Sunday, October 30, 2011

There's an Echo in Here!

Ah, I knew there was something else I'd been meaning to write about.

Kim Brooks, whose reflections on the uselessness of high school English classes I discussed some time ago, returned to Salon last weekend with weeping and lamentation over ... erm, well, her own narrow-mindedness and intolerance on Facebook. The given title was "Is my Facebook page a liberal echo chamber?"

She'd found herself in what is probably a common situation for us older people who've been out of school for a few decades and didn't construct our school environment around the Internet from the start, because it didn't exist back then: she was re-establishing contact with people she knew in high school. She questioned the decision at first but then figured, What the hell, why not? I did pretty much the same thing when I began getting friend invitations on Facebook from high school acquaintances a few months after I joined.

She quickly learned why not.

President Obama had just given a televised speech on the economy, and this particular gentleman, someone I’d never known well but with whom I’d shared a neighborhood and a classroom for most of kindergarten through 12th grade, a fellow I remember as being pleasant, a bit on the quiet side, a member of the marching band, certainly not a bully or a jerk, had written, “Just turned off the t.v. More lies from B. Hussein Obama.” Within a few minutes, 10 people had “liked” this comment. Within a few more minutes, others had begun to add comments of their own, nearly all of which made reference to the president’s skin color, “questionable” national origin, or socialist death-panel agenda. I nearly fell out of my chair. My heart was racing. I squinted at the screen. I read the comments again and again. This was the real deal, not on Fox News but right here on MY computer, on MY Facebook page. I’d invited it in, that horrible place I’d left the day I graduated from high school. I looked down at my keyboard and saw that my hands were shaking. I decided to add a comment of my own: “Don’t like! Boy, am I glad I don’t live in Richmond anymore. You are un-friended!”
My own situation was different. I expected to see such things. But then I've been using the Internet for twenty-five years. I've spent a lot of time reading the subliterate ravings of people I hadn't gone to school with, but might have, and learning to deal with them, to call them out when they lie, to point out when they've passed along a well-discredited legend, to read with care what they replied, and to try to answer them without jerking my left-wing knee too much. I've also debated people who fall on the same place of the political spectrum as I do; there's no guarantee that we'll always agree with each other. This has been useful, if only to hone my own arguments, but also to make sure that I hear the views of people with different perspectives.

But I also had the advantage of spending thirty-seven years working with college students from all over the world (and contrary to popular stereotypes, not all college students are liberal hippies), but also with plenty of good old boys and gals from Southern Indiana (and contrary to popular stereotypes, not all good old Hoosiers are right-wing rednecks). Not only that but working on, and eventually running, the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Speakers Bureau put me regularly in front of audiences that included everyone from raving homophobes to the children of gay or lesbian parents. Since we provide panels, not solitary speakers, I was sharing the stage with gay people who ranged from fellow Gay Liberationists to the (former) president of College Republicans. (He was kicked out of the organization and pulled from school by his parents when word got around that he was gay.) A lot of those people are in my Facebook friends list now. So my Facebook page, let alone my world, is not a liberal echo chamber.

I can't say the same for Our Ms. Brooks. Not only her Facebook page, but her life is evidently structured so as to protect her from people with differing values and opinions.

As an angsty teenager and college student, I used to mock people who lived in gated communities, who were so afraid of the unfamiliar world they had to erect a physical boundary to keep it at bay. But now I wonder, aren’t the boundaries we draw with Facebook just as secure as a man-made moat or an underpaid security guard manning a booth? Was the daily back-and-forth on my Facebook feed really a conversation, or was it no more than an echo chamber?

... In a world of friending and unfriending, the 99 percent versus the 53 percent, Obama as antichrist against Obama as savior, who, I wonder, has the tolerance anymore for such messy contradictions, such tainted, imperfect kinships? Who has the patience?
The most pertinent response to this, I think, would be "What do you mean 'we', white woman?" The only person in her article she really can point to who fits this picture is herself. Not that she's alone -- far from it. I've been unfriended for True Political Incorrectness by a few people on Facebook myself. The only person I've unfriended was a former co-worker who moved to another state and sent me a friend invitation before he found Jesus and began spamming his feed with Bible quotations, self-pitying inspirational soundbytes, and overtly racist anti-Obama material. He attacked me when I commented critically on his postings, so when I found that blocking his Bible feed wasn't enough to stem the flood of swill, I finally unfriended him.

As those who read this blog will know, though, I have plenty of contact with other right-wingers on Facebook, such as my two Right Wing Acquaintances. They've given me a lot of material, which saves me the trouble of browsing the Right's propaganda mills; RWA1 especially gives me what he considers the cream of the crop, the serious commentators, so he can't accuse me of cherrypicking ignorant yahoos. Then there's my Tabloid Friend, who's one of several Obama stalwarts in my Friends list. I've also got my high school friends, most of whom are simple Republican fundamentalists, though there's also the middle-of-the-road minister and his wife and a Randite high school teacher who recently moved from teaching Army brats in Europe to a different environment in Africa. I don't respond critically to everything they post, but when it seems proper, I do. Some have defriended me, others ignore me, and I'm having real (though virtual) conversations with some others. With War on Christmas Season less than a month away, I'm sure things are going to heat up again.

Who has the tolerance, who has the patience? Well, I do, for one. But so do the people who put up with me, online and face to face. Kim Brooks is overgeneralizing and oversimplifying from far too small a sample: a sample of one. What disturbs me is that she's not just a Salon pundit; she's also been a college writing instructor -- might still be, for all I know -- and not in the Ivy League, but in community colleges, which aren't exactly liberal hothouses either. She must have been a really involved, empathetic teacher if she never noticed that her students didn't always agree with her politics.

One more thing, though: there's no reason why anyone's Facebook page has to be an arena for debate or the broadcast of opinions (whether your own or your friends'). That's one reason, apart from shyness, that I usually wait until people I knew in high school invite me on Facebook; and when I accept their invitations, I don't grill them on their political or religious positions to ensure they meet my high standards. They'll see some of my opinions expressed in my newsfeed soon enough, and they're welcome to react. I wait to see how they use Facebook, and if they only post photos of their grandchildren and Youtube videos of cute kittens or Top 40 hits from our youth, then butter won't melt in my mouth. If they start posting stuff about Illegal Immigrants Who Don't Pay Taxes, or the Kenyan Usurper banning Christmas Trees from the White House, though, they've entered the arena of debate.

So I don't object to Kim Brooks defriending anybody whose politics she dislikes, any more than she should object if they do the same to her. What I object to is her projecting her own hatred of difference onto everyone else, as though she weren't responsible for her own opinions and actions. (I suspect her freakout over commas is not entirely unrelated to this.) I realize that many people think of stating their opinions in public as an invitation to social bonding: You and I both agree that Meskins are dirty and should go back home, right? The homosexuals want to bring America to her knees and force their radical agenda down her throat, don't they? They need to learn that they won't always get the agreement they seek. I've gotten used to it; so can they. And now that I think about it, that's probably what Brooks was doing in this and her other essays for Salon: We're all intolerant, aren't we? All mothers are Jewish mothers, aren't they -- really? People who can't use commas correctly are low-class and stupid, aren't they? Well, since you ask ...