Since I was in middle school, I’ve never liked the idea of latching on to any political ideology as truth. Why do I have to pick a side? Wouldn’t my views evolve as I aged? Won’t specific issues become less or more important to me as I get older and, hopefully, wiser? Wouldn’t I have an individual hierarchy of needs that might differ from a party’s hierarchy of needs, and might that change over time? The only thing constant is change, right?
Political reductionism has always existed. I grew up Catholic in a mostly white, small town in rural Pennsylvania and learned fast that people align with the Democratic or Republican party and vote the party line, no matter what. For many, it came down to one issue only. In catholic school, students, teachers and families supported the Republican party, because that’s the pro-life party. The slew of anti-abortion bumper stickers in the school parking lot was a daily reminder that you were Hell-bound if you didn’t vote Republican. If that didn’t do it, the church-sponsored bus trips to DC to protest abortion would. Things were a little different in my grandparents’ close-by small town, where everyone is white, not many went to college and the average income was about 30,000$/year. Saving yourself from poverty mattered a little more than saving unborn babies. Folks there overwhelmingly supported the Democratic party, because that was the “party for the poor.” In 2007, when Obama ran for office on the Democratic ticket, I remember playing poker at the kitchen table with my Papa, Nana and a few locals. “Who are you guys voting for?” I casually asked. “I guess I’ll vote for that “N****,” an old man said while dealing the cards. It was awful and 100% racist, surely, and yet it remains one of the most bizarrely profound statements I’ve ever heard when it comes to party allegiance and political reductionism.
When political reductionism combined with the rapid rise of social media, the perfect brain poison was made. In years past we used to discuss political views with classmates in lecture halls or with family members at the breakfast or dinner table, often after reading a hard copy of the local newspaper or watching the local news. These were face-to-face interactions, and a level of civility came naturally. Emotions were instinctive, not injected. Anything said, even an insulting or offensive comment, was usually worked out in the moment. The goal wasn’t to crush or embarrass the other person. The goal wasn’t to be right, it was to get along. Unless you had a scribe who traveled with you everywhere, there wasn’t a permanent, tangible record of discussions that one could obsessively revisit, reread and get pissed off all over again. Arguments happened, but people tempered them to avoid insults turning into fist fights, black eyes and chipped teeth. Grudges happened, but since you couldn’t block your mother, sister or report a random neighbor for hate speech, you figured out a way to deal with each other. For the most part. Then social media happened, and party allegiance turned toxic.
Growing up, party allegiance was reductive, but lazy. You might have expressed it via a bumper sticker or a sign in your front yard, but that was the extent of it. Not anymore. Facebook and Twitter, like anabolic steroids, are pumped into party allegiance, beefing it up and turning us into raging, heinous, political reductionists. We’ve reduced ourselves and others to “Left” or “Right.” If we are Left, we don’t friend Right and vice versa. If Right notices a Left snuck into Right’s friends, Right deletes Left and vice versa. Left thinks Right is stupid and vice versa. Right thinks Left is horrid, and vice versa. Political reductionism has even spread to dating apps. Left won’t date Right, won’t even meet Right ( No matter how easy Right is…) and vice versa. Left has its Left TV shows, Left celebrities and Left news, and so does Right.
The keyboard is both sides’ weapon of self-righteousness and immersion. Us cyber-tigers pound and post our political allegiance daily, over and over again, to a large static audience while mercilessly bashing the other side. ( It’s like yelling at your yearbook.) The other side does it back, all behind our pretty, filtered profile photos. Digital mannequins screaming at each other.
What’s a real-life equivalent? Pretend your neighbor has opposing political views. It would be like you knocking on your neighbor’s door, shoving your political sign in his/her face, announcing the outrageous headline of the day ( and only the headline), telling him/her why they are completely wrong, and then setting your neighbor’s political sign on fire before going home. Your neighbor would do the same thing back to you, and you’d repeat the cycle every 10 minutes.
So, besides the dumbing of the masses and reverse evolution, how does one explain this? I have a few thoughts.
Cyber-courage. That’s the term I use to describe people who type things on-line that they wouldn’t say in person. Some psychologists call it the disinhibition effect, a term I stumbled upon while doing a project on cyber-bullying. On average, our species is more civil, or at the least more inhibited, when communicating in person. We are bigger jerks online, because we dehumanize our audience. Not on purpose, but because we can’t hear, see or feel the emotional impact of our words. There is less of a guessing game in person. We have body language, eye movements and actual emotions to guide us. If Botox is at a minimum, we have eye rolls, eyebrow raises, smiles, sneers, scowls, head rolls, tears, sweat and blood. We are afraid of getting hit, and whether you like it or not, the fear of getting your ass kicked is a good deterrent against repeatedly insulting someone in person. In cyber-land, our phones and laptops are shields. We know we can type the most offensive comments ever, direct them at anyone, and not get punched in the face or kicked in the crotch. That’s power. Cyber-power.
Disinhibition breeds disinhibition. One disinhibited comment leads to an equally disinhibited response and so on. What emerges is a rapid cycle of outrageously disinhibited debates with each side defending competing brands of political reductionism. Speed matters too. The majority of us are attached to our phones, like perpetually sick folks to a requisite IV bag, allowing for constant participation in disinhibited, reductive fights. I’m right, you’re wrong, over and over again. Most concerning is reductive fights lead to reductive labels with the propensity to go viral and cost us friends, jobs and opportunities. Just like that, you are your road rage; your drunkenness; your stress-induced answer; your most unpopular opinion; your attention-deficit lapse in judgement; your before-coffee thought; your insomnia-induced rant; your intoxicated taboo fantasy; your PMS irritation; your jealous inclination; your manic episode, your most embarrassing, weakest moment. The rest of you that didn’t go viral is ignored, forgotten, gone. “But-ya-f*ck-one-goat” on steroids.
Permanence. I remember my mother’s wise warning, “Don’t put anything in writing.” The written word is powerful. In heated moments, when I wanted to write a nasty letter or send a scathing email, her advice caused me to pause. That pause was essential, especially if you’re Irish like me. Once something is in writing, it’s permanent, and it often comes back to haunt you. Because social media is such an integral part of our life, there is no pause. Plus, everything is in writing. Anything we write on Twitter or Facebook can be instantly seen and shared by thousands of people, printed out, screenshotted, turned into a meme, sent to our loved ones or employer and cause a tremendous amount of damage. The back and forth in heated political threads is permanent, and in combination with the disinhibition effect, can be super toxic. Defense mechanisms and wounded egos substitute for thoughtful, respectful debate. In one click, participants can read and reread offensive comments or personal insults over and over again, inciting anger, anxiety and frustration over and over again. It’s human nature to be more affected by the negative than the positive, and folks often revisit negative comments about themselves, if only to strike back or get the last word. Immersion. No escape. I’m right, you’re wrong. The front yard sign on steroids.
How do we prevent this? I’m not sure we can. Instinctively, we might be less enlightened and more reductive than we like to admit. It’s easier to control instincts in-person, but not so much in digital land.
Turn it off? It’s unrealistic to unplug completely or entirely ignore social media. Especially since we have a politically-incorrect President who chose Twitter as his primary channel of communication. Follow the Leader on steroids.
Helpful strategies? Possible antidotes?
Some things that have helped me that might help you:
- Practice taking a meditative approach to political back-and-forths. Meditation is all about noticing and not responding. This helps keep our egos, emotions, urge to respond, and sanity in check. ( In all cases, not just heated political discussions.) Instead of resorting to personal attacks or jumping on the “I’m right/you’re wrong” bandwagon, practice reading comments and noticing how they make you feel. Angry? Surprised? Vulnerable? Offended? Aggressive? Inspired to bash the commenter? Inspired to leave his/her business a negative review? Inspired to unfriend or block? Just notice. Don’t respond. Are you feeling heated? What’s your heart rate doing? What’s your ego and what’s you? This will help you become more self-aware about how online arguments affect you and, perhaps, manipulate you.
- Practice taking a more compassionate approach. Instead of assuming the worst about someone when he/she writes something that enrages you…, ask yourself why he/she would feel that way? What life experiences could cause him/her to say something like that? Is he/she of sound mind? Is he/she having a rough day ? What is his/her hierarchy of needs? Even ask them, “I don’t think you are a bad person, but your comment really bothers me for x, y, and z. Therefore, I’m struggling to understand your position. Can you explain to me in further detail why you feel the way you do?”
- You will meet a lot of walls on social media, and you won’t be able to move them. Learn to disengage and walk away, because arguing on the internet can be an epic thief of time. Time that could be spent being productive and developing your best self. You might learn a thing or two from intelligent folks who have the ability to engage in artful discourse on-line, but they are rare breeds. Whenever I find these “rare breeds” I always publicly compliment them, if only to passively encourage more folks to emulate them. Some smart ways to disengage: 1) Don’t engage at all. 😉 2) “If you say so!” is my go-to phrase. It’s a brilliant, clever way to end an argument, because no one can argue with it. 3) Sometimes I write, “Your conscious choice to personally attack me suggests that you don’t have the ability to discuss controversial topics on-line. This is where I disengage. Have a great day.”
- Don’t be your own worst enemy. Don’t revisit personal insults. Don’t re-read personal attacks that make you angry, upset or feel badly about yourself. It is NEVER EVER EVER a helpful exercise to do this. You can’t control what people write about you in the digital space. All you can control is your response.
Political reductionism is natural, because we are reductionists when it comes to almost everything. We take sides. We’re biased. We have winners and losers. Labels like bad, good, right, wrong, friend, unfriend, block, unblock, crazy, sane, smart, dumb,left, right… make life more decisive and easier to manage. But what have decisions rooted in reductive thinking cost us, and does the cost outweigh the benefits? I think it does.
Erin Stair, MD, MPH
Check out Manic Kingdom on Amazon a book that is really anti-reductionism and about embracing ambiguity. 😉
Read for another article related to the dangers of reductionism, albeit not political
If you’d like a signed copy of Manic Kingdom, order here.