Facebook has become a minefield of political vitriol, where all too frequently, I have to brace myself for some random bit of highly heated (and repeated) political propaganda making the rounds whenever I want to merely stop by and see what my friends are up to.
Most of the time, there’s just no sense getting into things with friends–after a youth where I delighted with mixing it up with friends over matters politic, I’ve gradually come to recognize the wisdom that politics, sex, and religion are not topics for polite conversation.Nobody’s mind ever gets changed in an online political discussion, and the discussions that follow inevitably generate more heat than light–and risk straining friendships held together by too-delicate strands strained by time and distance.
Every so often, however, I do the foolish thing and respond to some new political meme being circulated by a friend I consider generally reasonable, in the hopes that I can point out that some “shocking new study” originated by an advocacy group is little more than lightly disguised propaganda before it gets circulated enough that it passes into group memory and morphs into common knowledge. After which point, it will be repeated endlessly, no matter how many times calmer heads point out that there’s no basis in fact for the now “unshakable fact”.
In the best case, wading into these things gets folks to slow down and consider for a moment whether 1 in 3 women on college campuses is actually raped; whether 1/2 the garbage in the world is actually generated by America, etc. etc. etc. We never run out of invented and easily disproved statistics which much of the world is absolutely certain are true, because people they trust told them so. The malevolent bastards in politics and the media invent phony “wars on women”, “attacks on the environment”, “racist conspiracies” and countless other crimes against all that is good because they know that the mere thought of someone doing such things makes us angry. Any when we’re angry, we seldom stop to think whether the attack in question is actually what they say it is.
Politicians lives are built around spreading despicable nonsense like this, and the more they can rile us up and get us mad at “those evil <members of the other party>” who apparently exist to commit every societal ill for the sheer fun of it, the more we get out to vote for them, the more we send them money, and the more we pass their crap along on Facebook.
At least (most of) the politicians–and their adjuncts in the various media outlets which act as their propaganda arms–know that the full truth is at best far more complex, and too often, completely the opposite of what is being stated. They lie for the power it brings them, and they like the fact that it pits normal folk against each other by labelling half of them as enemies. It’s called “energizing the base”. J.A. Schumpeter put it best when he famously stated, “The first thing a man will do for his ideals is lie.”
But for the “civilians” who are not professional members of a political party, advocacy group, or media outlet, we’re far too uncritical when we pass along things that we’re told are true by these same outfits. We trust that the media have actually vetted the facts, so we’re outraged by the insensitivity of friends who might have managed to get a different part of the story in our increasingly partisan and one-sided media culture.
Too often, when friends say something we disagree with, we don’t ask, “What makes them say that? Have they heard a version of the story we haven’t?” but instead assume that however well we thought we knew them all these years, they must have secretly been, “one of THOSE folks” who are ignorant/evil/racist/homophobic/etc. all along. In a worst case, friendships of years have been dismissed in an instant over opinions on some political talking point. More frequently, folks simply “tribe up” with similar-minded folks and repeat each other’s never-questioned viewpoints, or learn to shut up and not say anything at all. In all of these cases, the politicians win, and normal people lose.
We shouldn’t play their game. If you hear a fact that’s “too good to check”, ask yourself how the other side would argue their point of view. In today’s world, even major media outlets will monolithically present only one side of a story, and much of what we “know” about a side’s point of view comes not from listening to that side, but by listening to what ideological opponents of that side say their point of view is.
As an example, ask a Tea Partier what he cares about, and you’ll hear a lot of talk about controlling government spending and adherence to constitutional law; Ask a member of far left what Tea Partiers stand for and you’ll hear a lot of talk about hating blacks and poor people. Similarly, ask a Democrat what they care about, and you’ll hear talk about empowering the underprivileged and controlling the abuses of business; ask a member of the far right what Democrats care about, and you’ll hear about class warfare, taxation, and using the power of government to reward special interest groups. When the news media you listen to report only stories which sound exactly like the talking points of the people standing against one group or another, you’re not likely being fed a straight story.
Over time, you’ll amass countless “facts” put out by these same media which support the narrative, and if you never do the legwork to authenticate them with either original source material or the statements of the other side, you’ll find yourself hitting the “Unfriend” button the next time an acquaintance with a different view on plastic bag bans voices a concern, since only a monster could not want to ban plastic bands when you know that a gigantic mass of plastic bags the size of Bulgaria is killing the whales After all, the Surfrider foundation had that heartrending animation of the whale beaching itself on the floating refuse island, and you’ve heard numerous media outlets confidently report that we’ll destroy everything if we don’t “Ban the Bag”. The same outlets never take down the whale animation after the scientist behind the “100 million tons of plastic garbage in a giant floating island” theory later recants and revises his estimates down to something more like 7,000 tons…oh, and it seems the sun was breaking that up into tiny particles, much the same way it disintegrates any plastic toy left out on my back deck for a couple of summers.
My latest wade into the treacherous waters FaceBook politics ended on a happier note than some. Cooler heads kept the conversation respectful, although it was clear that our worldviews–shaped by the media we’d been fed–couldn’t have been more different. And although politicians and their media counterparts seem to exist to tear people apart, I’m reminded that there are still things: family, kids, or a shared love of Rush albums–which bring us together–even when the same folks would normally be on the opposite side of the latest political meme-war.
Politicians are evil bastards. We should always be willing to stand up for what we believe, but we lose our humanity when we let ourselves be so easily manipulated by people whose job routinely involves playing games with the facts to gain power.