My dearest reader, a recent study by the Centre for Studies Created So People Can Win Pointless Internet Arguments, has revealed that internet essays that open with the words “I read in a recent Facebook post…” are horrid, unreadable and ultimately injurious to one’s mental equilibrium. The world has sorrow and stress enough without adding to it stories of homophobia, violence, irrational book banning and yet another attempt to reboot Charlie’s Angels. But I know you’ll forgive me if I risk it because what I have to say may well rock the foundations of our society, and give those of you who read my words each day some food for thought, or at least, something to skim while engaging in what Lord Byron would have called your, “daily supplication at the shrine of Cloaca, goddess of the bowel.”
I read in a recent Facebook post that someone from the vegan community (a friend of a friend) had pondered whether a balanced viewpoint had somehow become “boring.” The correspondent was lamenting the fact that the majority of people in the movement had begun leaning to more “extreme” views, such as “oils are poison” and “protein is totally irrelevant,” while she had attempted to take a more balanced view, using science and common sense to dictate her decisions and responses.
I should point out at this point that I am not myself vegan, nor am I intimately knowledgable of the issues within that community. I have my own opinions about veganism, but they apply only to myself and my own life. Presenting them here would be gauche, injudicious and not germane to the point I’m trying to make.
The Facebook commentator posited the idea that her “voice” within the community seemed amplified only when she shared more extreme, radical beliefs, and as a result her audience was larger.
This concept is both intriguing, and it must be said, quite worrying. I myself have noticed a general increase in more extreme views on a variety of subjects – not just online, but in all areas of society, from the media (more on that in a moment) to our everyday interactions.
For example, in politics, parties are now either left- or right-wing. Any party that attempts to lean toward the centre are criticized for abandoning their base electorate. “Centrist” has almost become a four-letter word. Social issues are even more polarizing. We’ve reached a point where everyone is either pro-this or anti-that – there’s no middle ground. Any suggestion of working together for a compromise is seen as waffling, and often gets buried under the vitriolic ululations of intransigent firebrands in the extreme camps.
The media certainly has a hand in this. Most news outlets these days are only interested in people with extreme views, mainly because it’s more polarizing for viewers, and therefore better for ratings. Newspapers have known this for years, and have used it to great effect. Sex may sell, but righteous anger sells better, and lasts even longer.
Social media must also be mentioned here, though possibly not for the reasons you’re thinking. I don’t believe – as some have argued – that the relative anonymity of the internet and social media makes people more extreme. Rather, I would submit that giving so many people a voice they never had before simply reveals opinions that always existed, but were never voiced on such a global scale. And scale is the point here.
Consider this example: If you tried to compare the crime rates of a city of 100,000 people (St. John’s, Newfoundland) and one of 2,600,000 (Toronto, Ontario) it would appear that, all other things being equal, Toronto has a much higher crime rate. However this would be an unfair comparison. When you scale up the population, nearly everything scales with it.
Social media does not necessarily create opinion – at least, not as much as people think – it simply gives voices to those who did not have them before.
The writer I was discussing earlier – before I so rudely and inelegantly shanghaied you into a digression – stated that she did not believe extremism was the way to promote ideas, and on that point at least, I agree wholeheartedly. Treating every issue as black and white is simply not viable, no matter how simplistic it may seem to us at the time.
The process of making one’s voice heard, whether through organized and peaceful protests or through any other medium is a powerful and necessary force for social change. However, howling vehemently at each other like banshees from either side of an issue lacks eloquence, shows a disregard for considered thought and ultimately accomplishes nothing, especially when there are those in the middle who are willing to try and solve it.
A debate is a thoughtful, intellectual process, not a war of attrition.
If we’re determined to have every issue descend into a vitriolic war of words and extreme, intransigent viewpoints, then at best, the “winner” will end up ruling over nothing but a kingdom of ashes.
Perhaps, in the end, that’s exactly what we wanted.