Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Deliberate discomfort

So it’s been about four months since I signed up for Facebook and I am still kind of fascinated by the way the whole thing functions. I don’t post updates all that often, mostly when I get tagged on a meme or when I think I have something reasonably brief particularly compelling to sound off about. Not just compelling to me, mind you, but to at least some segment of my Friends list, which strikes me as the whole point. If I want to go on and on for hundreds or thousands of words that happens to be on my mind, with zero regard to whether anyone else wants to hear about it, clearly that’s what this blog is for. And if I’m honest, I have more of those kinds of thoughts on a regular basis than I do pithy, Like-worthy inspirations.

So I’m more of a content-consumer on Facebook than a content-producer. And by and large, the content that I’m consuming there is the same kind of info I consume across the interwebs in general: mainly pop culture stuff, specifically my geeky little wheelhouses. There are people who appear in my feed linking to stuff I never would have stumbled across on my own, and I appreciate that a lot. There are also people who take the time to compose status updates that say things like “I’ve been catching up on Popular TV Show lately. I’m enjoying it.” … which … I mean … ok? This doesn’t bug me, per se. I can skip right over say-nothing fluff posts like that without feeling like a time-wasting crime has been perpetrated upon me. But every once in a while my brain tries to wrap itself around the why’s and wherefore’s of a person taking the time to type something like that, and has yet to succeed at that.

There are a few people in my feed who I’m pretty sure, if I were to systematically track and classify their frequent posts, would prove to spend 90% of their Facebook time complaining about stuff. Mostly stupid pop culture stuff, which, again, no skin off my nose, but all the same doesn’t strike me as the best use of someone’s time and energy and connectivity.

And of course there are some people who have particular ideological axes to grind and do so relentlessly. Everybody has their hobby horses, I know, but of course the extra layer of weirdness with Facebook (at least in my experience) is when I’ve initiated or accepted a friend request with someone I knew in high school and haven’t talked to in decades, and now the only image I have of this person as an adult is that they are obsessed with a handful of positions from some particular socio-political agenda. And out of context like that, it often leaves me scratching my head. Like the guy who was in marching band with me back when we were kids, who is now some flavor of libertarian anarchist. Eerily, he was posting daily links to stories about police corruption and police misconduct for a long while (maybe for years, definitely months that I saw) before the Ferguson MO story blew up. Which might have made me think that, you know, maybe this guy was on to something, except that his second-favorite topic is men’s rights and spewing bile at the concept (or really his straw-man misconception) of feminism, which fundamentally discredits him in my eyes. So if he's trying to change hearts and minds, he's shooting himself in the foot (though I suspect that's not what he's about, as I'll get back to below).

And yet I haven’t unfollowed him, or anyone else, really. Actually I did unfollow one person within the first couple weeks I was on Facebook, because I found his ultra-conservative posts annoying. I had waited until multiple posts got under my skin, assuming a three-strikes policy was fair. But shortly after that I realized that a lot of people were probably going to have three strikes sooner or later, so I eased off the trigger. And eventually I re-followed my struck-out friend, too. Because I came to the realization, basically, that I don’t want to be a hypocrite.

I do understand, and have no major issue with, people being very selective about whom they actively follow on Facebook. There’s a manner dance of politeness going on with accepting friend requests and a ton of attendant drama with unfriending people, and unfollowing is a much more benign way of handling things. If anyone wants to use Facebook to keep in touch with certain people and has no desire to stoke their own rage by having philosophies they vehemently disagree with shoved down their throat, but also wants to spare themselves confrontations galore, by all means, use the unfollow function at will. I’m not trying to outline a code of behavior that I insist everyone else should adopt, I am purely talking about myself and my personal approach here.

What seems pretty clear is that Facebook, like many other modern media outlets, is something of an echo chamber, an online tool for preaching to the choir. People post things that some people find outrageous but other people find confirming what they already believe, and they Like those things and affirm the person who posted it, and so one side of any given debate feels a warm and fuzzy sense of righteous certainty and the other side feels a galvanizing sense of righteous indignation, and everyone digs in a little deeper in their us-versus-them mentality. And that does bother me, I admit it. I learned a long time ago that nobody ever has their mind changed by something they read online, not a well-researched and well-constructed thinkpiece and certainly not a one-liner in the comments section. That’s a writer’s dream, and I was certainly susceptible to it at one point, but I didn’t log on yesterday. So I strive not to get drawn into “debates” on the web, because that way lies only madness. But what I wish, what the change is that I want to see in the world and therefore should set myself to being, is that people would let go of their bunker mentalities and do more listening and less sharpening their rebuttals and counterattacks.

I’m aware that as time is going by the battle lines are hardening. People gravitate towards others who think like they do and believe what they believe, and that influences where people live or go to school or go to work or how they spend their time in general. It’s a self-sustaining vicious cycle where meaningful change simply isn’t possible, since nothing that might come from within can get any kind of support from without, where everything’s been purposefully arranged to maintain the way things have always been. If anything, the internet has really exacerbated this condition, because if a person happens to find him/herself in circumstances where most of the people around them represent differing viewpoints, it’s all too easy to go online and find virtual niche communities where everyone agrees and nothing has to be challenged at all.

It’s a two-edged sword, of course, and I’m not saying that like-attracting-like is some kind of fatal flaw that needs to be eradicated. But when enjoying the company of those with common interests morphs into putting on blinders and deluding yourself that everyone (you can still see ) agrees with you so everything must be fine, that’s problematic at best, and self-destructively dangerous at worst.

And I’m not saying that I have this all figured out, to the point where I’m totally zen about the whole kaleidoscopic wonder-show that is human experience up and down every conceivable continuum. I have opinions which come down on one side of the spectrum or the other, and I like it when other people bolster those opinions with their agreement, and I bristle when people disagree and get downright rankled when people express their differing opinions in ways that imply not just a different take but the conviction that they are Right and I am Wrong. But, to me, bristling and being rankled are supposed to be part of being alive and engaged with the world. I could wall myself off from all things disruptive to my peace of mind, but I don’t want to. It’s not always easy, but I’d rather stay open to new things. Every once in a while one of those things that gets my hackles up at first might actually push me toward deeper understanding and quite possibly, miracle of miracles, change my mind about something in the long run. (It’s been known to happen.) I can’t give up on that potential. Maybe more to the point, I don’t want other people to eliminate their chances of meeting me in the middle, either. So for starters, I have to be willing to take my own advice.

So I’ve abandoned any pretense of thinking all or even most of the world agrees with me on all the important stuff. Barring the most egregiously offensive kind of hatefulness and legitimate harm, I’ll keep an eye on everything that everyone puts out there, and expand my awareness of how wide-ranging human opinions can be (and I’ll even try to remind myself that the portion of global population that is online and speaks English is not 100%) I still won’t gird myself for flame-wars or other forms of anonymous interweb proselytizing, but when I meet a kindred spirit face to face who is genuinely interested in civilized discussion and exchange of viewpoints, I’ll be as prepared as I can be, and not inhibited my atrophied mental faculties. I don’t know if any of all that will necessarily change the world, but it still strikes me as worth doing.

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