I got into a very long argument with a very old friend yesterday. The argument took place in a Facebook comments section, because of course it did. I won’t go into the specifics of the argument, because I’m mentally exhausted from the whole ordeal. The content of the argument is not the point of this, anyway; the point is that neither of us changed our minds or was convinced of the other’s point of view, and that we were still friends at the end. The conversation was not resolved, yet it did not drive a schism between us either. At a certain point, he had to leave for a work trip, and I wished him a safe journey. It was an abrupt ending to the conversation, and indicative of something larger about the nature of social media.
Facebook and Twitter have long been a way for people who are geographically and ideologically divided to meet and berate each other’s political, theological, and ethical beliefs. Both of them, particularly their comments sections, are basically brick walls of public discourse. They allow a person to play tennis against an opponent that will absolutely never yield, and never do anything besides lob the ball back at them, to be yet again smashed back into the wall.
It should be noted that although I spent an inordinate amount of time in a virtual fight with my friend, I didn’t come out of it with anything but a stronger sense of affirmation of my own beliefs. I don’t know if I was enlightened by anything he said. The only growth I felt coming out of it was a stronger sense of how to argue my own point, that I already believed anyway. This is akin to a character arc in a story which, instead of making the character undergo a great growth or change in perspective, simply made him a more extreme version of what he already was. That’s not the traditional advantage of public discourse; that’s just building debate muscles. This type of discourse just strengthens the ability of both sides to argue.
Yesterday, the 24th of January, a gag order was issued by the Trump administration which prohibited the USDA and the EPA from disseminating research and test results to the public, the very people they are in place to inform. Our employee the President was attempting to silence the information for which we pay taxes year after year to receive. While this may not seem like a fascist power-play to some, it has all the makings of one. Control of information and blind acquiescence are hallmarks of a regime digging its claws into a people’s state. The oddest thing to me (since I was not especially surprised by these tactics) was the people who had been howling for eight years about government overreach were suddenly very complacent, even smug. They seemed to believe that because they had voted for, or at least bought into the current establishment’s major tenets, that they themselves would somehow emerge unscathed from it’s authoritarian agenda. This is the ages-old metaphor of a sinking ship with a hole in one side, with the people on the opposite end laughing at the misfortune of those who are bailing out the water. To them, the USDA and EPA are useless, industry-strangling, expensive organizations for which they have no use. These people take for granted the services which they provide, and no amount of charts, articles, or even objective facts will sway that opinion.
“Fake news!” they’ll scream, and only through volume and bully tactics will their voice somehow be heard above your own. We will throw up our hands and roll our eyes and hit the ball once more against the brick wall.
Now, I’m not going to go into the reasons why we need these organizations in place, or why it’s important to have open lines of communication between a government and its people in a society such as ours; I don’t think that the people who wouldn’t immediately disagree with me would be tempted to believe me. I think that would just lead to yet another version of the same argument my friend and I had with no resolution. The wonderful thing is that I don’t have to at all, and neither do you.
This morning, I woke up to some pretty decent news-that the gag order on the USDA had been rescinded, due to “public outcry.” Public outcry! Imagine that! People sharing the previous day’s story, people bitching about it on social media, people calling their local representatives! Social media is often condescendingly sneered at by cynics for making no difference in the real-world political realm. People who post and share political messages are labeled as “Facebook Activists” who affect no real change and who are sitting lazily behind their screens and attempting to create change through no real effort. I disagree with this assertion. People listen to social media. People’s views are affected by it. Ask any marketing or advertising professional what the most efficient method of information dissemination and sales is in our world today, and they’ll tell you social media. Anyone who believes that advertising, marketing, and political propaganda are not one and the same are perfect marks for all three. For this reason, posting on social media about the ills of society has become just as effective a tool for revolution as marching in the streets. Anyone who is complaining about “Facebook Activists” is clearly a perfect example of the very proof of their power. A dialogue is started. A brick wall rises up to strike the ball against. The volley of ideas is put into motion.
I think the reason that we still resist the functionality of social media politics is partly generational; people who have lived most of their lives without the internet discount its politics as faddish or without substance. After all, a hundred thousand Tweets can’t possibly be as purposeful or noble as a march across a bridge in Alabama, right? 250,000 Facebook shares and comments will never take the place of the power of an unarmed man placing a flower in the barrel of a soldier’s gun, right? This is a fallacy, as most generational criticisms are. The most effective course to revolution is almost always built on the infrastructure of the most efficient form of communication. Numbers count, never forget that. Word of mouth begat paper correspondence, which begat phone conversations, which begat the wild unruly flow of the internet. 30 years ago, a telethon was the most widespread and efficient method of attaining monetary donations for a cause. Now, it’s Gofundme.com, or any one of the dozens of crowd-sourcing sites. Revolution is primarily about the organization of ideas, and ideas are all inextricably tied to our most modern method of communication. Don’t let anyone tell you that your share on Facebook or your re-tweet on Twitter is futile. We have elected two presidents now based on the power of their online messages.
The friend I mentioned earlier, the one I’ve been butting heads with, was at the same kid’s birthday party as me recently. We’re old friends, so we tend to run into each other at events like these. We got along great. We didn’t talk politics-we talked about work, and our kids, and family life, and beer. This made me think: are we all two different people at this point in our technological development? Do we all harbor warring dichotomies that can’t be reconciled because of the safety of our distance and relative anonymity? If so, is there a way to break out of the game we have created, out of our brick walls? I think so.
Imagine you are facing your own brick wall. There you stand, with a lifetime of learned behavior, stubborn partisanship, and personal ethics staring back at you. The ball in your hand is your idea. It is yours and you love it. You want to keep it forever and nurture it into whatever these ideas end up becoming. So you lift it in the air to once again begin an endless game of opinions and fundamentally different perspectives. Think twice. Think about letting go of your idea forever. Imagine you never get that ball back. Learn to be okay with losing your ideas forever. Imagine there are infinite balls being fed to you constantly, because there are. Your ideas are replenished every time you release them into the world. Even if you only have one idea, it is available to you forever. Stop holding tight and protecting them. Stop thinking that they will somehow be absorbed into that brick wall, changing its function. Turn around, let that idea fly into the void, and repeat. If you are lucky, and your idea is fundamentally absorbed into the world’s pool of truly good ideas, then you won’t need the wall anymore at all. And then you’re playing a totally different game than them.