Studies (not to mention common sense) have shown that internet essays that open with the words “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 Scooby Doo. But dear reader, 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.”
In a recent Facebook post, someone from the vegan community (a friend of a friend) pondered whether balance had become boring. The writer was lamenting the fact that the majority of 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 a vegan, nor am I 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 poster posited the idea that her voice within the community seemed amplified when she shared more extreme, radical beliefs, and as a result her audience was larger.
This is concept is both intriguing, and it must be said, 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 is invariably buried under the vitriolic squawks of those entrenched in the extreme camps.
The media certainly has a hand in this. Most news outlets are only interested in people with extreme views, mainly because it’s more polarizing for viewers. Polarized viewers = better 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 reason 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 worse 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 Facebook correspondent I mentioned 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 I agree. Treating every issue as black and white is simply not viable, no matter how simplistic it may seem to us at the time.
The inescapable conclusion is this: Eschewing thoughtful, considered debate in favour of vitriolic displays of outrage is a path that’s all too easy to follow. It’s a way to avoid the challenging and often messy business of creating real solutions.
Shouting vehemently at each other from either side of an issue lacks eloquence, shows a disregard for considered thought, especially when there are those in the middle who are willing to try and solve it. At that point, we become, to paraphrase the Bard himself, “…poor players, strutting and fretting our hour upon the stage, until we are heard no more.”
A debate is a two-way intellectual process, not a war of attrition. Any issue worthy of the name deserves that consideration at least.
If we must engage in displays of sound and fury, then let us at least ensure that it signifies something.