By Emily Provance
In June, I did an experiment.
I had noticed that my Facebook feed was overwhelmingly political. It used to be filled with photographs of kittens and updates about people’s babies, but now, it was nothing but news article after meme after angry exclamatory statement. Moreover, it was all from one particular point of view, like an echo chamber — a really, really loud one.
And I knew I had friends, some of them very good friends, who were not in agreement with this point of view. Where had they gone? Why had they disappeared from my feed?
So I started using the ‘hide this’ button, which can be found in the upper right hand corner of posts. I wanted to teach Facebook to give me less of the same people over and over and more from people I wasn’t hearing from.
It didn’t work. I saw no change in content.
So I tried harder. I went into my friends list to find people that I loved but knew I had disagreements with. I marked them as friends that I wanted to ‘view first.’ And then, one by one, I snoozed friends that I heard from often, even those most beloved to me. (To “snooze,” on Facebook, is to eliminate a person’s posts from your feed for thirty days.) I was trying to uncover what was hidden.
It didn’t work. I saw fewer posts. I did discover more photos of kittens and updates about people’s babies. But Facebook steadfastly refused to show me posts from people I disagreed with. It has learned that I do not respond furiously in the comments, swearing in all caps, and from that it assumes that I don’t want to hear an opposing viewpoint. Because the only reason I could possibly want to see something I disagreed with is because I want to fight about it. Right?
I watched a lecture once as part of an online course, from a German sociologist who studied extremism. I wish I could remember his name. He talked about how, in times of insecurity, when people are afraid, we’re drawn to extremism.
He explained that we need a certain amount of identity — think of it, he said, as collecting identity points — at all times in order to feel secure. For example — I’m a New Yorker, a Quaker, a woman, a minister, a person who loves showtunes, and a teacher. I get a certain number of identity points from each of these things. The more distinct an identity is, and the more important it is to me, the more “points” I feel like I get from that identity. I get more identity points from being a New Yorker than from being a woman because it’s both more specific and more important to me. To be clear, this is all an internal experience. No one’s tracking these points except me, and I’m doing it mostly unconsciously.
If one of my identities is threatened in some way, that’s inherently destabilizing, and it’s even more destabilizing if I only have a couple of identities to lean on — putting all of my eggs (points) in one basket, so to speak. In times of societal instability, all of our identities might be threatened simultaneously. Therefore, we become desperate for more identity points. And the more specific an identity can be — obvious rules, simple message, clear insiders and outsiders — the more points it gives.
That’s why, in times of social instability, many people are drawn to extremism.
I’m not a political extremist. I believe that a lot of things are complex. This doesn’t mean I don’t believe in right and wrong; it just means I don’t think right and wrong can be reduced to a meme.
What I’m finding is that society seems to be structuring itself in such a way that more and more people are clinging to one extremist orthodoxy or another, rejecting anybody who isn’t fully in line with that point of view. This is a natural psychological phenomenon in times of uncertainty, and it’s encouraged by a number of non-human elements in our society, including social media. (If I were writing a whole book, this is where I’d talk about mathematical algorithms.)
This is the message that’s getting drowned out today: “Please, let’s listen to one another. Let’s talk, for real. Let’s try to understand.” I find that intimidating to say because the backlash is so often harsh: if you’re not fully with us, you’re obviously against us — and not worth talking to. Does that ever happen to you?
It’s just that I’ve lived with and alongside so many people: rural and suburban and urban, east coast and midwest and south, religious fundamentalists and religious liberals and in-betweens and none-of-the-aboves. Almost all of these people are worth talking to. Almost none of them are just bad.
This would all be toothless and come across as “good people on both sides,” to quote recent events, if I didn’t also say here something else that’s true: I believe the ascendancy of President Donald Trump is the most frightening thing that’s happened in the United States in my lifetime. Many of his actions as president have been dangerous, immoral, manipulative, and not in the best interests of the whole of the people of the United States. I am deeply concerned that he will, in the course of the upcoming election, seek to find ways to hold onto power, for his personal benefit, at the expense of our democracy. I see evidence that this is likely, particularly in studying historical patterns of dictatorship.
This does not make me an extremist. It does not make me a radical liberal. It does not even make me anti-Republican, if we’re talking about the Republican party as it has existed for most of my lifetime — and many Republicans have said the same.
Why am I talking about this at all? Up to now, I’ve been careful to modulate what I say on this topic and where — because I have beloved friends from all over this country and all over this world, some of whom are in disagreement with me about my view on President Trump, others of whom will be dismayed that I haven’t taken a stronger anti-conservative stance.
But to believe in complexity is not the same as committing to moral relativism. To trust in the fundamental goodness of people does not require we pretend that no one ever betrays that trust. And to commit to relationship and cooperation across differences cannot require us to be silent when we differ — or what’s the point?
Friends, I testify that if we are to “live in the virtue of that life and power that [takes] away the occasion of all wars . . . [and] come into the covenant of Peace which [is] before all war and strife,” this means sitting down to dinner with those we think of as sinners, as Jesus did, and it means driving out evil, as Jesus did, and these are not mutually exclusive.
To do this will be incredibly hard. We are living in a time when things move fast, when memes and bumper stickers are hugely effective because we’re all so scared, because we’re all tempted to extremism. It is more efficient to speak in sound bytes. To do so is often a winning strategy.
Is it even possible to stand up and say NO to what must be said no to — and to still, in the same breath, remain committed to engaging with our fellow humans, listening deeply, knowing one another in that which is eternal? To speak up and act with integrity and also to avoid the lure of extremism, with its obvious rules, simple message, and clear insiders and outsiders?
I hope so. Please, God, make it possible.