Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Learning To Let Go

In recent years, my opinions of a number of people from my past have changed. The present political climate has stripped away the polite veneer from some old acquaintances to reveal underlying foundations of self-serving, profit-centered, isolationist, or racist beliefs that find their way into conversations that, thanks to the way social media works, are beamed to the devices of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. I've found the removal of this veneer equal parts discouraging, enlightening and instructive.

Before the 2016 election, back when I believed the morally untenable antics of the winning candidate were merely a means to the end of getting elected, I found it interesting to learn how many people I once believed reasonable were eager to overlook or defend all the hate-fueled rhetoric. 

He just curled up his hand and changed his voice to imitate a crippled reporter who criticized him? "No, you're just twisting what he did and said to make it seem worse than it was." 

He just called all Mexican's murderers and rapists? "Well, some of them are." 

He just called for a ban on all Muslim immigrants and a registry of existing Muslims in the United States? "Who cares? Muslims are all violent terrorists anyway." 

I'm not naive enough to believe that people who look like me and grew up in households like mine all think the way I think, but I suppose I was naive enough to believe reasonable people should be able to spot a disingenuous argument and call out the perpetrator instead of being sucked in by him. Any time I hear someone trying to whip me into a panic, my first reaction is to wonder how my panic benefits that person. A politician telling me I should fear an entire culture has an agenda. Some people were eager to buy into that agenda without seriously considering the ridiculous degree of hyperbole because it tapped into bigotry and fear that already existed inside them. As a child in school learning history, I saw little difference between Nazi sympathizers who targeted Jews in pre-WWII Germany and Americans who targeted people of Japanese descent during WWII. I feel the same way about modern-day Americans who justify tearing children away from their parents at the Mexican border, or aggressively accosting people in public places for speaking different languages. We should be seeking our better angels, not feeding our inner demons.

As online incivility has risen to fever pitch, I've found myself growing more and more comfortable with the idea of disconnecting from people on social media -- not because they disagree with my viewpoints, but rather because of their inability to remain civil during the course of a disagreement. It starts with seemingly normal discourse until small barbs like "snowflake" or "libtard" get tossed about. Just jokes, right? Don't be so sensitive. But as you persist in trying to present a meaningful argument with facts or opinion supported by facts, things get downright nasty. When facts become too pesky, the argument shifts until you're drawn down a rabbit hole of ridiculous conspiracies and personal attacks.

Sometimes it isn't the "friend" with whom you're arguing who is the problem. Other people jump in, frequently with a level of vitriol wildly disproportionate to the discussion. An interesting pattern has developed in these instances. The "friend" with whom I was initially conversing will send a private message apologizing for the behavior of their online buddies while never publicly doing anything to temper the discourse. The natural assumption is the "friend" either agrees with the abusive behavior or is too cowardly to say anything.

By my way of thinking, inviting people to be my "friends" on social media is similar to inviting them into my home. You don't have to kiss my ass just because I've opened my door to you, but you shouldn't kick it, either. If you don't know how to behave I'll gladly push you out and lock the door behind you. Even if you do know how to behave, constantly bringing with you an entourage of people who are rude and abusive is enough reason to show you the door, as well. The end result is a minimizing of my friend base on platforms like Twitter and Facebook that I previously lamented but now welcome. More and more, watching the interactions of people on social media seems to me a variation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, only instead of watching the evils of the world affect my own portrait I'm watching in real time as people I once liked, or even loved, grow twisted and gnarled.

I believe there is a reason we fall away from each other throughout the course of our lives. The circumstances that once forged a camaraderie are changed over time. We follow divergent paths away from a common point until the people we become are unrecognizable to the people we were. If we're fortunate, paths cross again and the past repeats itself in meaningful and rewarding ways. Unfortunately, that's more the exception than the rule, and I've come to realize the pleasantry of keeping the past where it belongs.

2018 Mark Feggeler