That really bad thing happened and social media lit up like an ugly Christmas sweater.
By not specifying what really bad thing happened, this little essay will remain an evergreen, a piece that I can trot out when the next really bad thing happens — or the one after that, or the one after that. The sad truth is that really bad things are happening all of the time. What varies is whether we notice them.
When we do, we react. Really bad things polarize us, push us back into the safety of our preferred worldviews. Nothing closes minds faster than the really bad thing. And because we live our lives aloud on social media now, that’s where we scream our panic: What is wrong with you idiots? Don’t you get it? The really bad thing proves that my worldview is the only right worldview! More and more frequently, this is followed by the kicker: And if you don’t like it, you can unfollow me.
I caught myself this week taking many up on that offer in the wake of the really bad thing. I didn’t want to hear their bigoted, malformed opinions, nor did I want to see the really bad thing exploited to forward an agenda; after all, the whole reason that the really bad thing happened was that one group was trying to forward their agenda. (Note: In the event that a violent group or person wasn’t responsible for the really bad thing when I repost this in the wake of the next really bad thing, feel free to substitute force majeure or whatever seems appropriate.)
We live in an on-demand world now, where we can choose exactly what music and movies we want to enjoy and when. The days of terrestrial radio force feeding us a collective REO Speedwagon experience are gone. With seemingly infinite television “channels” (think Hulu, Netflix, Youtube along with broadcast and cable channels), we’ll never again all be watching M*A*S*H at the same time. Similarly, we can all choose our news now. Bias is like a condiment, flavoring our news to taste. Sure, objective news outlets are still out there, but the big chatter comes from the fake news — the cable stations that take a meaty story and slather it in biased ketchup.
The result of all of this on-demand programming is a sort of mental isolation. Anything we don’t like on our flickering little screens or piped into our ear holes is zapped into the cornfield, to paraphrase The Twilight Zone, a show that loads of people used to watch because it was one of only three shows on television during a given time slot. It feels liberating, this exercising of choice. Never again will we have to watch The Love Boat because nothing else is on. How can that be a bad thing?
Well, because we can create our own impermeable bubbles now and then mistake those bubbles for the only right bubble. The result might be called “on demand fundamentalism” — a strict adherence to the basic principles to which I choose to adhere.
On demand fundamentalism often intersects with more readily understood forms — religious, political, etc. For example, we all have the left or right wing friend who has no room in his or her social media discourse for dissenting viewpoints. “This is the way the world is,” they post. “If you disagree then you can unfollow me.” They turn the equation around, too, zapping into the cornfield anyone whose opinions offend them. I am guilty of that this week in the wake of the bad thing that happened.
The problem with this is that there isn’t room on the planet for seven billion on demand fundamentalist bubbles. As it is, the handful of deep rooted fundamentalist dogmas on the planet are trying to zap those who disagree with them into the cornfield. Sometimes their zappers are set to to kill, as in the case of terrorism, other times they’re set to stun, as in the case of “no, I don’t make gay cakes” or some such. (Incidentally, if I were a cake I would be attracted to cake. Who wouldn’t?)
There’s just too many of us, and we’re too damned diverse. More often than not the really bad thing was triggered by some form of fundamentalism, and then without even a hint of irony or self awareness we react with our own personal flavor of on demand fundamentalism. The only thing that changes as a result is that our worldviews grow more narrow and calcified.
None of this babble is a call for group hugs, nor is it an apology for the person or group responsible for the really bad thing. Bad guys need to be caught and punished, simple as that. No, the point here is that on demand fundamentalism takes from us more than it’s worth. The cost of zapping our friends and family into the social media cornfield because we disagree with them is that eventually we have no friends and family. We’re left talking to no one but ourselves, hearing our own beliefs parroted back to us as immutable truths.
So I’m going to try my best not to click “unfollow” when some panicky jackass (because yes, in my bubble they are jackasses) blames Obama for the next bad thing, or asserts that more guns somehow leads to less shootings. Maybe there’s some truth to those viewpoints that my bias doesn’t want to let through, or perhaps not. Taking five seconds to consider these comments takes me out of my on demand bubble for a moment, and that’s when I’ll either learn something new or test the validity of my own assumptions. Either way, listening to Crazy Grady down at the end of the Facebook bar puts the social back in social media.
So go ahead and send your prayers up, tell me why The Donald is right, or explain why only vegans demonstrate compassion. Sometimes I’ll disagree with you and other times I won’t, but at least you won’t be stuck in a cornfield and I won’t be trapped in this goddamned on demand fundamentalism bubble.
This little essay isn’t my best. It’s fragmented, the point unclear, biased — a mess, really. If you want to unfollow me I understand, but I hope you don’t. The cornfield is an awfully lonely place.