The other day I did something dangerous—I gave a political opinion on social media. I didn’t promote a particular political party or specific candidate. I didn’t call anyone names or malign anyone’s heritage. I supported and promoted the rule of law. Period.
It all started when my nephew posted an opinion about a current political policy. His comment was passionate and thoughtful. He believed something should be changed and he expressed what he thought should be changed and why it should be changed. He supported his argument with his morals and was respectful in the process. I read his comments and although I agreed with his passion on the topic, I did not agree entirely with the methodology he promoted to achieve the end. We agreed (in general) on the desired results, but not on the methodology. His comment made me think and I responded with my opinion on the matter.
After posting my comment, I saw that several other friends had commented on the same topic with a variety of positions. I thought, “Maybe I should write down my thoughts in a coherent, logical structure and post them for others to see and we can discuss this important issue rationally.” Wrong.
I have friends from a variety of political views. I’m okay with that. We live in a country that promotes freedom of speech, and I believe in robust debate about important issues. When I peruse social media I am bombarded with memes, news articles, and headlines from both sides of the political aisle and the political slant on the issues. What I don’t see is open, honest, rational discussion on any given topic. I am constantly bombarded with sharp rhetoric packaged in memes and one-line statements intended to alienate and divide. Nobody really wants to have a discussion. They just want to give their opinion and shut down any contrary opinion with name-calling and SHOUTING.
My post garnered responses from several people and was shared by several friends. One commenter asked if it was okay to disagree with me. After a few posts some of the people commenting began to post point and counterpoint. For the most part, the discussion remained civil, but nobody changed their mind about anything. One friend shared my post, and the responses of people who didn’t know me were a lot more mean-spirited. The conversation spiraled downward into slights, innuendo, and labeling. One person stated with great confidence that I would have surely sunk Washington’s boat as he crossed the Delaware river to attack the Hessians.
After a few days, everyone moved one and the conversation waned. Nobody changed their mind. Nobody walked away from the exchange with a new perspective. We were all just as stupid as we were when we started, and maybe stupider.
Why? Social media doesn’t lend itself to an engaging conversation or exchange of ideas. It is the classic case of failing to listen because you are formulating your response instead of trying to understand the other person’s viewpoint. The mechanism limits the fluid exchange of feelings and restricts the back-and-forth conversation that enlightens both parties and helps them arrive at a point of learning and compromise.
People are emboldened by the perceived anonymity that social media provides. It’s much easier to sit in the safety of your living room and smear someone personally than to say it to their face. It takes little courage to fight a Twitter war. It takes little intellect to troll someone and attack their viewpoint with half-truths or name calling. There are no heroes in a battle of memes.
It is impossible to capture difficult abstract thoughts in short bursts of emotion. Complex issues really cannot be boiled down to a few characters on a screen. It is true that aphorisms have the power to inspire and guide, but they won’t solve multifaceted issues with no right or wrong solution. Complex issues require lengthy discussion and often need time to percolate before the solution presents itself. Social media abhors the lengthy, careful argument.