I hardly go on to Facebook anymore. Increasingly I find the exercise depressing. Yes, occasionally I see baby pictures, fun quizzes, and funny stories from people’s lives. But the vast majority of posts I see these days are political or controversial, and many are riddled with logical fallacies, factual inaccuracies, or philosophical premises with which I disagree.
That in itself would not be too terribly burdensome. I could simply scroll past and continue on to the puppy pictures and vacation stories. But too often I can’t resist the urge to comment on the controversial posts. After all, I’d want to know if something I’d shared was false or misleading; and I love to have discussions with others about why we believe what we believe. But the exercise does not usually end well.
Take one example. Someone shares a story with a misleading headline, or describes it in an inaccurate way, something like “Intel officials: Russians hacked the election” followed by a comment of “See? The Russians stole the election for Trump!” You then comment and try to clarify that this isn’t accurate. The intelligence officials say they believe the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee website and gave the information to WikiLeaks, which then publicized it, which may have had an effect on voters, but this is a far cry from “Russians hacked the election,” which to most people’s minds implies breaking into voting machines and changing tallies.
The response is predictable: “What, you’re okay with the Russians doing this?” Of course not, but that doesn’t mean we have to be inaccurate about it. In the Social Media Universe, apparently, clarifications are the same as endorsements, and requests for accuracy are heard as passionate defenses.
Then There Are Just Urban Legends
Or take the rumors of an alleged impending “Muslim registry.” (Which persist despite repeated denials from the administration.) One meme showed a picture of Holocaust survivors with numbers on their arms, and a warning about what happens “when we register non-Christians.”
I responded that, even should a “Muslim registry” happen, this would not in fact be a registry of “non-Christians,” which implies that all non-Christians—atheists, Buddhists, Sikhs, and so forth—would be registered, just as “a registry of non-seven-year olds” implies a registry of those that are one-through-120-years old, excepting seven-year olds, and not, say, only a registry of nine-year olds (because they’re not seven!).
Not only did that spark insistent arguments that “non-Christian registry” was a perfectly accurate description of a registry for Muslims (never mind the fallacy of affirming the consequent), but I was told repeatedly that by insisting on this accuracy I was “enabling real, human monsters,” “defending fascism,” and, as you might guess, “nitpicking.”
But surely there’s a great difference between a policy that would affect less than 1 percent of the population and one that would affect 20 percent of the population? That’s a substantial difference, and one would approach the problem of a ban against a certain religion differently from a ban against everyone religion but one. Reason matters. Facts matter. Words matter.
Social Media Is All About the Feels
I fear, though, that these don’t matter in the online worlds we create for ourselves. Social media seems to be more about passion than thought, how we feel about things rather than what we think about them. But our discussions should reflect the reality of things, not simply how we feel about them. It is one thing to say, “This is so outrageous, the Russians might as well have just hacked the voting machines!” This expresses how you feel about the situation by comparing it to another. But to say “the Russians hacked the election” is misleading at best and false at worst.
We have taken the freedom of expression and twisted it, so that it becomes “I am free to express myself, but you may not question, critique, or disagree with what I have to say without that being a de facto attack on my dignity and personhood.” Apparently we shouldn’t be expected to have reasons for our positions, or think that “Why do you think that?” is a question and not an attack.
But we do think it’s an attack. We’ve become so polarized, we’ve lost our sense of having common ground. We seem more and more to be dividing into two camps: either “making America great again” or “joining the resistance.”
When we separate ourselves and others mentally into such distinct and exhaustive categories (“You’re either with me or agin’ me!”) it’s all too easy for us to demonize others with derogatory labels. Witness the many highly publicized battles that have taken place over Twitter in just the last few months, with the familiar slags. Michael Moore calling President Trump a fascist. John Legend calling President Trump a racist (in an exchange with Trump’s son Eric!). The CEO of a San Francisco advertising company calling the Midwest a feces-filled pit.
Scott Adams, the “Dilbert” cartoonist who gained attention over the campaign for accurately predicting many aspects of Trump’s ascent, even provided a useful list of insults he had received to “organize the common approaches in this post so people can insult me by number,” noting how often people responded to his social and political analysis by saying he couldn’t draw, saying his cartoons weren’t funny anymore, “calling me dumb, no further explanation needed,” or “stating your professional medical opinion that I’m a narcissist.” Is this really the best we can do? Name-calling?
How About We Try to Learn from Each Other
Why can’t our mindset and our interactions reflect the classroom rather than the boxing ring? The classroom, where questions are proposed, facts introduced, and viewpoints discussed with respect, docility, and a view towards finding the truth and the common good. Imagine how much more enjoyable the online experience would be if Facebook threads resembled a scholastic quodlibet more than they did a comedy roast.
People of every political stripe will read this as a description of their opponents, not recognizing these tendencies in themselves. And our faults don’t fall into stereotypical categories: I see plenty of bigoted small-mindedness on the Left and plenty of irrational emotionalism on the Right. I don’t see any group or sect exempt from the intellectually lazy habits of belittling their adversaries by assuming they must be either stupid or wicked to disagree. (I don’t exempt myself, either.) A person may be uninformed, but that doesn’t mean he is incapable of understanding. A person may support something that’s wrong, but he very likely is not knowingly choosing wrong for the sake of its wrongness.
We spend so much time arguing about the wrong things—or rather, not arguing at all, only fighting. We spend so much of our time venting our emotions or crafting that stinging zinger, and far too little doing the actual work of conversation and argumentation: defining terms, analyzing premises and conclusions, asking why we accept the assumptions that we do, and questioning whether those assumptions reflect reality. So many arguments online never get around to the point of evaluating each other’s assumptions and reasoning. This is a shame.
We have the opportunity through these media to share information and have discussions in which we can help each other come to know the truth. We seem to prefer to lob verbal grenades at each other, virtually roll our eyes, and shout back into our echo chamber about how dumb everyone else is. It’s counterproductive, and exhausting, and harmful.
Why don’t we talk with each other instead? That is, talk with, which involves listening. Instead of thinking we’re the Free French in World War II carrying out “the resistance,” let’s act like the French in the eighteenth-century literary salons, sharing texts and discussing ideas. Let’s adopt the spirit of a classroom discussion instead of a fight to the death. Then I can go back to Facebook without fear and trepidation. Is it too much to ask to be able to take the “Which Lord of the Rings character are you?” quiz without the threat of being called a fascist?