If we are serious about giving peace a chance, we’ve really got to stop beating each other up in the social and political space!
And Cancellation is just digitised bear baiting!
Welcome To Social Media 2022
Words today speak louder than actions. Sticks and stones still break our bones, but the idea that words can’t hurt us has been proved false!
People are hurt by words and online are picking up sticks and stones, in the form of hounding those whom they feel are transgressing out of their livelihoods.
No-one, not even Lewis Carroll, saw identity politics coming, and the impact of the psychosocial intolerance between individuals and on-line social media warriors.
It’s all too easy to feel under siege by a constant online onslaught and the volatility, uncertainty, and confusion this throws-up, flattens our purpose, zaps our sap, and eats away at our compassion, to leave us with a “compassion deficit.”
And meanwhile this cycle in these very public spaces grinds on: Wash. Rinse. Repeat!
First Then A Note To Self
“Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves.” Eric Hoffer
And we need to understand three things:
- Choices are not binary
- Nature abhors a vacuum; &
- We are hardwired with bias.
I will return to unpack these three things at the end of this piece, but it’s going to be a rough ride getting there, because with little accountability or risk of punishment online, there has never been a reason to behave in the social media space.
Personal responsibility and blame have seemingly fallen by the wayside, and we are now living in a Greek Tragedy. But should we be surprised?
Equipped with a smartphone, we have become the centre of our universe. Faux celebrities starring in the biopic of our own lives. Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci, we are now all the Greatest Dancers!
Ans as curators of our own existence, we are living through a parallel pandemic of narcissism, creating a humungous existential angst over identity, and exacerbating cultural divisions.
Yet courtesy isn’t, nor should ever be an optional extra; it’s the mortar of civilisation.
Civil society emerged from the inculcation of codes of civility between opposing tribes and later, political classes, who encouraged debate and permitted the sharing of opinions.
Courtesy creates good faith in relationships, strengthens social bonds and historically encouraged and allowed the establishment of guilds, associations, and political networks.
So, How Did We Get Here?
If you had joined Twitter in 2007, you would have found a site that was built around harmless fun. Full of jokes and silliness, with lots of stuff like, ‘Replace a word in a film title with the name of a cheese’. Want to play?
A decade later it had become a tense, divisive moonscape, patrolled by very angry social warriors ready to jump on any stray comment.
And now, the social media equivalent of la passiggiata takes place, but without the polite observance, decorum, or respect for convention, or place. Creating what the enlightenment philosopher Thomas Hobbes would have labelled “nasty & brutish”.
It’s an unregulated wild west, with messages of up to 280 characters in length, being posted not just by individuals, but also by adherents of different factions, and tribes.
Psychologists tend to agree that we’re drawn to people who most closely represent a type aligned to our tribe or group. The Twitter model amplifies this, acting as the ultimate tribal echo chamber.
In a vacuum created by Twitterisation, users become segmented into smaller & smaller sub-divisions as they collocate around an identity and associated beliefs, which become a prerequisite for thriving online as everything you believe in your tribe must be believed stridently, broadcast widely.
And your allegiance to your ideology be all encompassing!
At the same time online discourse has become gamified, by giving immediate and quantified evaluations of conversational transactions.
Communication is scored, and if a nasty or aggressive tweet is shared and liked more the reward instinct is triggered.
So, if we’re inclined we will tweet more of the same, putting more and more words of moral outrage into a tweet to give it greater impact, traction, and influence.
It is the concept of social proof made flesh, and woe betide if we find ourselves in a tribe that is on the wrong side of any virtuous signalling from the Hashtag – #BeKindBrigade!
Negative emotions and negative news spread faster than their positive counterparts, and a 24-hour blitzkrieg of current affairs from multiple media channels, purposefully use a business model designed to keep us glued to their websites with clickbait headlines that can make us fear both for our safety and our sanity.
And this catastrophising language can become highly addictive as it leads us to check our smartphones and other smart devices multiple times a day, jumping from story to story.
So, a sanity-saving tip:Always read at least as far as the third paragraph of any story!
Shame & Sharing
“Networked Shame” is the potent brew created by what takes place on social media.
We witness the machine learning algorithms of Facebook, Google et al continually optimising to spur conflict. These sophisticated algorithms drive traffic and advertising to create enormous profits, and it’s nothing less than the gamifying of human suffering as a route to shareholder value.
Meanwhile, the by-product is a toxic flow of put-downs, ridicule, or even worse – Cancellation!!
On a superficial level cancel culture might be thought a way to castigate those we are ideologically at odds with. However, in practice it is digitised bear baiting, and the algorithms increasingly reward us for hating and demonising one another, while also giving succour to this culture and distorting our perception of what constitutes reality, fact, and good behaviour!
“Almost everywhere we turn, trust is on the decline. Trust in our culture at large, in our institutions, and in our companies is significantly lower than a generation ago” Stephen Richards Covey
Covey originally wrote this over fifteen years ago, in fact almost a year before the first Apple iPhone was launched in 2007.
And things have been steadily going south ever since, as social media has weakened three major forces that collectively unify and bind us:
- Social capital i.e., extensive social networks with high levels of trust
- Strong institutions, &
- Shared stories.
Because as human beings it is in our DNA to be sense makers and story tellers, and what are we if not the stories we tell ourselves and others, and the meaning this gives. Social media however has turned it all on its head.
So, if we talk straight this needs to be balanced by demonstrating respect. If we right perceived and actual wrongs we should do so with humility. And If we challenge reality we must be crystal clear what our intention is.
Who now practices the art of really listening? Where resides personal and public accountability?
To paraphrase Covey, the best leaders recognise that trust impacts us 24/7, 365 days a year. It underpins and affects the quality of every relationship, every communication, every work project, every business venture, every effort in which we are engaged. It changes the quality of every present moment and alters the trajectory and outcome of every future moment of our lives—both personally and professionally!
“Every new child is nature’s chance to correct culture’s error.” Ted Hughes
The road to ruin is as ever paved with good intentions, and in all honesty can the truth survive in this ‘Age of sharing and shaming’ ?
The act of sharing is no longer “other-directed” i.e., determined by giving a portion of something to someone else, it has become “inner-directed” i.e., focussed on one’s own thoughts, feelings, and experiences – #MyTruth!
In a time where there has never been so much information, it feels that many of us are no longer acting in good faith.
Is this a communal visceral response to the complexity, confusion, commotion, and upheaval we are experiencing, which has been exacerbated by a pandemic, and a prolonged period of hyper-change and perma-crisis?
I believe our online behaviour is coarsened by 24/7 rolling news cycles, clickbait headlines and catastrophising language, fact presented as fiction, and fiction presented as fact, half-truths, and post truth!
The legendary Hollywood film producer Robert Evans, famously said,
“There are three sides to every story — Your side, My side, & the Truth!”
I think it remains true that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
Intelligence is knowing what to say and do. Wisdom is knowing when to say and do it.
And wisdom starts when we begin to call things by their proper name.
We must be bold and gain some objective distance — Some understanding — Reset our filters, strengthen our impartiality, separate truth from fiction, and call out what we recognise as faction — Because a canard is waiting for us at every turn!
Funnily enough we may talk an awful lot about stuff, but rarely do we think about it.
We now live in a world where social media ensures we are constantly interacting with things put forward as facts in a perpetual running dialogue.
The whole notion of what truth is has decayed and become infected by a cultural shift that suggests that emotion trumps reason and that social media ‘truths’ are more powerful than objective truth.
So, What To Do?
In today’s world we need at the very least to understand these three things:
- Choices Are Not Binary: The word binary is increasingly used to describe the choices we need to make & the positions we should take — Either it’s this or it’s that — More and more this is how things are framed and presented to us, day-in and day-out, forcing us to take a side, make a choice — But life is not that simple & perhaps balance and truth have become its casualties and we’ve unlearned how to be critical, to weigh things and to evaluate what’s before us? We live in a Volatile Uncertain Complex Ambiguous world, things cannot be certain — So, let go of that binary mindset and free yourself from those mental chains that bind you.
- Nature Abhors A Vacuum: Life and all that happens can feel like a great mystery — Beneath our world of seemingly fixed objects is uncertainty and we know this because Quantum Theory reveals how elementary particles and waves continually appear, then disappear — It’s impossible to predict or know with any certainty so many things in a world that Greg Bear describes in his book, ‘The Infinity Concerto’ as, “All waves, with nothing waving, over no distance” — But as nature abhors a vacuum, human nature abhors uncertainty — We want answers and we want them now! — Without them we feel uncomfortable, ill at ease — But of course, there are far more questions than answers and we bide in that tension between the unknown and the unanswered — The American Astronomer & author, Carl Sagan, wrote, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself” — Or, bringing it closer to home, perhaps we are as the Portuguese poet Fernando Pesso suggested driven to, ‘Uncover the others”, in ourselves” — So, learn and allow yourself to trust your elemental self — Your brain, Your instincts, Your truth; &
- Know Your Bias: “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow as night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3 — With all the negative news and negative emotions coursing through the arteries of social media, we can so easily get a biased view of a world that is more negative or hostile than it really is, activating our biological fight or flight response and increasing aggression – So, accept that you have a limited perception, but also accept and understand that so does everyone and everything else, including the multiple sources you look to for reliable information, news and facts — Accept that perception and reality aren’t the same thing — And then Embrace your beautiful imperfection — Those Golden Cracks which are the result of the beautiful mess effect that is a life lived — We are all works in progress, as well as being the sum of our nature, nurture and experiences combined — And choice is a gift we give ourselves which can be truly liberating — So choose not to accept everything at face value — Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable — & get to know your bias.
And then together we can,
“Build cathedrals with columns and arches to the stars, letting all light and hope shine within and without, to be of benefit for all.” (Anon)