Welcome back, everyone! To start off, I’d like to say that I love an open dialogue. I may be one opinionated bitch, but I am always willing and able to change my opinion should someone present a well thought out and founded counter-argument. So if you are just someone looking to rant at the minutia…get a life. If you want to actually comment or discuss a topic, you can join me on twitter @DannOpinions.
So, now let’s get to the meat. I am fully aware of the irony of the fact that I am writing my opinion piece on an extrapolation of the idea that opinions don’t always matter, but the truth is, they don’t. They simply don’t. You might feel strongly about something, have some well thought out arguments, and even think you are enlightened, but that’s not always the case. Why else do you think I always start by advertising that I am open to being proven wrong? It’s not because I think I AM wrong, I am just open to the idea that I MAY be. Our current culture has been absorbed in social media for over a decade now, and I think it’s becoming increasingly clear how isolated opinion platforms are leading to a society ever more divided and even more close minded.
In my opinion (and yes you can feel free to discount it, but it’s my column and someone has clearly thought my opinion mattered enough to publish it), I think there are three ways in which I have noticed people are developing that are counter productive to a healthy society. These three effects are directly related to social media, and it’s many incarnations.
- Isolated opinion support systems, i.e. Opinion Pods (that’s all you people who are only “friends” with people who agree with you)
- Offense (an emotion) is considered a valid reason to stop an activity or silence an individual or group.
- Dehumanization of other people
So let’s start with the isolated support systems. These aren’t those off-white underwear your grandma used to wear and leave to dry all over the house. An isolated support system, in effect, is a group of people who mutually masturbate to the same opinions. We are all a little guilty of this. I know, personally, it is much more pleasant to have people agree with me, after all, I’m right. The thing is, no one (I’m ignoring the people who simply stir up shit for no other purpose) ever states anything they think is incorrect. They really do believe in what they preach. They also believe that a large group of people also agree with them, and therefore they are actively trying to teach others why their opinion is the right one. A perfect example of this is the anti-immunization movement. They read a few online articles of questionable scientific credibility, talk it over with a few people until they see that others are agreeing with them, then they actively move to change the system to reflect their opinions and bring polio back. And yes, they are opinions not facts. For all of you who think your opinions are facts, let me explain what a fact is. Facts are things that are proven to the best of our knowledge at the time. Using this same example, the only fact that has been proven about immunizations is that they work. The rest, their danger, side effects, etc. are all up for debate. This is fine. Debate. It’s healthy. Study and learn and test and try and see if the current information is correct or not. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe it is. This is not what social media allows. It creates opinion pods that battle it out on every forum and not healthy debate. Because after all, you’ve read a few online articles and are therefore an expert of course. That video you watched on Facebook must be the same as 7 years post-graduate study and decades of work in a given field. Why wouldn’t it be?
To better explain it, an opinion pod is an isolated support group where everyone agrees with each other, supports the same arguments, and often see it as a moral mission to educate the masses of their opinions at every opportunity. Using the same example, those people aren’t doctors. They don’t have the education necessary to dissect such complex issues. They can only form opinions based on what they have read. Fine. Have an opinion. It doesn’t make it any more valuable of an opinion than the reverse until it is fully vetted. If your goal, a laudable one, is to force the establishment to challenge ideas and improve things, go for it. But also prepare to be wrong. But this rarely happens. The issue still lies in the fact that, once such an opinion pod is created, all logical thought flies out the window. Unless it’s a member of the pod that has changed their mind, the others will fight for their opinion till they fall flat on their face, and sometimes even after that. After all, everyone “in the know” agrees with them, right? Wrong. It’s just your isolated support group, your opinion pod, a group you’ve curated to make you feel self-righteous in your opinion.
People who have a heart-felt opinion often go to lengths to remove any dissent from their social media feed. They remove “friends” that disagree. They follow pages that support their theories exclusively. Then they feel safe in the idea that their opinion is right and only crazy people disagree with them, and if they need to feel supported on the topic, they simply need to log on and get their ego fed. For example, my friend has a page dedicated to people who think Donald Trump is the Antichrist. I must admit, it fits relatively comfortably with how I view him and his policies, but then I’d have to actually believe the prophecies of the Bible to go that far. It also gives Trump a lot of power that he really doesn’t have, like the whole being divinely situated in the Oral Office…sorry, Oval Orifice. Dammit. I keep having a Clintonian slip. Anyway, this doesn’t stop them from finding passage after passage that supports their theories about the end of days. They get all excited when one of them finds another similarity with the prophecies and current affairs. It’s like watching a group of mentally ill patients rant about how the hospital is putting sugar in their food to try and control them. I must admit, I find it very entertaining to watch. But I enjoy watching people expose their crazy. It makes mine seem so much more benign.
Anyway, now that you can see what an opinion pod is and how it can develop out of a need for security and an ego-driven need to be right, let’s move on to unpack a little of the GIANT issue of offense. It’s too big to completely dissect here, but I’ll cover a few important points. We live in a society where everyone is driven to rage by things ranging from racism (which could be justified) to the smallest of things like the health benefits of wheatgrass (which is most likely borderline insane). I literally just watched someone have a rage meltdown over someone wearing fur while they, themselves, were wearing leather shoes. The irony was completely lost on them, but I literally laughed out loud at them. If you are gonna be a self-righteous dick, you better mind your p’s and q’s. Don’t rant against something you have no issue supporting in another form. Then again, that’s asking people to be self-aware. Let’s face it, that’s a tall order for many.
Back to being offended. Are you offended yet? It has become almost a race to rage rage RAGE! All the damn time. It stems from a sense of righteousness that our opinions are flawless because they have been supported of course by our opinion pods. It’s incredible how everyone on social media, no matter how fucked up they or their opinions are, has found an opinion pod that agrees with them and feels that it’s their mission to correct everyone else.
This concept of being offended has led to a situation where to be accused is to be tried and convicted on social media. The most powerful pod wins the battle. They will use any means necessary to prove their pod is right and win the case. We’ve seen a lot of this recently with politics, gender debates, sexual assault, and LGBT issues. They even go so far as to say if you don’t agree with us that’s because you are racist, or sexist, or homophobic or any other negative epithet. This is a fear tactic used to shut down any debate instantly. People fear being labeled something negative, and therefore it really works, and then the argument changes to be more about that person proving they are not that epithet instead of the issue at hand. This isn’t to say there aren’t bigots. This isn’t to say there is never a “right” to a “wrong,” but many times there is more grey area to debate than black and white. Social media has no grey area. No room to debate. No arguments allowed. Grey is banned! You have to have a stance and stick to it. If you change your mind, someone is bound to pull a quote from up to a decade ago to prove that you aren’t to be valued, as if we can never learn and change as people. You are your opinions and your opinions will label you a hero or a villain forever depending on which pod is in social power. It’s sad because some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned I’ve learned from unlikely sources. Also, has anyone ever joined your side after you called them names? Did that work in grade school? What makes you think it will work now?
I recently spoke to a professor friend of mine teaching at a top tier university, and he spoke of the fact that he no longer teaches certain classes because students don’t know how to be offended, deal with it, even debate it, and move on. Literally, everything will offend someone, and they will throw it to their opinion pod to justify their offense. This closes down important topics all the time. It creates a dialogue where debating or even discussion is seen as placating hate and everyone starts with their minds closed. This is at university! The place where all the great debates should be happening. It’s supposedly the educated (or soon to be) youth of our society. The ones set to become the next leaders, teachers, and opinion setters, and apparently they are so rooted in opinions before they even start learning that first year that certain courses can no longer be taught for fear of students raging out and demanding the dialogue be shut down. University should be a forum for debating and learning, but even this historically balanced world is increasingly falling victim to the offense police. No one can tolerate being offended. The sky will apparently fall.
Let’s look at that idea for a second. Offense. What is it really? According to the dictionary, it is: “annoyance or resentment brought about by a perceived insult to or disregard for oneself or one’s standards or principles.” Okay. So, I said or wrote something that offended you. Now what? So you are offended? Be offended. That’s fine. Why does that suddenly become my issue? It’s yours. You are the one who is offended. The only time I should care if I offended you is if I actually care about you or your opinions or if I was cruel. Let’s face it. I’m rarely cruel, and I only truly care about a really small group of people and whether I offend them. The rest? Be offended. Stew in it if you choose to, but be a fucking adult already and deal with it. Debate me. Be mature. Explain why you think my stance is invalid or why I should change it. You don’t need to agree with me. It’s even gotten to the point where people, in order to be friends, must agree. I actually like having friends I don’t always agree with. They sometimes teach me new things, change my mind about stuff I thought I knew, and educate me on new ways to think about things. And if for some reason we can’t have a dialogue on a certain topic because we are too drastically polarized, then we don’t. We move on. That’s called maturity. It’s seriously lacking these days. People are acting like a bunch of children having temper tantrums all over the internet. Change your diaper kiddos cause you’re full of shit.
The modern mentality is that if you offend me, it is your problem to fix. The reason this cannot work is that then no one takes ownership of their own emotions. It becomes the other person’s responsibility and you give them power over how you feel. This has led to a mass populous believing that emotions qualify as arguments. For example: “It makes me feel bad when you do or say that. Therefore, it’s up to you to stop doing or saying it as my emotions trump your right to your autonomy and freedom of speech.” This can NEVER actually work! Everything offends someone sometime. I hate people preaching to me. I was raised Bible-thumbing Baptist, and it’s a trigger of mine. Does that mean people can’t have their own opinions on religion? Of course not. Does that mean they shouldn’t say them around me? NOPE! It’s my issue, not theirs. I have a choice to move on. That’s my freedom. The issue lies when people try to change societal norms to fit stringent beliefs instead of providing a system that is beneficial to all beliefs. For example when people try to make a government bow to a religious belief or perceived moral opinion instead of providing the most freedom for the highest number of people. If we start actually accepting emotions as arguments (which we have actively started, btw) we will lose our ability to be free. As Ricky Gervais said: “Everyone believes in freedom of speech until they hear something they don’t like.” I think this entire concept is gravely aggravated by social media as each person can now find others who are equally offended and together embolden their actions as a group.
The final result of creating an opinion, finding your opinion pod, and then shooting down any dissent, is that anyone who doesn’t agree with you becomes dehumanized in the process. They aren’t other people with developed ideas or life experiences supporting those opinions, but “others” with “wrong ideas.” This allows us to demonize them without caring about their humanity at all. This type of separation under the guise of community is also a rising issue. I know I just finished saying that offense isn’t the offender’s issue but the offended’s issue. I still believe that. That’s not to say that we have license to be fucking twats all the time. There is no reason to be cruel. Debates and disagreements don’t have to turn into the dehumanization of the other. If you want to see what I mean, have people read out their cruelest online posts in person to the person they posted them about or to. Do it. It’s an amazing exercise. When I failed at convincing someone that their homophobic opinions were wrong, I made them read out one of their posts to my face. They started to cry well before I did. Why? Besides the fact that I am used to people hating me to my face about my sexuality, it was because it’s one thing when it’s a disconnected “other” you are referring to but something very different when the separation of social media is taken away. I try never to share or write something I wouldn’t also stand behind or say in person.
This dehumanization of a person happens in every online forum imaginable. That distance created by the internet, no matter how in touch with them we feel, allows us to dismiss them at a moment’s notice. It allows us to be cruel without actually considering there is an actual person, a lot more like us than different, on the other end. That person you told was too fat or too fem or to Asian for you to date, was a person. That person read that. Felt that rejection. Felt the cruelty directly, even though for the person dishing it, they can simply walk away with the idea that: “I was just being honest” or “I was simply sharing my opinion.” That online distance allows us to turn other people online into figuratively faceless and soulless beings. We can be as cruel as we like and never have to watch the tears fall. Though offending people will always happen, no one should be able to say you are cruel. I am not giving you license to be uncaring assholes. Disagree. Fine. Get offended if you choose. Fine. But don’t be cruel. Always interact online as if the person you are dealing with were right in front of you. If you are proud to read your comments in front of your mother, then, even if you are an asshole, at least you aren’t two-faced.
So, in closing, the next time you have an opinion, and lord knows I always do, keep an open mind. There are always two sides to every opinion. Also, opinions aren’t facts and no matter how strongly you feel about them, you should be open to be proven wrong. Sometimes, you may find you are on the wrong side without knowing it. If you’ve behaved with kindness and logic, you won’t need to apologize. You can just change your mind and go forward. But let’s face it, that is a very very small group who manage to do that. If you are like the other 90% out there, you have been offended and raged, attempted to silence or punish others for their dissent, and cut them from your pod. Disagreeing isn’t the problem. Forcing others to agree with you, regardless of how “moral” you think you are, is the problem. You are not perfect. Actually, you are a mess. A giant steaming mess! And why do I know this? Because we all are. That is all.
Now to practice what you’ve learned about offense, here is a cartoon by Hugleikur Dagsson: