Being in an all-female Facebook group with thousands of members is tough. The daily drill is almost nauseous. A provocative post, ruffled norms, offended egos, ad hominem thrown left, right, and center.
The better ones have policies against such abusive activity — policies that are often selectively applied to the advantage of a particular troupe. Like all our social media spaces, even the best of ‘support’ groups are monopolized by people declining to listen and aggressively eager to pontificate. The tendency is to block, intimidate, and silence — and it’s not (just) from the conservatives, the women who make conformist comments in bad grammar and syntax and are scorned for it. It is also from the custodians of moral and political correctness, present to regulate every comment thread, to call out all offenders of a constitution they have derived and seek to enforce. The group admin is requested — and often complies — to remove people with contrarian opinions. Derogatory, disrespectful comments are cheered when they toe what is the “right” line. This line may absolutely be the correct line, but this is not how interactive spaces must work.
It follows that the rising facet of social media activism is a culture of exclusion.
What this does is that it thwarts the purpose of this activism and limits the breadth and depth of its impact. The validation that comes from a coffee-table coterie that already subscribes to your ideology can be falsely inflating — but its efficacy is nothing. The practice of defending a stance is becoming unnecessary when unleashing a barrage of abuse — Capslock self-congratulation, unsolicited invectives, (what is, in fact,) profuse ignoratio elenchi — is sexier. It is enabled by our penchant to behave as a social media herd, to rally behind buzzwords that are the props of modern liberalism. Context and nuance become almost arcane considerations.
What such social media spaces then do is that they amplify and make more conspicuous the voices of certain people — knowing that it is not representative of reality. This creates a feel-good, engineered state of discussion, where most people are vying for validation by saying things they do not necessarily believe in. Over a course of time, this helps focus a degree of power in one place and sanctions abuse of that power. The ethos that develops is one of absolutism — attempts to find middle ground are discredited, challenging of what has been established as politically correct is non-negotiable. Most arguments are fallacious in that they are strawmen, but if they further the ‘correct’ stance, they are legitimized. For example, earlier this week a woman took issue with the lack of cultural sensitivity in the way people chose to dress. Unsurprisingly, she was vilified for supporting abuse, harassment, and oppression — a contention she clearly did not make.
The problem is exacerbated by how the operative model of social media sites, like Twitter, values high turnover and fast pace over everything else. There is a need to fire away a take on an issue instantly to remain relevant. Hasty responses are more likely to look like superficial declarations of the original poster’s low IQ, their extrapolated support for all things extremist, and the like. This is more time-efficient, and lynch mobs will pick up from here, retweeting and sub-tweeting any thread they see with the right trigger words. Fact-checking for veracity becomes redundant and tedious. To ask for evidence becomes a felony. Ultimately, this squeezes important stakeholders out of the conversation.
What a year into medical school has taught me that there is a glaring chasm between people like me — aspirant academia, self-identifying progressives, and the people we wish to serve. Most of our activism ignores this gap, perpetuates it, widens it, and increasingly seeks to deny its existence altogether.
Well-meaning but vacuously confident guardians of moral purity all over our social spaces do not realize that their activism does not exist in a vacuum. Communities need reform, and reform comes with attitudes that recognize and understand the demographic they wish to engage. Doctors are not taught to castigate and denounce a patient’s beliefs, even when we think they are scientifically unjustifiable. But it is not uncommon to see calls to ‘shut up’ or smug dismissals of ‘your inferior world view’ in comments from “progressive” accounts — accounts that claim to identify with secularism, feminism, social change.
What follows is the creation of a nascent but fast growing brand of liberalism that relies on continued and forceful disrespect of the average citizen, the so-said middle class and its beliefs and thought-processes. It seeks to make populism the necessary nemesis of leftism. Part of this is fed and sustained by the ever-present need of some to emulate anything westward and inject it into the local arena — one that is neither suited nor ready for it. Not only is this an inherently flawed concept, but by its deliberate antagonising of the majority, it allows populism to gain more traction. You cannot help people if you hate them.
Many issues which we tackle are sacred, but nothing sacred can be taught by imposition. Treating anything that disputes us as sacrilege that we must tear down is dishonest to our concurrent causes of liberalism and tolerance. Inevitably, it also denigrates the quality of our intellectual discourse. Often, refusing a trade-off can be a denial of reality; a step back than a step forward. Sometimes, the far-right and the far-left can look like essentially the same thing, with the latter having hijacked a dictionary of ornamental words to weaponize in arguments. The troubling bit is that arguments have ceased to happen in some places; the concept of an exchange has been strangled by the inability to entertain anything that departs from one’s worldview. This approach creates and maintains e-spaces that are insouciant and deceptively comforting, but entirely alienated from much of the populace. It is also definitely not an approach that can be extrapolated to policy-making, because its focus is to establish the superiority of an opinion, not to problem-solve. The need is not to agree, but to accept. That is preliminary to effecting change.
Featured Artwork: Kim Salt