruined. I had read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and he explained that social media was creating “virtual stockades,” environments where people could be shamed in ways unseen by civilization since actual stockades. This seemed wrong to me to punish people for comments, while maybe inappropriate, that didn’t actually qualify as hate speech or directly communicated a call to action for violence. I was trying to understand this changing landscape of activism and free speech and my questioning, or even criticism, of overreactions were deemed by my fellow liberals as me being an apologist for racists.
As Donald Trump was gaining momentum during the campaign, I would even get lambasted by my fellow liberals for engaging the situation that was more nuanced than just spewing vitriolic bile online or in crowds. I remember telling a friend in December 2015 that the only way to defeat Trump was to ignore him. I was told I was being complicit. Complicit about what? I don’t know. However, the attitude at the time reflected this liberal bubble mindset that “if we cover everything he says and put it all over the news and social media, people will see how awful Trump is.” That did not happen and since Trump’s election, media executives like Jeff Zucker and Les Moonves have said publicly that covering Trump meant more ratings and money. And that’s when I realized the issue I had with social media. I realized social media was a business that commoditized our outrage and profited off the proliferation of identity politics.
As part of my journey to understand why Donald Trump won the presidency, I had to understand how every side contributed. I did not feel analyses blaming white people or racists or Russians were satisfactory at explaining his victory. I began to think about how democrats and the left, my groups, contributed. This led me to the realization that the left suffers from the narcissism of small differences, the idea that likeminded individuals are more likely to engage in feuds of minutiae. I found all of this so frustrating. I kept thinking that since we are all on the same side, we should be more unified. Instead, there were moments I received vitriolic feedback for have an opinion that was generally in the same ballpark, but still didn’t exactly align with the militancy that has been driving social activism.
I’ve been reading two books lately that have really opened my eyes on this subject. Irshad Manji, a Muslim lesbian, wrote a book called Don’t Label Me, an analysis on how labels are weaponized in ways that dehumanize us and further the divide between Us and Them. She tackles modern social justice philosophies concerning privilege, power dynamics, multiculturism, and cultural appropriation and exposes the flaws inherent in each of those to showcase how people become isolated and gravitate towards extremes; places they can go and be reaffirmed for their beliefs by people who won’t berate and belittle them.
In the book, Manji is quite tough on leftist social activists for commoditizing marginalized people and using them as props to fulfill specific goals. She also stresses that people are more than their perceived labels, that we are plurals with unique backstories that defy the expectations or stereotypes of our labels. I’m sure my fellow liberals have heard, or even conveyed, that people who voted for Trump are racists. I have never believed that, though sometimes I found myself wavering when pressured or when Trump said something that really boiled my blood. Yes, there are some truly vile people in his camp. However, I have challenged this by telling people that all Trump voters are not bad. The usual response is that they are complicit with Trump’s actions, or that I am.
Manji’s point is that in order to change hearts and minds, you must listen with the intent to understand as opposed with the intent to win. As a result, you build a personal connection and are taken more seriously. This potentially allows them to think on their own values and work on compromise that enforces a more unified outcome. Telling someone they are wrong and stupid is only going to make them retreat which can develop into extremism.
The other book I have been reading is Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. The concept of emergent strategy comes from Octavia Butler, an African-American science fiction writer, and essentially means that large systemic changes can be made through simple interactions. By developing personal relationships and, as Manji stated, listening with the intent to understand, we can bridge the gap between Us and Them. It all boils down to building relationships with people with different views in order to achieve a mutually beneficial result. We gain nothing from isolating people when we assume so much of them based on labels that restrict them and their individuality.
I am vocal about this because I do not Trump to win again in 2020. And, the way I understand things as they are now, the left is doubling down on failed practices from 2016. In essence, many of the left are acting exactly like Trump. Trump claims he is a victim and mobilizes his base to attack the other. The left, a lot of the times, victimizes themselves and acts in a way that is not proactive in achieving actual results. In essence, we have look inward to facilitate change if we expect change within our problematic systems. We cannot ask to be heard if we are not willing to hear. Achieving honest diversity is about communication and dialogue.
The third single from the Power Station’s debut album, “Communication” is a fun pop rock song from 1985 about, obviously, the need to communicate. In the song, Robert Palmer is asking someone to stay in touch though things are crazy hectic, and we are all on the move. He’s urging this person to keep their lines open and exchanges facts through contact, but he just cannot get through.
I know it is a bit of a stretch to connect this song with the main thesis of this blog, but it adds to my point. Remember when I was talking social media? Our interactions with people online are commoditized, and it shapes how we behave in the offline world. We’re being programmed to not have honest dialogue, but instead focus on whatever is quick and easy to consume because we’re always on the move looking for the next thing, the next click. We have to slow down and put emphasis on listening to each other and not become subjects to corporate mechanisms that generate revenue from our conflicts and anxiety. Reach out. I am here. I will listen.