Like every other voter preparing for the upcoming election, I often cruise Facebook to gauge the mood of my fellow citizens. Not that I’m a fan of the site. To me, Facebook has always seemed like an inversion of the old “banality of evil” trope: It is the evil of banality, a fount of never-ending Likes and emoticons and pictures of highly caloric restaurant meals and garish sunsets and Frisbee-catching dogs. It is an online Leave It to Beaver updated to the digital age, a place where we can all cozily catch up and be comfortable and make soft, murmuring sounds to each other.
For the jibe, however, the pointed bon mot, indeed any exercise of wit, go to Twitter.
And that’s why I’ve long been irked by Facebook, even as I compulsively log on to see what acquaintances are up to. It feels limiting and factitious. But nowadays I’m feeling conflicted; I perversely pine for the anodyne variant of Facebook, which has all but disappeared in the current election cycle.
True Believers seem to now dominate the site: Conservative Firebrands and Feverish Progressives, each shrilly promoting their favored candidate and pet conspiracies. They hunker down in their echo chambers and bellow slogans at one another. Seldom are they challenged, because that somehow contravenes general social-media etiquette. You aren’t supposed to interrupt the round-robin of attaboys, no matter how ludicrous or invidious it gets. Instead, if you don’t like the direction of the “conversation,” you’re expected to go to a forum with views similar to your own, where you’ll be cosseted and will cosset in return.
The problem is that the different Facebook groups I belong to run the political gamut; and after a fairly long life, I don’t really believe in anything other than the laws of thermodynamics, the necessity of demonstrating kindness to children and animals, and the wisdom of moderation in all things.
Without doubt, many of my progressive friends would characterize my relatives and the people I grew up with—and interact with on Facebook—as a rabble of mouth-breathing rednecks who believe that Hillary ordered a hit on Vince Foster, heavy machine guns should be available for purchase in Walmart, the Earth is 6,000 years old, and Jesus had flaxen blonde hair and a complexion like peaches and cream.
And my kin and old high school chums would no doubt feel that my friends in the media world are pencil-necked, gluten-fearing vegans who drivel on endlessly about mindfulness, take exquisite pains to avoid gender-specific pronouns, and feel that military service is a step below pimping as a career choice.
To a degree, both sides would be right. But that’s neither here nor there. In social media, there’s no true discourse going on, no exchange of ideas. Instead, there’s mutual demonization. The irony about social media, of course, is that it was supposed to bring us all together, but it has done just the opposite.
In meat world, where we all walk around and (occasionally) look each other in the eye, you couldn’t get away with that kind of nonsense. Someone would punch you in the nose. There was a reason our mothers (my mother, anyway) cautioned against discussing politics and religion at the dinner table.
So lately, I’ve mounted a small insurrection to combat this noxious and ultimately un-American impulse to hunker down in a silo and type endless screeds unsupported by fact or even a nominal grounding in reality. I’ve taken to bearding the lions—or at least the yapping cockapoos—in their dens.
It started with a posting from a right-wing acquaintance that included a link to a racially offensive caricature of Obama. “Vote Yes If You Think Obama Should Go to Prison,” blared the caption. Several people had clicked yes; no one had clicked no. Normally, I just ignore such opprobrious stuff. But this time I chided the poster in a gentle fashion, saying that while I didn’t agree with all of Obama’s policies, I thought that he had done well on the whole, especially considering his burden of a hostile Congress.
I was surprised at the response—not from the poster or his gang of droogs, but from people who agreed with me. Apparently, like me, they had monitored the page in silence. Now they had an opportunity to counter the slime and the venom, and they did so in direct if moderate terms. It was like discovering an ivory-billed woodpecker or a dodo. I had thought centrists were extinct, at least in the Facebook forums I visited. But here they were, swarming like alates from a termite mound after a rain.
I tried the tactic again. One poster linked to an image of a hypertrophied Uncle Sam, festooned with grenades and ammo belts and carrying an M4 carbine. The caption expressed a willingness to stand and fight ravening hordes from the Middle East. I was more forceful this time, but still polite in my observation that the poster needn’t wait to engage his enemies in mortal combat: The Kurdish Peshmerga were happily accepting volunteers in their fight against ISIS, so he should immediately fly to Kurdistan and enlist. Again, there was no response from the poster or his supporters, but several people gave my posting a Like and a laughing emoticon.
Emboldened, I flipped to the other end of the political spectrum. I parachuted into some ardent Bernie silos where members were casting aspersions on Hillary.
I didn’t harp on the fundamental cultural and economic realities likely to confound any attempt by Bernie to turn America into Denmark or Sweden. Instead, I considered my audience: Mostly Millennials, who (with some justification) loathe the aged. So to one young poster I simply commented that, as a doddering old man, I couldn’t vote for any man who was older and more doddered than I am. To another, I maintained that if I had the choice between voting for a messianic elderly white man or a flawed but highly competent woman, I’d vote for the woman. Because it’s time for a woman to be president, just as it was time eight years ago for an African American to be president. And I’m not about to turn down my chance to contribute to history simply because the woman candidate doesn’t pass the ultraprogressive litmus test.
The result: silence, save for the virtual crickets chirping. Then some Hillary supporters appeared, seconding my assertions.
Not that I’m besotted with Hillary, of course, and I made that point clear in forums that champion her candidacy. One editor I know and respect posted a long and rapturous screed on Hillary, which made it sound like we should expect her to walk on water any day now. I responded that I would vote for her because she’s the only grown-up in the room, but I don’t support her canonization. That got some oorahs even from Hillary fans—apparently, like their candidate, they’re grown-ups.
Is this futile? I don’t think so. Our progression toward Election Day feels more like we’re slouching toward Bethlehem, where that Rough Beast foretold by Yeats will finally be born. And that ain’t a good feeling. So we have to challenge the partisans. More of us need to get into silo crashing. We must calmly but firmly intrude into any and all echo chambers and present dissenting opinions. The object is to disrupt the narratives, induce some doubt into any and all tribal catechisms.
True Believers live in a land where anyone other than a select group of like-minded peers is The Other. That land isn’t—or shouldn’t be—America. We need to upend social media, crawl out of our Facebook and Twitter bunkers, stand blinking in the sun, look those we may not agree with in the eye, and entertain the possibility that their ideas may not totally suck—even that beetle-browed, knuckle-dragging Republican or that whey-faced, mewling Democrat. Maybe we should even take one of these loathsome creatures out for a cup of coffee. Beneath the spikes, thorns, chitinous armor, and absurd plumage, we may discover a human being.
Glen Martin, a regular contributor to California, reported for the San Francisco Chronicle for 17 years, has written three books, and contributed to more than 50 magazines, including Audubon, Wired, Discover, Forbes, Outside, and the Utne Reader. He currently rusticates in Sonoma County.