I don’t particularly think the internet needs another “why I haven’t been writing as much as I intended” post, nor do I want to crash through a catch-up summary of what I’ve been up to in this truly bizarre year. But I can’t help being aware that I have had a number of topics I’ve been really interested in writing about, personally invested in, or just wanted to share, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve been holding back.
If it were just me, I could chalk it up to another phase of reticence and not be terribly bothered about it, but I am seeing the same things in my previously verbose friends shying away and eventually disappearing from social media. And I really do get it – everything is so polarized, politicized, and ugly that it feels silly, if not insultingly trite, to share some personal anecdote or moment that gave you joy when everyone else is publishing multi-paragraph diatribes and aggressively-worded articles confirming their beliefs. Or you worry that people will judge you for being insensitive, self-centered, or oblivious when there is so much important, urgent, and truly serious stuff going on. So many people are going into a hyper-vigilant “pundit mode” of crafting and sharing elaborate takes – or the opposite, silencing ourselves if we don’t have a firm, declarative stance that can be pithily or sardonically worded, preferably in meme form or under 280 characters.
I wrote about this same feeling back in 2017, quoting my father, “This is a lot right now. But we can’t let this be all that there is for us.” There is a level of deeper essential truth I hadn’t fully appreciated at the time he first shared this advice, which has developed in the years since: we are ultimately the ones in charge of “all that there is for us,” but it takes constant, steady effort to work for what we actually want. The default mode is what we’ve got right now, and it will not only never change, but will continue getting noticeably worse if we don’t actively change it for the better. (I promise that will eventually make more sense if you stay with me.)
Where we’re at right now is not an accident that we blundered into. That icky “no-one-cares-about-this” feeling you might have had when you self-censored or held back? That’s been intentionally manufactured and reinforced. The sense that the only things anyone talks about are the incredibly divisive hot-button issues? Those are programmed, served up by algorithms, and intentionally pushed into our minds daily because they have the most engagements and serve someone’s agenda.
Last week I finally watched The Social Dilemma (highly recommend) and was not particularly surprised by the dynamics of how social media works. It is, after all, something I’m studying and learning how to do. But the piece of the puzzle that’s been a bit more hazy in my understanding is the Why of it all. It’s easy enough to understand advertisers using social media to market based on your interests (this is nothing new), and I would be among the people who feels I’m fairly savvy in my awareness that if you aren’t paying for a product, you yourself are that product. But good luck, I think, doing anything meaningful with the dark secrets of how much I love shows about baking or what shoe size I wear. This stuff can’t really be used beyond serving me ads for my demographics, right?
This was where a second level of self-as-product emerged, as Jaron Lanier said:
”It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in our own behavior and perception that is the product.”
I was so stunned I had to pause and sit with that idea for a minute. Governments and intelligence agencies aren’t investing themselves in my Facebook and Twitter activity to help companies sell more sneakers. There is a whole bigger picture going on, and the sense of separation, division, and no longer recognizing people I thought I knew is… exactly what they are trying to accomplish.
It feels like paranoia to discuss this great plot against America where Russian intelligence agencies stoke divisions between us and interfere with our democratic process. Except, it was shown to be a strategy that has been in use since well before 2016 and identified as one of the key factors in that election. “I didn’t vote for him,” I say, “so obviously it didn’t work on me.” Right?
No GRU agent worth her salt would believe that this mostly-vegetarian, pacifist, super liberal feminist constantly reading and posting about antiracism, environmentalism, and human rights could personally be persuaded to embrace alt-right ideology. It’s just never going to be a way that I will think or vote. But there are people in my life who are susceptible to recruiting, whether they are aware of it or not. And by stoking the divisions between us, these people are no longer talking to me – many of them have unfriended me both on Facebook and in real life. I have been saying for years that you should never politicize pandemics or public health issues. Wearing a mask became a polarizing issue, and even acknowledging that the pandemic responsible for almost a quarter million deaths in this country (so far) isn’t a hoax is taken as a criticism of the president. All of this was by design, and the people who don’t agree with me (or believe I will judge them and their actions) have cut me out of their lives. So where we could previously discuss issues, in a context where they could feel heard and respected, and we could explore solutions together, we are now divided and conquered. They are left to the wolves of disinformation campaigns, manipulative echo chambers, and literal radicalization, and I didn’t even realize I was playing right into the long game all along.
Perhaps you’ve had family members post something like, “If you’re voting for [that person], just unfriend me right now,” and it made your blood boil. Or perhaps, post-election, you’ve had friends declare they are getting rid of Facebook and moving over to Parler, where they can “speak freely” without the “censorship” or “shaming” that happens when they speak their minds in more publicly-accessible social media spaces. Perhaps you didn’t even see these posts because these people already left, set up private filters, or unfollowed you ages ago and the algorithms bury their posts from you. Maybe you’re like me, where you get so exhausted with the angry rhetoric (or overwhelmed or sad about current events) that you avoid catching up with people for so long you really do fall out of touch and don’t see what they’re saying until it’s escalated well past anything you could reason with. Eventually it gets easier to just give up, walk way, and let the people most invested in issues or fights take over whole spaces. I really do get it, and I’m not saying you have to discuss every issue with every person posting about it every day. But you are responsible, even in what feels like passive non-action, for the way you treat people and what happens as a result of ignoring or abandoning them. Just like I am.
I believe it is important to look at issues through the lens of benefit. Part of it is the obvious financial benefit, i.e. “follow the money” on who used their resources trying to change your behavior. But beyond money and greed (which is at the root of the vast majority of disagreement) what else are we serving? What behaviors are companies or agencies trying to influence? And how can we regain control and stop them?
In HyperNormalisation, which I truly encourage everyone to watch, the strategy of Russian propaganda agencies was explored, showing how they were funding both sides of controversial issues. I’m going to use a purely hypothetical Issuism, which can stand in for whatever you want. KGB or GRU agents would approach Pro-Issuists and give them funding, free air time or sponsor editorials in magazines or newspapers, appearing to support them, then do the same with Anti-Issuists, literally playing both sides against one another. They would escalate the dialogue and increase division, then just before the election, reveal that whichever side opposed the incoming administration was funded by intelligence agencies, had fake actors on their side giving speeches, ghostwriting for them, and disingenuously expressing some company or oligarch’s interests. Everyone was compromised, so it was a perfect way to delegitimatize the people who really supported the Pro-Issuist or Anti-Issuist causes, as ultimately it wasn’t even Issuism that was at stake. The goal was to cast doubt on the very idea of truth itself, to make everyone suspicious of each others’ real motives, and to create a power vacuum that can only be filled by someone with a loud voice ready to assert authority (qualified or not).
Surely we would have noticed that happening here, right? When seemingly serious media personalities claimed everyone who marched in the Women’s March was a paid agitator, we all laughed, joking, “I didn’t get my check – did you?” But there are people who genuinely believe Black Lives Matter to be a privately-funded force against democracy, or that the cause of antiracism in general is in some way diametrically opposed to police officers and firefighters personally, rather than the systemic racism of policing and for-profit prison systems. When the president of the United States goes on television and declares Antifa to be a real organization that he is authorizing the judicial department to prosecute as domestic terrorists, it can be really hard to remember there really isn’t a homegrown network of anarchists actively working to overthrow the government. We aren’t used to our elected officials lying to us every day, even after years of it, and we aren’t sophisticated enough in carrying cognitive dissonance to be able to discern what’s sort of true (like yes, oil companies do fund climate change and alternative energy research, but that doesn’t mean it’s a hoax or all a money-making scam) from what’s outright fiction (Pizzagate, AOC and Bernie Sanders forming a socialist bloc, or whatever QAnon conspiracy theory your friends and family might have shared lately).
Our discourse has gotten so virulent and divided that we can’t even agree on what news sources are legitimate or not – by design. If you don’t like what the Associated Press or Reuters is saying, then you really won’t like when a cable news network reports it as fact. We indulge in magical thinking all the time: that if we love people hard enough we can keep them safe, that banging pots and pans for hospital workers will boost their morale enough that they won’t get the severe PTSD many are already experiencing, and the very idea that just getting to the end of 2020 will somehow end all the suffering around us. But denying reality doesn’t change it, we know that (or should). So what do we do?
It might take some time for people to accept the results of the 2020 election, and I expect there will be at least four years of people claiming there was voter fraud or Joe Biden was somehow “illegally” elected or whatever. But we also have to face the reality that the end of the current administration is not the end of the damage that’s been done. The people in our lives who chose their politics over their relationships have already done it, and we’ve already let them. It happens all the time over money, infidelity, child custody, whatever – so why not politics too? Humans are amazingly resilient, of necessity, so we can convince ourselves that we’re okay, maybe even better off, without the people we’ve alienated or removed from our lives. And we’ll probably be right, eventually. But is that what we want? Do we want some Russian intelligence agent who will eventually get reassigned to disrupting China’s economy or whatever to have created unsalvageable rifts in our families and society?
In a forthcoming series of posts, I’m going to explore additional dimensions of relational communication, conflict resolution, and strategies for regrouping and reclaiming American culture in the wake of 2020 (I’ll edit this post with links as I add them). I am doing so with the full knowledge that a lot of other people have explored these issues in smarter, more nuanced, better-written, and more entertaining ways. But you are reading this right now, and they might not have reached you, where I did. So that is who and what I am writing for, and I hope we’ll get somewhere meaningful together.