Monday, April 15, 2013

I Am Not Omniscient and Neither Are You Or, Confessions of a Facebook Junkie

Yes, I'll admit it.  I'm a facebook junkie.  I've never played any of the silly farming or whatever games, but I am on facebook every day.  (I did live without it for six weeks for Lent 2012, and that was a valuable experience, though not one I'm likely to repeat any time soon.) I love having an easy way to connect with people around the world, folks I met or shared an experience with years ago, as well as people I know today.  (Not to mention that lovely warm fuzzy feeling you get when you see the dozens of birthday wishes on your wall that one day a year.)

But facebook has a dark side.  It's too easy.  Too easy, for example, to hit "share" in the heat of the moment and continue the insidious spread of misinformation. A few weeks back I posted a rant on my personal facebook page about those ridiculous posts that are read and shared, without even a momentary hesitation regarding whether they're accurate or not.  (No, Robin Williams did not come up with that foreign policy plan, nor did Bill Cosby say he was "tired" of "spreading the wealth".  Posting that privacy notice on your wall isn't going to do a blasted thing for you, and the children of members of Congress don't have their student loans automatically forgiven.)  In my rant I warned all my facebook friends that as long as they posted such things, I would continue my annoying practice of commenting on all of those posts with the appropriate link to Snopes debunking it.  Since then, I've noticed a marked decrease in the number of those kind of posts in my news feed, and only one unfriending.  (Maybe all my remaining friends are now blocking me so I don't see those posts, but I like to think that perhaps a few of them listened and are being a little more discriminating about what they post without verifying.)

It's also too easy to be mean, to shoot from the hip in the heat of the moment and broadcast divisive opinions far and wide.  While this heightened and inflammatory rhetoric on political, social, and religious topics is certainly not limited to facebook, I see more and more links to opinion pieces that mischaracterize opponents' positions (often by taking their words out of context), that insult the intelligence or question the goodwill of those who disagree, that employ logical fallacies like the "slippery slope" argument or the ever-popular "strawman."  More posts are written with the unspoken implication that "of course, this is the only possible way any truly intelligent, well-meaning person could view this issue, so if you disagree you must be either willfully ignorant or have malevolent intent."  And then, of course, the reactions to such a post are just as polarizing, either on the order of "Way to go!" and "I completely agree!" or "This is complete rubbish!" and "You're a $*%(@#$!"

This is not conducive to a productive conversation.

Perhaps it's because seeing multiple sides of an issue, and giving others the benefit of the doubt, is a skill I've worked hard to cultivate, but I just don't understand.  Do we really believe that those who disagree with us are either stupid or evil?

Are we so devoid of imagination and empathy that we honestly can't see the issue of gun control or public education or social security or gay marriage from an even slightly different angle?

Do we have to insist on a world that is so black and white that we can't acknowledge a tiny smidge of gray somewhere in the middle?

Are we so convinced of our own omniscience that we can't conceive of the concept that we might not have all the pieces, that there just might be something we still need to learn about an issue?  Or are we just so self-assured that if there is something we don't yet know, we're confident that it couldn't possibly contradict our current position?

What we believe makes perfect sense to us - our opinions develop as an outgrowth of our individual experiences, that's why we believe what we do - but what about someone who grew up in a different country, or in a family that looks different from yours, maybe in a different socioeconomic class or a different religion?  Are we positive that what is crystal clear to us from our experience is applicable across the board in every other situation?  If you've never been self-employed, can you be absolutely sure that you understand all the issues for entrepreneurs regarding health insurance, business taxes and safety regulations.  If you've never been a single mom with three little kids holding down two part-time jobs, are you absolutely sure that you completely understand the difficulty of finding good-quality, affordable child care, and what constitutes a reasonable sick leave policy?

To some degree, I get it.  It's scary to consider the possibility that someone else so different from us might be right, because that means that, maybe, we might be wrong.  And if we're wrong about this one thing, we could be wrong about something else.  And then, what else might we be wrong about?  Our whole worldview could crumble down around us before we know it.

But it doesn't have to.

Acknowledging that someone else has a valid point, and that you don't have all the pieces to the puzzle, doesn't mean you're wrong or that your worldview is null and void.  And it isn't the beginning of the end.  It's simply a beginning.  It's a humbling, vulnerable, frightening and wonderful beginning.  That beginning is the space where growth and learning can happen.

That's one reason I read so much, so that I can catch a glimpse of other people's lived experiences and maybe understand the world just a little bit better by trying to see it from their perspective.  I want that growth and learning, and that only comes when we accept that we are not omniscient and we may not have all the answers.

If we want others to listen to our opinions and recognize the validity in them, we need to be willing to extend the same courtesy to them.  I don't have the right to tell you that your lived experience is not valid, anymore than you can tell me that mine is not valid.  This doesn't mean we back down from our beliefs, or that we're silent.  On the contrary, I think it means more heart-felt conviction, more openness and honesty, and more conversation is needed.  But it also means giving others the benefit of the doubt.  It means asking sincere questions and really listening to the answers, and it means making a commitment to search for the common ground and build from there.

Maybe I'm delusional, but I, like Anne Frank, truly believe that most people really are good at heart.  Unless we're psychopaths, we all want the same things for ourselves and our loved ones; we just have different ideas of how to get there.  Some pathways can be objectively shown to be better or more effective than others, some are simply a matter of opinion.  But no one's mind is going to be changed by vitriol from those they feel are misrepresenting and insulting them.

Being passionate about our opinions and beliefs is a good thing.  But refusing to consider other viewpoints, deliberately misrepresenting those with whom you disagree, and seeking to widen, rather than shrink, the gap between you and other reasonable, well-intentioned people is not.

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