Sound and fury, signifying nothing

Earlier today, one of my Facebook friends shared this image, which makes me so frustrated I can hardly put it into words (although I’m going to try):

No. No. No. No. A thousand times, no.

It is because I am concerned about the future of our country that I am bothered by a lot of the posts on Facebook. As I have tried to express numerous times before, on my own personal blog and in the pages of the newspaper where I work, what passes for political discourse on Facebook is actively harming our country and preventing us from moving forward towards solutions for key issues that affect us all.

I have no problem with anyone — conservative, liberal, or some iconoclast who doesn’t fit either mold — sharing passionately-held, thoughtfully-arrived-at views. I admire it; that’s exactly what I want as a citizen. But that type of expression has nothing to do with Facebook.

The political memes that get passed around on Facebook are slogans. They are not discourse or debate; they’re just slogans and name-calling. Now, slogans are not a new development in American politics. “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too,” anyone? Neither are name-calling or personal attacks. But Facebook has transformed them into something different, and amplified them in such a way that they drown out the things we ought to be saying to each other.

Here are some of the things I hate about political Facebook memes:

They do not, ever, change anyone’s mind — no one has ever leaped from one end of the political spectrum to another as the result of a particularly-clever photo of Sam Elliott or Willy Wonka. But you know what? They’re not supposed to change anyone’s mind. The only purpose they serve is that the person who posts them originally, and then all the people who share them, pat themselves on the back at the reminder that My Side Is Right and that The Other Side Must Be Stupid Or Corrupt. Facebook political posts, from liberals or conservatives, are smugness defined.

They are usually about personalities rather than issues. They are about name-calling. They bend over backwards to interpret anything and everything the Enemy Politician does in the most offensive way. Did the other party’s candidate cure cancer? Well, then your party’s Facebook meme will accuse him/her of having ruined the hard-working funeral home industry. Did the other party’s candidate only buy 11 boxes of Girl Scout cookies this year, instead of a full dozen? It must be because he/she hates children, scouting and America. Or maybe the Enemy bought two dozen boxes. In that case, he/she is obviously pandering, and just doing it for the attention, and setting a bad example for our nation’s diabetics. (Don’t bother looking up if, or how many boxes, your party’s candidate bought back when he/she was in office. It might get in the way of your carefully-crafted defamation.)

Facebook memes take incredibly complicated issues and boil them down into ridiculous oversimplifications. They’d be funny if they didn’t have such tragic consequences for the future of political debate and dialogue in this country. If you think there are too many firearm regulations, you are a heartless redneck who has turned a blind eye to mass shootings and who is in the thrall of gun manufacturers. If you favor additional regulations, you are a Nazi trying to take every last gun away from every last law-abiding citizen. There’s no room for debate or discussion or dialogue. There’s no room for finding common-sense, middle-ground solutions.

It would be unfair and oversimplified to blame Facebook for our country’s increasing polarization. Facebook memes are a symptom of that polarization, not its underlying cause. But they certainly do nothing to solve the problem.

So, yes, I am offended by your Facebook posts. In some cases, I have unfollowed people. In one or two cases, I have unfriended them. In many cases, I have chosen not to see any more posts from the origin source of the meme. If Sally Smith shares a meme from the Facebook page of Rufus T. Firefly For President of Freedonia, you can click on the arrow in the corner of the post and choose not to see any more posts from the Rufus T. Firefly page, which saves you from having to directly unfollow or unfriend Sally.

I am, of course, concerned that unfollowing Facebook posts will contribute to the “feedback loop” effect. If you belong to one party and you unfriend all of your Facebook contacts from the other party, you’ll wind-up with a one-sided view of the world and every issue. But I really don’t think most of my decisions to unfriend or unfollow have been based on ideology so much as they have been based on the complaints listed above. I am more than happy, as I said earlier, to read thoughtful, passionate but respectful content from people with whom I disagree.

If you want to use your Facebook account for good, seek out those posts — and link to them, rather than passing along bumper-sticker-like memes. At the same time, be willing to read news stories or editorials or interviews from people with whom you disagree as well.

The only way we will preserve the future of our great country is by talking to each other. Facebook, an amazing advance in communications, has failed us when it comes to the political dialogue. Or maybe we have failed it.