I was in a car accident during a bleak snowstorm last week and as I worked my way through the process that always follows those in such situations, I took more time than normal to look through social media. It was a mistake. I’d always vowed not to fall into that rut … and then I did.
There was much to learn from those hours spent on the digital frontier, but little of it was edifying or even instructive. What there was instead was a lot of shooting, manufactured mayhem and average citizens left hiding behind their doors and peering out their windows. It wasn’t literal, of course. The shooting involved enflaming words not bullets. The mayhem wasn’t a melee of violence, but opinionating on anything and everything using Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. And the citizens hiding out? I used that more figuratively than anything else. So many have grown disenchanted with the era of constant attack that they increasingly refuse to open their digital doors and venture out into the mainstream.
Most of us believe in our community and seek to enhance and build it. But we also wish to be recognized as important members of that community and briskly pursue “likes” and “retweets” in order to validate our worth. In order to keep numbers up, we retweet or share numerous bits of information that, when added altogether with everyone else doing the same thing, actually numb the minds of readers.
And it gets worse. Everywhere, people think others are idiots or ignorant, just as those opposing them think the same in return. Politics is the worst for this. People who believe that poverty is a bad thing nevertheless disagree on how to alleviate it and vent their anger as a result. And their need for more followers means that they will broadcast their invectives as publicly as they can so as to gain attention. The same goes for every other subject of meaning – immigration, economy, housing, drugs, race and equality. We have expressed our enraged opinions and have little left to show for it. As Jane Austen reminded us in Pride and Prejudice, “Angry people are not often wise.” Or, as Mark Twain was once heard to comment: ““Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”
I have been guilty of such things myself at times, but came away from those experiences feeling grimy and demeaned. In my desire to fight for what I believed in, I might have ended up destroying the very trust and respect required among citizens to build a better future.
Because so many aren’t in positions of leadership or able to make significant collective decisions, they have found in social media the ability to vent in ways that make them feel equal to such people. But they’re not – most often through no fault of their own – and the brushfires their accusations and veiled attacks have ignited most frequently drive the community they care about into hiding – worse, into fear and isolation.
My days wandering on the frontier taught me that tweeting, retweeting or sharing our angry opinions, though mostly well meant, have in fact reduced us, balkanized us, and duped us into thinking we’re activists when in fact we are somewhat more like digital arsonists. By the time we’re all done blustering, every bridge will be burned and destroyed. The true tragedy in all this is that someday, if and when we come to our senses looking out over the desolation, and we feel the urge to reach out and come back together, the very bridges of trust, respect and necessity we will require to build again will be piles of ash.
To realize that we were unproductive, even mean, in how we treated others with whom we disagreed will be a moment of reckoning. But with every reckoning must come reconciliation if that awareness is to mean anything. One person in such a situation disclosed to me this week that, in weaponizing his language, he had become like the very trolls he despised.
We are all people of differing opinions and solutions – human, natural and essential. But a community is more than that. It recognizes that out of all these insights we must cobble a life together requiring reasoning, patience, debate and comprehension, and should that fail, everything will fail. We require bridges – solid ones of durability and yet flexible enough to handle our collective distinctions. But we need pathways across our divides if we are to carve a compassionate community out of a vengeful frontier. One can only hope that there are enough bridges remaining to assist us in passing over to each other.