This is the last thing I thought I’d be saying at this point. But it’s true. In fact, it could be the only story that both you and I can agree is not fake news:
I hate you. And you hate me.
We are so consistently and entirely immersed in that reality, this shouldn’t come as much of surprise. But I am surprised. Like many in my cohort, I thought the Internet would fix some things.
On most days during the era when the consumer web first emerged, I was teaching an African American literature class to a roomful of kids in the Crown Heights section of Brookyn. On a day when the class was discussing Native Son by Richard Wright, we had a guest student who was visiting from Los Angeles. This was the only time during my New York teaching career when I wasn’t the only white person in the class.
We had reached the point in the novel where its main character Bigger Thomas had committed his second murder and was hiding from police in Chicago’s tenements. I began that day’s class with a simple question: If you knew where Bigger Thomas was hiding, would you tell the police?
A third of the students said that they wouldn’t turn Bigger in to the police because the justice system was too biased against blacks. Another third of the class said that they’d turn him because murder is morally wrong; no matter what. The remaining students explained that they too would turn Bigger Thomas over to the police, but for a more concrete reason: They didn’t want to be his next victim. (Every student in the class had either been a victim of a gunshot or knew someone who had been murdered.)
After the class, the visiting white student told me that her AP class had just completed the same book. None of the same issues came up. She said that if I had asked the same question about Bigger Thomas, everyone would have turned him over to the police. They may have even thought my question was a joke.
The problem was pretty obvious, and when I saw the potential of the Internet, I thought it would be solved. The web would allow us to come together, not just across the world, but across the park, across racial lines, across our many divides. These kids wouldn’t need to wait for the sluggish sociopolitical hands of time to bring them closer. They could meet, share ideas and come together on their own. We all could.
That was then, this is now. Many of us early to the Internet business never would have imagined what really happened. If we had, I’m convinced our drive towards this progress would have been greatly diminshed.
In short, everything turned upside down. The open communication network we thought we were building turned into a hunting ground for trolls and spammers; unavoidable because of our ferocious addiction to our mobile screens. Social media evolved into a confirmation bias-riddled cesspool of lies, hate, and totally unrealistic versions of our lives; which would gradually amount to little more than weightless collections of Retweets and Likes. And somehow — with more tools to connect than ever before — we made our lives less diverse; racially, politically, and culturally; each of us left to sink in the quicksand that lines the thickening walls of our silos of homogeneity.
Today we’re as divided online as we are regionally. And our regional segregation is epic. These divisions leave us vulnerable to being defined by those who — for money or for power — gain from us remaining divided.
That’s why you in your rural town and me in my metropolitan city only know each other as the caricatures we see beamed through our completely separate sources of news, entertainment, and political messaging.
Today, we only know each other through the false depictions created by those with an incentive to keep us at odds. I’m sure your version of me is as bad as my version of you. And when you are winning, I am losing. We’re not in this together. Our state is anything but united. Above all else, we hate each other. And even though we don’t like to admit it, we’re scared of each other too.
Our separation is what allows for this anxiety.
In the 2016 election, 64% of Trump voters said immigration was the most important issue facing the country. But it turns out that many of those voters don’t even live in places that have a lot of immigrants. “Six states accounted for 59% of unauthorized immigrants in 2014.” Those states are: California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Florida and Texas. Four blue states, one that’s split (though counties with more immigrants went blue), and Texas which is reliably red.
The places with the most immigrants voted against the anti-immigrant candidate.
They don’t hate and fear immigrants because they live with them. The parties didn’t fall for the caricaturized version of each other because they know each other.
If we’re going to get out of this mess, we have to break the grip of segregation. Online, and especially off, we need to come together and make our own judgments about one another.
We’re like those kids in my class. If only half of them are in the room, then they’re really only reading half the book.
We’re not even getting half the story.
Maybe I’m wrong and when you meet me you’ll hate me even more in person. But at least you’ll be able to say it to my face. That alone would be a breakthrough.