The Politics of Social Media . . . or . . . The Blind Men and the Elephant

UnknownIf you have not heard the story of the blind men and the elephant…

Once several blindman came upon an elephant. The first said, “Oh, an elephant is like a large rough wall.” The second said, “No. An elephant is like a thin short stick with hair at the end.” A third said, “You are both wrong. An elephant is like a huge narrow leaf.” “Indeed not,” said a fourth, “The elephant is hard, smooth, and pointed.” “You are all are incorrect,” said the last, “an elephant is like a hose.”

Moral of the story: All the men were right and wrong, but to get a clear picture of an elephant, one must take each observation to make a whole animal.

When I first started to begin to use social media about three months ago, I was rather excited to share my thoughts and those of others. Before that time, I had only visited Facebook every three or four months, and when I did think to post something, I was so new to the system, I was terrified–until I found the “edit” button.

Everyone in the publishing industry was adamant that to promote my new series of books, A Nation of Mystics, I had to use social media. There was a large price tag attached to hiring someone to set me on the social path, so I spent weeks learning new skills (instead of writing)–setting up new accounts on Facebook, both book and author page, new accounts on LinkedIn and Twitter, discovering hashtags, Instagram, and Google+. There was the blog to write, the web author page to maintain, daily postings, an author profile on Goodreads.

After days (weeks, really!) of effort I finally began to post in ernest on Facebook, developed a presence on several sites that I thought would suit the theme of my books, and began to delight in sending news of interest for publication. In those first days, I was quite taken with this marvelous new world of sharing–political news, art, photography, health suggestions, history, music, stories of interest–all leaning toward the themes in my writing–environmental issues, the politics of equality, the possibilities of a world of peace. I found myself sending articles and pictures to people I knew would enjoy them, a lovely way to give a gift.

In my enthusiasm, I was truly unprepared for the world that would open before me and for what I had to learn. My small circle (by comparison to the millions on Facebook), generally had the same goals, could discuss items of interest with great passion, and support each other by pushing back the boundaries of our understanding.

After a few days on Facebook, I suddenly felt I had slipped down the rabbit hole, all sense of perspective gone.

Rule #1: Never take it for granted that most people feel the same way you do about issues (even if they’re on a site called Peace and Love).

My first eye-opener occurred when I realized that each post I published, whether whimsical or politically driven, prompted as many attitudes as the number of people responding. And there the story of the elephant needs recalling. As a former university professor, I had often thrown out a clipping or newsworthy article to have students comment. The point was to broaden a topic by looking at all parts of the elephant. But with Facebook, rather than have control of a classroom discussion with mature adults, any post became a piece of raw meat that appeared to cause a feeding frenzy of comment.

While some of the comments led me to believe that many supported the particular post I’d made, others shared with me a level of vitriol that was hard to fathom. I believed that those sharing my experiences in the sixties would have a certain mindset. Although many still held to old ideas and looked forward to promoting peace through cooperation, others evidenced a cynicism that was difficult for me to understand.

I still believed that as a group, the deep themes of compassion and the search for non-violent solutions to problems was a given. Now I found among those who had shared my experiences in the sixties, angry, fearful people who demanded guns without restrictions, trashed immigrants, attacked Malala (nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize) for her insistence on the power of education, and spouted conservative rhetoric about race and religion.

There were those who refused to support the President or to see his grace while he worked through the years of a Congress and a Republican tea party who did everything possible to hinder his policies, regardless of who was harmed.

Which brings me to the second discovery:

Rule #2: Never consider that people want to be intellectually stimulated

A brief, and one would think, interesting video explanation I posted on the differences between democratic socialism, communism, and fascism caused an uproar. Clearly, these are the important political choices we will make in the new year as we move into elections. Yet the number of people who felt threatened by the very discussion was mind-boggling.

When asked why I posted such items, my only response: “Thinking is good.”

Too often I was told that politics shouldn’t be a part of the postings. And yet, what was the sixties other than political–everything from long hair to smoking ganja to “dropping out” caused a shift in the political process. One hundred thousand of the young of our nation made their way to the Haight in 1967. A half million people appeared at Woodstock in 1969. These were people who wanted change, who worked for change, and who created a new culture of change–awareness of the earth, of the role of women, of gender, sexual, and social equality, of whole food and yoga and meditation, who worked, and still work, for a world of peace. Wearing long hair was a sign of independence then, but it also meant tweaking the nose of the military-industrial complex, “ain’t gonna’ study war no more”.

Trying to speak to such people who believed differently lead to the next discovery:

Rule #3: Never think you can respond to anger in one line

When I considered how I was to logically answer questions and comments laced with cynicism, fear, rudeness, or insecurity, I had no idea where to begin. Often, the problem was not even the fault of the angry challenger, but the size of the issue. Soon there was another response by someone else, then two, ten, sometimes a hundred, all different facets of the elephant. Where do you begin to explain (in a line) why xenophobia is bad?

My purpose had been to stir the pot, to share, to remove lassitude, to become strong as a group by intellectual discussion, finally, to join together in strength. Yet even when I found myself apologizing profusely to someone who had typed in some harsh comment: “I’m sorry. I did not mean to offend. Our purpose is to come together rather than create animosity”, the comments would go on, sometimes for days, others joining the fight over something that should be obvious–simply, love the earth and all sentient beings on it.

At one point, I wondered if I could continue, or if I should leave Facebook forever. I consulted with everyone I knew who had an interest in social media. How could being separated by a screen gave the power to be ill mannered at best and cruel at worst? I found that I was not alone in my concerns. Social media could be blamed for everything from divorce to suicide. No one had any answers, except to say that “it happened” and it “wasn’t pleasant”.

So what to do?

Rule #4: Try to listen

I discovered if I was to continue on social media, I needed to develop the ability to listen to the other voice, and if it was an impossible situation, to skim through the response. Ignore what I could not change (in one line). Develop a tougher skin.

Rule #5: Make friends

Just at that tipping point where I found that social media might not be for me, a few new people I had met on Facebook reached out, supporting, going out of their way to introduce be to others, and caring. Their efforts were a breath of fresh air in this closed system, renewing my faith in the people of my generation.

Now, when people want me to respond to their posts or accept a friend request, I have learned to research their sites and home pages and to look for the good in what they are presenting. If I feel they have the same purpose and a positive intention, I am happy to respond.

Rule #5 Research the source

I have come to realize that to continue to publish, regardless of response, I must be true to my own values and post the truth as I see it. I still find nothing appealing in the politics of fear mongering. I still believe it important to educate and to take a stand when confronted with racism and xenophobia. I fully support restrictions on firearms (have we really decided yet whether the Constitution guarantees state militia the right to bear arms or every individual in the state–depends on the Constitutional scholar you’re asking). So . . .

Rule #5: Be yourself.

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama tells us over and over that the goal of every man is peace and happiness. Yet that is the great debate of our country and one that occurs on social media–how do we achieve that happiness.

For the time being, I will continue my publications, and I will be myself. That self means choosing a political, spiritual, and social path that shares with others, for I know, in the deepest place of reason, that the only way we will survive these perilous times, is to care for the whole. And in doing so, achieve that happiness.