“My lips are moving and the sound’s coming out
The words are audible but I have my doubts
That you realize what has been said
You look at me as if you’re in a daze
It’s like the feeling at the end of the page
When you realize you don’t know what you just read.”
— Missing Persons, “Words”
For the past year or so, my partner has been begging me to limit my Facebook posts to family photos and recipes. Long before The Social Dilemma blew the whistle on twisted algorithms that addict us to screens and draw us into online battles, she was warning that "sharing" my thoughts and opinions wasn't leading to a productive dialogue; it was just triggering people.
I ignored her, of course, because it didn’t bother me that I don’t always see eye to eye with people. I love a spirited debate (it’s one aspect of being a lawyer that I actually embrace). Plus, there was some part of me that hoped I was planting seeds in minds that might sprout later, under the right conditions.
I now realize my partner was right. But the problem isn't just on social media; these days it’s not safe to share thoughts that go against the grain — with anyone, anywhere.
Since the election, I’ve faced intense backlash for voicing my opinions. When I’ve questioned why the media isn’t probing deeper into the security protocols of private equity companies that manufacture voting machines, I’m accused of spreading dangerous “misinformation.” When I’ve argued that all Trump supporters can’t possibly be white supremacists, I’m indicted for enabling racism. I'm frequently dismissed as a conspiracy theorist, and I’ve even been admonished for supporting terrorism in vaguely defined ways.
What’s crazy is that the people attacking me aren’t random strangers; they’re friends, family, and colleagues. People I’ve had long and meaningful relationships for decades are suddenly making disturbing assumptions about me based on my opinions. I've become someone they no longer recognize.
And so I find myself increasingly disconnected from the social network I’ve had all my life. It’s disturbing and incredibly surreal.
I’ve tried to make sense of why this is happening, and I think there are couple of things at play. First, we aren't having conversations anymore in the true sense of the word; a lot of people have simply stopped listening when other people speak. They have little interest in hearing what someone else thinks, and even less interest in trying to appreciate their perspective. They engage others to quickly determine whether they’re on “right” team. If they are, great; if they’re not, they must be convinced to join; and if they can’t be convinced, they must be pulverized — and silenced.
Second, most people aren’t thinking critically about anything anymore; they’re reflexively regurgitating talking points or “facts” they’ve heard or read in the news. They’re even primed to deliver canned responses to “key” words.
Phrases like “elite-controlled” and “election transparency” will trigger responses that include words like “conspiracy theory” and “baseless” (since January 6, “insurrection” and “domestic terrorism” have been added to the list of prepared responses). The responses often have nothing to do what’s been said or written. It’s as if people have simply shut off their brains and taken them offline for use at some future date.
I got a dose of this craziness last week when I posted an article expressing concern that Big Tech was unfairly silencing conservatives after the Capitol siege (for the record, I’m not a Republican; I’m an independent. But I see this as a slippery slope I could easily find myself on at some point).
My Facebook “friends” immediately chimed in, knives sharpened:
“I can’t believe you’re encouraging sedition! People who incite violence are a danger to democracy and MUST be silenced!!”
“I’m not defending people who incite violence,” I wrote. “I’m talking about people who are being censored solely because of their political views.”
“Terrorists have NO right to free speech!! Why is that so hard for you to understand??”
I went through endless exchanges with friends who couldn’t seem to grasp that Big Tech wasn’t just punishing “terrorists”; they were also silencing innocent people.
So I tried to make myself super clear:
“You’re not hearing me. People like Ron Paul have been suspended from Facebook, and all he did was write an op/ed about social media censorship. You don’t see a problem with that?”
Most would ignore or deflect my response, but I did get this from one friend:
“Well, his Facebook account is back up and he’s posting again. I don’t see a problem.”
That’s when it hit me: I was trying to communicate with people who refused to “hear” what I was saying. And it’s impossible to have an intelligent discussion with someone who isn’t listening to what you’re saying.
That’s where we find ourselves now: a nation of people screaming at each other — with our hands over our ears. But why are so many tuning out and merely parroting what they’ve heard or read? That’s a tougher question, but I’ve noticed some common denominators among people who behave this way.
For starters, they’re easily exasperated if their perspective isn’t confirmed by the person they’re engaging (and likely to go ALL CAPS quickly). This often prompts them to take the moral high ground, a defensive posture that redirects focus of the discussion from the substance of the arguments to the “quality” of the person they’re debating: morally suspect people aren’t as intelligent, so anything they say can be readily dismissed. Above all, they’re likely to tie any discussion, on any topic, to an inflammatory or “hot button” issue: racial discrimination, religious discrimination, COVID-19, police brutality, hate crimes, etc. are usually at the top the list.
To be fair, the idea of someone being discriminated against, persecuted, or diagnosed with Coronavirus is likely to trigger an emotional response in any person with an ounce of empathy. But if we’re constantly walking around with these narratives silently playing in the back of our mind — always on the lookout for signs of suffering, injustice, hospitalization or death (or a reason to reflect on these outcomes) — our reptilian brain is perpetually stimulated. We’re locked in a fight-or-flight state, always ready to brawl or scream, and not inclined to use the more rational, logical parts of our brain. In this state, we act less like humans and more like animals (yes, I know technically humans are animals, but we didn’t spend thousands of years inching our way up the evolutionary ladder — fashioning tools and building cities — so we could act like angry chimps).
I’ve also noticed that people who are very engaged with mainstream media — glued to “breaking” snippets on their device and likely to have cable news playing in their living room 24/7 — are the most easily triggered. I uptake as little news as possible these days, just long enough to glean how it might spin the narrative in the future. But I remember the range of emotions I experienced when I was a regular news consumer: Anxiety. Fear. Anger. Hatred. Revenge.
It’s hard to stay “centered” and balanced when these emotions are roiling within us — all the time. And it’s even harder to reach people on the “other” side when we’re in this state. Maybe now that Biden is in office this will all change. Maybe people will become less emotional and start listening to each other again. Maybe we will heal and unite.
But based on what I’ve seen so far, I have my doubts. I suspect the same dynamics that brought us to this place will continue to play out, not matter who is president or controls Congress. I think if we want to change the dynamics, it has to start with each one of us making a decision not to fall into the emotion trap.
What do you think? Would love to hear your thoughts.
Thanks, and be well.