Friday 30 June 2017

Social media and the death of dialogue

Social media has given everyone a voice. It has removed the traditional gatekeepers and democratised the process of sharing information. It has given people like myself a platform to share my thoughts, express myself and connect with like-minded people from across the world. But unfortunately, it also seems to have killed the desire and ability to have coherent conversations.

social media shouting

We exist in our tribes, riding the wave of how good we think we are for holding the convictions we do, emboldened by the likes and retweets, and either blissfully unaware of everyone else or conveniently choosing to ignore them. Even when there is a crossover of ideas, you’re more likely to see abuse and blind disagreements than an actual exchange of ideas. Now, I am not one for ‘why can’t we all get along’ (I don’t have time for that) but I truly believe we lost something the day we signed up to the endorsement culture that comes with social media. The more ‘thumbs up’ we get on a post and the more retweets, the more we feel commissioned to exalt our views above others. Especially if those other views do not seem to be as popular as ours.

I like to think I have friends and associates from every school of thought on every issue you can imagine. From evangelical, socially conservative Christians to passionate, socially liberal atheists. From BNP sympathisers to Afro-centric ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, and everything inbetween. One of the many benefits of being exposed to these wide range of convictions is that you get to hear opposing but often well thought out opinions on pretty much every issue under the sun. Unfortunately, it doesn't often go beyond that. The different sides hardly ever talk to one another and when they do it’s more like a boxing match - each person trying to land the biggest blow.

The torrent of political activity in recent months (and years) has highlighted this even more. From the UK’s EU referendum, to US Presidential elections and the UK General Elections, our social media feeds have been transformed into a running commentary on events from all sorts people. The commentary would’ve been enjoyable and worth it if it unveiled the rich dialogue around the complex issues we face but unfortunately it’s more like a verbal diarrhoea of dogma, unsubstantiated suspicions and insults.  

In the lead up the UK General Election (and since), I’m sure I’m not the only one that found the conveyor belt of stories on how bad this candidate and that political party was quite tiring. Stories that were light on objectivity but heavy on finger-pointing and blatant political bias. And you’ll get it from all sides, with the evangelists of each school of thought only out to speak and not to listen or engage. This unwillingness to listen, coupled inexplicably with the desire to make the biggest deal of the differences in opinion, is making it impossible to actually talk about the things we need to talk about.

At this point, I have to say that I’m more worried for the next generation than anything else. For many youngsters who are just forming opinions and behavior patterns, we risk initiating them into the very unhelpful way of engaging (or not) with people you don’t agree with if we carry on like this. Beyond our disagreements, we need to make sure that our youngsters are not deprived of the glorious gift of dialogue that many of us have benefited from.

It was Voltaire that said “I disagree with what you say but I’ll defend to the death for your right to say it” and until we get to this place (perhaps not the “to the death” bit but maybe giving up something of ourselves to give people we disagree with a platform), we definitely still have a lot to talk about.

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