When this blog was first suggested to me it was made clear that in order to build an audience I would have to become active on social media. That thought was not particularly tempting. I didn’t really know all that much about it and didn’t have an overwhelming desire to find out what I was missing. I am not a full membership cranky old pain in the ass yet but that’s what the trend line indicates is in my not too distant future. Keeping in touch with “friends” on Facebook seemed odd to me. The few friendships I have are, I feel, best tended to with actual human-style conversation. I don’t care about what somebody’s cat is doing. I definitely don’t need to see a picture of whatever it is that you’re eating. Of all the things that non-plussed me regarding the expanding universe of electronic talk, by far the least interesting to me was the concept of expressing myself in a meaningful way using a pre-set number of characters. After doing my (pathetic) best to adapt to this new world that I’ve been thrust into, I have found one silver lining. Twitter may not lend itself to carefully crafted expression or thoughtful analysis but it is a wonderful platform for embracing my inner smartass. Cracking wise is, it turns out, even more fun when the potential audience numbers in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands. That being said the remainder of my trepidation has been validated. And then some. Working almost exclusively from a place of humor I have gained a small number (80-ish) of followers, most of whom seem to have some pretty strong feelings about the headline events of the day. To be fair about a half dozen or so of these folks seem to operate the way I do. It is not surprising to me that the majority of them are employed as either comedy writers or stand-up comics. It’s not that they don’t have political leanings but getting a laugh comes first, and targets are selected on a bi-partisan basis. The majority of the rest are much more biased, in one direction or the other. A few manage to make a point without drowning in vitriol but most of what I read is reflexive in its approach; some of it is disturbing. This is not a positional issue. Because I’m as apt to mock one side of the aisle as the other, I have strong representation from the Che tee shirt crowd as well as the more predictable conservative voices. The level of anger involved is troubling. The frustration it would seem to be predicated on is sad and troubling as well. As best as I can tell there are a lot of people in this world who are convinced that people who don’t share their worldview are A) morally/ intellectually bankrupt, B) incapable of seeing any stance except their own as legitimate. Twitter didn’t create any of this, but it does provide a perfect vehicle for the odd blending of virtual community and actual isolation which so very effectively reinforces the cycle of perceived victimhood and righteous indignation that seems to be the de rigueur emotional state of many of the platforms most dedicated users. Some of this stuff is cogent, if almost comically strident. Some of it requires something of a leap on the part of the co-respondent. Way too much of it brings to mind Bart and Millhouse engaged in a spirited debate over whether or not the saucer men have taken over Springfield. There is just something inherently bizarre about treating serious subjects with a syntax and tone that reads like an Ed Wood first draft. Which brings us, as all things do, to the never controversial subjects of reproductive choice and the second amendment.
Speaking only from my own perspective, I’d have to say that right now the vast majority of what I see tweeted concerns guns or abortion. Frequently an avowed supporter of one side will at some point take the opportunity to leverage some objection to their perspective into a wholesale condemnation of the other “team”. If you are voicing concerns over school safety in terms that manifest themselves in the form of some sort of gun control, it is highly likely that at some point a second amendment advocate is going to make some assumptions about your take on Roe v Wade and want to know why you don’t feel the unborn deserve to be protected as well. If you’ve been a taking a line which indicates that you believe citizens have the right to choose how to best secure their own safety there is no possibility that someone with a NARAL friendly outlook will not decide that they know all there is to know about you and take the opportunity to lecture you on your hypocrisy in refusing the same level of autonomy to a woman’s reproductive rights. This sort of thing is no less predictable than the sun rise. It’s also remarkably damaging to us on the whole and almost perfect in its capacity for self sustenance. Being both pro choice and in favor of responsible gun ownership I find myself in an unusual spot. Sorting through the avalanche of conspiracy theories, character assassination, and incendiary ranting that comprises most of my Twitter feed is a daunting chore for me, and I only devote a few minutes to it, a few times a day. I can not imagine the insidious, toxifying nature of this setting if you’re at it for hours on end, as so many of its habitues seem to be. Only a technological marvel like the internet could possibly be so efficient at providing a virtually endless number of people the means and opportunity to simultaneously convince themselves that the world has conspired against them on a personal level and that they are part of an unnamed army in an undeclared war against those very same conspirators. It’s the apotheosis of adolescent drama. I am alone in a universe that means to harm me. I am part of a growing movement that will prevail over the injustices that have been heaped upon us. It usually takes an angst ridden sixteen year old to manage that kind of Orwellian cognition.
As deprecating as I can be concerning all of this I can also relate to a lot of the gut level fear and resentment that is either blatantly expressed or barely contained in all those 140 characters or less missives that I try and Evelyn Wood my way through on a daily basis. When I take a moment to read a thread from start to finish the emotional content is pretty consistent, regardless of the subject or bias of the participants. Most of what is there is reflective of a populace that feels abandoned, dismissed and betrayed. Late as I am to the game it’s no wonder to me that our political climate is now largely one of competitive populist camps. Between the restrictive nature of the rules of expression and the anonymity of the exchanges it would be remarkable if the majority of interactions didn’t descend into mindless piling on and/or middle school invective. I can’t see how all that is supposed to add up to a single positive change, no less the grand problem solving nexus that so many of the participants would appear to be hoping for. Still I get it. Being maligned by a person or group of persons that don’t know you or even necessarily have an accurate grasp of the facts at hand (a conversation for another time) is not a pacifying experience. The desire to hit back is wholly human. Having a ready made phalanx of thousands of eyes and ears is too sweet an offer to turn down.
Is there any way out of this mess? Well, maybe. My first thought would be for us to try and find our way back to a little more long form expression. Writing and reading. You know, books and the like. I think the discipline that it takes to write or read for a half an hour a day would probably help one to cut back on the venting and take a little more pleasure in a well thought out piece of persuasive communication, instead of just celebrating the primal joy of getting off a really good burn. No accidental irony here. I’m as guilty as anybody on some levels. My second idea is really more of a remembrance and subsequent reflection. As I wrote this piece I found myself recalling a conversation I had years ago, with my friend Sam. I used to see Sam 3-4 mornings a week at the gym. Over time we ended up on adjoining bicycles, pedaling away and chatting while we went. He’s a few years older than I am but we grew up within two miles of each other in Brooklyn and had more than a few areas of overlap. He was, and still is, the wisest man I know. Not because we found ourselves in agreement all the time. Truth is, that although we had much in common we also had large discrepancies in the way we saw many issues of the day. I don’t know that we ever had a conversation that didn’t have a disagreement or two. But we never had what I could even whimsically refer to as a real argument, no less a fight. Sadly, Sam moved a while back. We’re still in touch by phone (imagine that). Thinking of him now I believe our friendship avoided any genuine rancor because we found a way to take opposing viewpoints without feeling like we had to kill the other guy. Part of that is not demonizing somebody just because you don’t share a perspective. That’s an obvious and much discussed quality common to people that are trying to keep things amicable, regardless of the specifics of the given relationship. I still recall a debate we had one morning with regards to the right to bear arms which I think illustrates a more subtle variation on that theme. As I mentioned above I’m a supporter of the right to own a weapon. Sam is not. His attitude is that without a valid reason no private citizen should be allowed to possess a firearm, and that changing the constitution was an amendment worth fighting for. For me, the distinct phrasing of his statement is important. Sam didn’t just want some reasonable regulation on the usage and sales of weapons. He wanted it over. Period. But he didn’t pretend that it wasn’t the law of the land. He acknowledged what it would take to change that and in doing so tacitly venerated the process involved. I can’t help but think that so much of the worst of what I see on Twitter, particularly about, but not restricted to guns and abortion might be a little less bilious if one side or the other would remember that there is a process; one which is at the center of what we are as a nation. There are voices out there that work this way. If you start from a progressive place making a habit of reading Nicholas Kristof’s work in the NY Times would be a good investment. If you have a more conservative bend see what it looks like when Peggy Noonan (Wall Street Journal) goes to work. I read them both. There are others, you just have to search a little. It probably wouldn’t hurt if you were lucky enough to have Sam in your life. You know, I really miss that guy.