At the risk of having my absence interpreted as Nazi sympathy, I’ve stayed away from most social media this week. After all, my silence is acquiescence, I’m told. My attempts to stay above the online fray are privilege in action, the memes say. Even Tiny Fey can’t make a joke about sheetcaking while bashing Nazis on national television without being accused of indifference.
I came across a friend’s Facebook post on exactly this subject, where someone said: “When I hear a person say they don’t get into politics (be it on Facebook or in person) I just look at them and think…why in the hell am I even wasting my time talking to your dumb *ss then!” The sentiment was capped with a smiley face and garnered many likes and hearts. It was far from the only such comment I saw this week.
But might I suggest the sentiment, “Unless you engage with me in the time and forum of my choosing, you’re dumb and probably a racist,” is part of the problem with modern civic life, not the solution. It’s certainly not the beginning of anything resembling a conversation.
There’s an increasingly studied phenomenon of modern life— the gap between one’s offline life and one’s online life. We post happy pictures of ourselves and friends doing enviable things and glad announcements, not tough struggles. We post selfies perfected with blemish-removing apps. Social media can function as a blemish-removing app for your life, editing out bad hair days and depression.
Researchers have dubbed it the “highlight reel” effect, and it can change how you feel about your own life, breeding social comparisons, envy, and anxiety.
Social media in a time of social upheaval or big news can have the opposite distortion. If your Insta is a blemish-remover for your life, news social media is a magnifying glass on our society’s flaws and conflicts at the exclusion of almost all else. It’s a highlight reel focusing on bad news over good, conflict over agreement, and a sort of barely concealed group panic that feeds off itself.
It’s not that concern isn’t warranted. I had my own fit of barely concealed panic when I watched the president of the United States say there were some “very fine” people at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, worth commending for quietly protesting with a permit. No, there were not, Mr. President.
But immersing oneself in a constant flow of high-octane, high-stakes news consumption on several social media platforms for days at a time can be overwhelming. Couple that with the social demand that one care in the utmost about each and every issue and signal that clearly and constantly, and you’ve got a recipe for emotional turmoil, not empathy.
Instead, I immersed myself in my offline and less news-focused life. I can’t escape completely, nor do I want to. The idea isn’t to ignore big events, but to find the best forum for navigating them, and give grace to others to make that decision, too, even if it means they don’t have the same ribbon on their profile pic at the same time you do.
For me that means phone conversations with friends, in-person rant sessions about the president’s statements, taking my kids out with other moms, doing an hour or two of radio where I can express myself beyond 140 characters, and visiting my personal Facebook page, which I keep pretty non-political and personal.
In those places, I have edifying conversations about tough issues. In those places, I make connections with people who think differently than I do. In those places, I talk to friends who know me by much more than my tribal signifiers, and I know them, too.
Compassion is not an unlimited resource. Empathy can be exhausted. Such fatigue is often studied in the context of caregiver and careers in non-profit or charity work. But it’s a human problem, and one I’ve run into trying to balance the news-junkie requirements of my job with the decent-person requirements of my life.
Adam Waytz, a professor of management tactics at Northwestern, suggests in the Harvard Business Journal that empathy is a resource that needs to be “invest[ed] wisely.” Those who are called upon to use their empathy in their line of work, according to studies—nurses, firefighters, hospice workers, etc.— find themselves less able to connect with their families and friends. I’ve seen this in my own life, where my late husband and I had different political beliefs.
Both of us were called upon to be understanding to sparring partners and coworkers all day, sometimes exhausting our political empathy by the time we got off work. Our impulse to let loose at home instead of staying kind and caring in our interactions didn’t make for our best moments. I realized somewhere along the way I was spending my calm and empathy on strangers who were yelling at me on Twitter. This isn’t always fruitless. I think being part of a greater, public conversation is worth doing or I wouldn’t be in this job.
But in a time of national upheaval when this kind of caring is at a premium, I think about where I use it.
Studies on empathy also suggest it can be a double-edged sword.
Empathy toward insiders…can limit our capacity to empathize with people outside our immediate circles. We naturally put more time and effort into understanding the needs of our close friends and colleagues…This uneven investment creates a gap that’s widened by our limited supply of empathy: As we use up most of what’s available on insiders, our bonds with them get stronger, while our desire to connect with outsiders wanes.
Attention to one’s “ingroup” vs. “outgroups” reinforces those bonds, and while loyalty to one’s group is admirable, it can also lead to alienation from other groups and even aggression toward them.
This phenomenon flourishes online, where staying within one’s ideological silo, reading and interacting only those with whom you agree, is a way of life for many. As demands on empathy go up, cleaving to one’s own group is easier. That allows for demonization of those outside it and relaxed ethical standards for insiders over others. In its worst forms, these environments offer all the conditions for dangerous groupthink—stress, valuing agreement over critical thinking, encouragement of self-censorship, and pressure to conform.
Sound familiar? Do you see these shifts and gaps in your online life growing?
The good news is, according to at least one study, just a few positive interactions with someone in out groups (ideological, social, or ethnic) can increase one’s ability to feel for those who look or think differently. In tense times, the chances I have those positive interactions outside of highly politicized social media are greater than if I only hang out on Twitter.
I am lucky, thanks to a contrarian streak and my upbringing in a very liberal town, to have a longtime group of friends who look and think very differently from me. It’s those connections that have kept me from empathy exhaustion. Find those connections for you, even if you’re just sheet-caking with friends and you’re afraid the Internet would not approve.
It sounds facile to say be decent to your neighbors, friends, and community in times of national pain. But be decent to your neighbors, friends, and community, even when leaders or segments of society are not doing the same.
My Internet life and my offline life are both real. Studies have shown empathy can be “dispensed and felt virtually,” and I’ve seen it. But the sliver of life that comes through my Twitter feed during a rough news week is not the fullness of my life or the fullness of American society. Pretending it is makes me less capable of tackling the very real problem of division we have in this country.
It turns out being a good, old-fashioned friend and neighbor is scientifically less exhausting and more effective: “In-person empathy — a hug, for instance, as opposed to a Facebook ‘like’ — has six times the impact on feelings of social support.” I’ll take that over being called a Nazi on Twitter any day.