Let me offer the following:
A question. An observation. A process. A conclusion.
The question: When we post to social media, and especially when we construct memes, to whom is our message intended?
The observation: I have friends with whose positions I agree. I have friends with whose positions I disagree. Both groups tend to traffic in narrow, stereotypical misrepresentations of one another, polarizing any issue into the extreme ends of any given spectrum. The result is that I choose not to respond even to those with whom I might agree to some extent when they so overstate their position, or represent it as an attack on other human persons. Many of them only barely rise above the childish rant: “I’m right; you’re stupid.”
The process: Here’s how this seems to be happening.
Seeking to encourage dialogue, I have been regularly engaging some of the moderately overwrought expressions of particular positions. The positions held cover a wide variety of topics. But whether it is gun control, immigration, misogyny, the mutual hatred of Republicans and Democrats, the dangers of allowing expressions of religious faith, or any of a handful of other topics, the positions are not just predictable. The positions held become exclusively binary—they are quickly forced to the extreme ends of each issue’s spectrum. For example, if we hold that “Black lives matter,” then we must believe that “No other lives matter.” Likewise, if we love the unborn human person, then we must despise and seek to torturously enslave women. And those who seek the free exercise of their religious convictions can, in this paradigm, only desire to do so at the expense of others’ rights. In all these and more there is no sense of nuance, no appreciation for our limited perceptions, and no suggestion of third options or even alternative perspectives on either of the two (and only two) positions available on any issue.
And this is what is occurring among the moderately overwrought expressions that I have sought to engage. Other expressions are distinctly hateful and inflammatory, and my engagement of them has, so far, only elicited responses of the “I’m right; you’re stupid” variety.
I try to engage those whose expressions merely exaggerate, whose stereotypes are more universal, and who acknowledge that those who disagree with their positions may, in fact, still have a right to air, warmth, water, and food. Usually, however, even these seem intent only on further enflaming those who share their opinions. This works, of course. Each post offers the opportunity to reinforce the position held through others’ “likes” and “shares” and “retweets” and other means of congratulation, especially toward those who state the positions creatively. Yet this also encourages more extreme expressions. Those with the greatest response go beyond exaggeration into ridiculous hyperbole, beyond stereotypes into depersonalization, and even advocating the exploitation, oppression, and removal (yes, removal and even destruction) of entire groups of human persons.
This polarization continues unabated where either of two conditions exist.
The first condition allows some to remain oblivious to their own extreme expressions. This occurs when one’s social media friends and/or followers are almost entirely of a narrow political, socio-economic, religious, and/or ethnic category. Here, the reinforcement of our beliefs goes unchallenged because it is unheard outside the sycophantic circle (i.e., those who can only voice agreement with another’s thought, most often due to the total lack of any thoughts of their own).
The second condition, however, exists even where one’s circle of friends/followers expands beyond those categories. Those of us who reconnect with old friends from High School and College—and who have advanced a few years beyond those formative associations—find a broader range of opinions being expressed. We may agree with some, disagree with others, or even find ourselves wondering about the thought process that supports the position being stated. But in these cases, the polarization continues. Why? Because of this second condition: tacit approval—meaning we silently allow others to assume our agreement. As much as we may consider how someone has come to a conclusion far different from our own, we rarely engage in dialogue. We tend to respond only to those posts to which we can add a hearty “Amen!” with presumed impunity. Others, we read far enough to categorize into our own stereotypes, then scroll, swipe, or otherwise move on to safer, more agreeable posts.
The Conclusion: Having observed this polarization process, I would offer two uncomfortable suggestions. First, I recommend that we expand our corps of friends and followers to include those with whom we are likely to disagree. Second, I also recommend that we engage, politely, with questions or concerns about the content and tone of others’ posts, and especially the memes that are frequently shared by many.
Will this foster world peace? Are we hoping to come to agreement on these divisive issues? Can this possibly stop the bitterness and hatred being expressed?
I believe it would be a step in the right direction. Because when we choose to engage other human persons with whom we disagree, we would be treating them as though they were other human persons. That, in and of itself, might ramp down the rhetoric and allow us the privilege of actual dialogue. And, even if we may never reach agreement in the 5-10% on which we disagree, at least we might reach an accommodation for the 90-95% of our lives that we hold in entire agreement.