I don’t need to tell anyone how difficult this last year has been. Whatever side of the political spectrum you’re on, you’ve likely seen firsthand the destructive effects of our state of affairs and the polarizing rhetoric on replay wherever you go. The sheer amount of information vying for our attention, the chorus of personalities advocating their case, is deafening, and it’s only getting louder.
I have historically been one of those voices, advocating for what I believe to be socially just. But I’ve opted out of the conversation – at least the virtual one – as of late.
The problem, for me, is that all that talking, all that sharing, all that anger and rage is extremely unproductive. (And if you know me, you know I like productivity.)
The truth is that there are better ways to spend one’s time, and while other time wasters like binging baking shows on Netflix might be innocuous, for a number of reasons engaging in political discourse on Facebook can be much more destructive.
Proving to our friends that we’re #woke
We’ve all by now heard of the echo chamber. The echo chamber is the phenomenon of individuals like me, surrounded primarily by people who share the same political views and religious and cultural values, preaching to the choir a sermon they already know by heart.
Consisting 95% of Americans, 75% people who share my religious affiliation, a similar percentage people who live in my general geographical location, and presumably 85% left-leaning voters, my Facebook friends list – like my real one – is a reflection of me. When I speak to my crowd, I’m telling people who are just like me that something has offended my liberal sensibilities, just as it has theirs, and that I know what’s going on in the world, just like they do.
The sharing of content between myself and my friends is all but a moot endeavor. At best, it makes those who were ignorant aware of what is happening around them. But what is more likely is that it takes an issue we’re already too familiar with, and it puts a stamp of “I agree” or “I disagree” on it. It uses others’ voices who’ve (ideally) gone through the trouble of investigating a topic and forming an opinion, and aligns us either with or against it. It says to our friends, “I definitely care about this and you can all see that.”
Our profiles wear our content like a badge that proves that we’re paying attention.
And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes momentum is built by collocating ourselves with our tribes and with thought leaders, or simply by lamenting the state of affairs.
But speaking for myself, I’ve done enough of that. I’ve heard enough. I’ve liked enough posts. I can scroll through my news feed and tell you which of my friends are either with or against me on particular subjects. I know who to reach out to for support, and conversely, I know who to block from seeing inflammatory content so as not to start a cyber civil war.
I’ve shared all I can share. Now I want to act.
Talking is a poor substitute for doing
If you calculated how many hours I have spent on social media (business notwithstanding), you would cringe. And I am one of millions.
I used to think that it wasn’t that bad, because in the time I’d spent online I would have read some articles, kept abreast of things, and felt a sense of solidarity with my friends and family. But if you took that amount of time and compared it to the time I’ve spent actually doing something about my concerns, you’d be disappointed. Because for me, at least until recently, political activism started in the aisles of Barnes & Noble and the shelves of my bookcase, and ended at my laptop screen.
Sure, I’ve donated to causes and signed innumerable petitions, but did I actually do anything that required me to leave my house? No.
Of course not.
How much of our Facebook megaphoning is really an excuse to not do anything at all? How much of our posts are actually distractions from the real work that needs to be done?
More importantly, and perhaps more insidiously, how much does talking about politics on Facebook and other social media make us think that we’ve done something good, thereby masking the fact that we still need to do something worthwhile, and thereby contributing to the apathy of the masses?
And who is worse: the person at home who is ignorant of public affairs and thus does nothing about them, or the person who is aware and still does nothing?
Politics are our deepest values offered for public criticism
I once attended an interfaith dialogue by Lee Weissman of Jihadi Jew fame, hosted at a mosque in Orange County. It was a profound conversation, and people applauded and nodded in agreement throughout the hour. At the end of the discussion was a Q&A, and the question Lee was asked more than any other was, “are you a Zionist?”
This question made Lee, a self-identified Breslov Chassid, visibly uncomfortable, as he knew that whatever his answer was, it would light a trail of assumptions about who he was and how much he was actually committed to peace and justice. He wanted to be honest, but he also didn’t want to be pigeonholed and shut down. He wasn’t concerned with being liked, but he wanted to remain human in the minds of his listeners; to get across something more powerful than labels.
Lee didn’t answer the question. Instead, he talked about politics: their nature, their impact, and their inadequacy. I’ll never forget the wisdom he shared that afternoon. It has stayed with me for many years. He said, “I don’t discuss politics with strangers. It isn’t because I won’t discuss politics at all, but because I want you to know me before you know what I stand for.”
Lee explained that the reason we fight so fervently about politics is because they represent our most deeply held beliefs and the most core components of who we are. What we want to see made manifest in the world, i.e. our political agenda, is a direct reflection of our deepest values. It isn’t just about current affairs, compelling leaders, or fiscal administration. It’s about what we feel – at our most fundamental level – the world is and should be.
No wonder we guard our politics so vigilantly.
If someone is going to change these most basic beliefs, it won’t be because I shared a Facebook post with large white letters written over a politician’s face. It won’t be because I shared a timely Huffington Post article and admonished them to read it. It will more likely be because something happened in their lives that was powerful enough to force them to reevaluate everything they know to be true.
Needless to say, those moments are rare. They definitely don’t happen on Facebook.
If my intention in sharing my political views on social media is to ignite change in my community, it is a mission that is doomed to fail. Because that’s not the way change works.
That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about politics. It means that when we do, it should be with people who are safe enough to talk to, i.e. not strangers, and it means we should maintain a modicum of curiosity, respect, and maybe even some grace, when doing so with people we love.
How would you handle in the palm of your hand the beating heart of your neighbor? That is how you should treat his dreams, desires, and aspirations. That is how you should treat his politics.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not talking about treading lightly with bigots. On the contrary, I file ‘bigots’ under those I do not engage in thoughtful conversation unless and until they approach me and say, “I am willing to listen and learn.” Rather, I’m interested in trying this new style of communication with Uncle Bob; with my cousin, with my neighbor; with a once-good friend whose path diverged from mine in a way I can’t quite grok.
When we talk about politics, it shouldn’t be with the intention to change someone else’s mind; it should be with the intention to bring to the surface the values we have in common, and to seek understanding of those we don’t.
Otherwise, we should say nothing at all.
Photo courtesy Kristina Flour