A Meditation on Social Consciousness and the Internet
I know, bla bla bla Internet, bla bla bla democracy. I’ve heard it all too. It’s easy to doubt the glowing talk about connectivity when the reality has gotten pretty tiresome. Progress in life, already full of artificial stressors, has had to reroute itself through yet another technological miracle, and there’s no turning back now.
But, for better or worse, Facebook does make all things equal. Well, it can, depending on your friends list and your likes. But have a look around, check out comments on a political post. Well-thought-out, carefully-edited responses sit between scarcely-intelligible stings of characters and blocks of logical fallacies in which “your” and “you’re” get mixed at random. All may speak, all can air an opinion, degrees of clarity aside. If you can’t afford Internet access, there’s always the library. Go there and see what people are looking at. Facebook on more than one screen.
What was once a shared quirk or peeve that could help start a conversation with a stranger is now a meme, a funny match of pictures and words to click “share” on. Maybe someone you know from high school will have a laugh. Oh, I’m glad his son is okay.
Stepping back, it all ends up looking like the background murmur of a great, collective mind as it goes about the daily task of being human, often grabbing trivia out of the information stream, holding up small notions as highly significant to keep itself from getting bored.
And you know your feed must be real life, because there are ads between posts now, or rather, “sponsored links.” Where you find vital concerns in action, the ongoing drama of life, you’ll also find yourself stopping for commercial breaks. The pursuit of profit has wiggled its way into pauses in conversation, struggling to get ever nearer to the primal spark of life and to mediate it somehow. Possibly, before long, there will be a meter on your metabolism, and you’ll enjoy the freedom in choosing from a multitude of providers vying for market share.
So then… I’m not proud of it, but I may as well just speak plainly: My Facebook feed is my morning paper. The newspaper I talk back to. The phone I hold while sipping coffee isn’t exactly smart, but it’s not quite made of rock or powered by a tiny pterodactyl running on a wheel of sticks and vines. Feeling a little ashamed of my presence in the modern techscape, and perhaps less than eager to support Asian sweatshop owners, I’m content with what I have. The data access is slow, but it’s unlimited, and I get there eventually. Not quite a groundbreaking experiment in the spirit of Thoreau, but considering that I’m just another person trying to get through the day, it’ll do for now. And may God have mercy on my soul.
I admit that there’s something rewarding in having my say, though participating can feel like losing individuality, like being taken up in a great current of human activity. Before long, I have to click “see more comments” to remember what I said before it’s washed away by dozens or hundreds more. Of course, I’ve been called all sorts of names, demonized in puzzlingly inappropriate ways, and I’ve struggled against the temptation to answer in a similar tone. Some prefer to remain aloof, but I don’t see how anyone can learn without trying. Sometimes, a boy skins his knees, but there’s nothing to be afraid of. Humbleness following the realization that you were the foolish one is among the most enriching experiences. No party, certainly, but enriching.
Not everybody is so eager to accept the challenges of diversity though. True liberality, being inclusive, must incorporate something of narrowness, so a friends list is incomplete without at least a few people who work industriously to reinforce their own views. And sometimes, the kids from back home, now grownups though somehow just the same, remind me of what I’ve worked to leave behind.
Yes, I’m one of those Yankees who left New York to ruin Florida, or so the occasional bumper sticker on a pickup truck suggests. Certainly, we in the West have a habit of seeking out paradises and then destroying them, and maybe I’ve participated in the loss of something precious. I don‘t know. I can’t vouch for my own motives in making the move. Maybe I’m just another Gauguin searching for “Peruvian savage” qualities in my face and leaving disease, if only figuratively, as thanks for the hospitality.
I did move from New York to overcome an us-them dichotomy that disturbed me though. In eleventh-grade biology class, I discovered that only people in the South get ringworm, because they live in swamp shacks walk around barefoot in the muck. As stubborn and self-absorbed as I was, nothing could have been more inviting than to explore the wrongness of adults who had failed to serve adequately as authority figures. Let’s call it an offended sense of justice and move on. A mass of flaws is often cast in the role of inspiration or genius to great effect.
Lately, I’ve become more aware of silence from some Northern friends who liked what I posted in the past, and I’ve gotten a gentle reminder or two not to take things so very seriously. It’s one of those subtle impressions that you never really say out loud, but it just won’t go away. So what is it that I’m getting all humorless about?
I’ve been disturbed by growing irrationality in more rural, Red-State environments. Not just the Todd Akins out there, but the average guys posting comments, the individual voters, the Americans living American lives; the people who fear encroachments by Sharia law and suspect that the president is in league with the Muslim Brotherhood, or something equally absurd.
I’ve wondered if the attitude I’ve sensed is like issues of nonexistent WMDs and waterboarding. Let’s not talk about embarrassing things, let’s move on, okay? Don’t look too hard, or you’ll upset yourself. Bury it under a pile of daily worries and funny pictures and videos. But then, friends who may think I’m getting worked up about silly things have also tried on some pretty radical right-wing ideas themselves.
Again, this is not the kind of thing you generally try to bring into daylight, so I’m struggling to make myself understood. Sometimes, there’s a lot more to a fleeting impression than, “Hm, that’s funny.”
There‘s more in it than the winning side of a war enjoying the privilege of poking fun at the losers. Those inbred hicks populating the outlands of the Northern mind are repositories for desired but frowned-on traits, yearnings for greater liberty held at arm’s length by unfavorable generalization. Not only that though. In an overgrown patch of the Northeastern psyche, sitting on a sagging couch in a singlewide, dwell terrible bigots who lost because they wanted slaves. Not only do they drink too much cheap beer and walk around outside in their underwear, they think they’re better than others because they’re white. They don’t mind being uncomfortable about the president, and they’ll say it out loud, letting loose with a big belch as punctuation. It’s okay to laugh at a racist joke in a redneck context, because, after all, they’re poor and ignorant. They’re not like us.
They represent the ethnic privilege that’s seeming more and more like a dream of the past. That’s the good ol’, hard-working America that Bill O’Reilly lamented the loss of after the past election. They’re icons of identity as the group that calls itself white anticipates shrinking to a plurality.
The redneck is the old, Post-Reconstruction, African-American stereotype with a twist. The qualities he represents are forbidden, but they’re also desirable, though nobody wants to admit it outright. Think Larry the Cable Guy. That’s not his real accent, you know. The difference is he plays a stereotype of his own ethnicity. He’s the other, but he’s us, too.
It’s not funny though. The difficulties of people struggling in poor, rural communities are very real, and the inability to get a handle on the situation is not entertaining and secretly admirable when all the tsk-tsking is done. It’s a problem. Poor education, an inability to construct a productive worldview, is not just fun to watch for the privileged any more than a rapper talking of shooting other African-Americans is, delightful though it may be to some white, middle-class males grasping at manhood.
The difference is social consciousness, dirtier than the N-word in some circles. It’s desperately needed among those who see such terms as marks of one of those freedom-hating liberals, but sadly, some on the Left are eager to play a similar game. Those who cultivate a broader perspective have a responsibility neither to hate nor to admire the troubled thinking out of which the Tea Party was born, but to present better options.
In the end, it seems that the Internet can be a medium of endless divisions rather than a great whole. Some users find unique opportunities to expand understanding, while many others set up small distinctions as sturdy walls to keep out a flood of valueless chaos. Either let your awareness float outward into to the breathless vastness of the Internet, or stake out your ground and interpret everything outside as an impending apocalypse. The adventurers’ duty is to bring what they’ve found back for the benefit of others.
I’m not sure I’m going to post a link to this article on Facebook though.
About the Author
Peter Le Zotte has, for reasons ultimately impossible to pin down, been given a voice and the responsibility to use it. The rest is touch-and-go. His only credentials are life’s scars and a dogged belief that there’s more to personal worth than a credit score, that the ideal of the self-made person is still floating around out there somewhere waiting to be grasped.