Our social media habits are killing tolerance

The year just gone by is probably, for a number of you, one that you are thinking ‘good riddance’ to. It has been the year that has seen political figures rising or decisions being made on the back of nationalistic politics where migration and protectionism are suddenly back on the agenda, and debate has become ever more extreme and bad tempered in nature. 

In the US, Donald Trump has been elected. Marine Le Pen is an early front runner in the French presidential elections. Geert Wilders is similarly positioned in Netherlands. Norbert Hofer came a close second in the Austrian presidential election. In the UK, the country voted to leave the EU. In the liberal press, commentators are drawing parallels with the run up to the great wars. Is anyone else looking out for four horsemen now?

The EU referendum result and US presidential election particularly confounded people’s expectations, with accusations of all sides of the campaigns taking a flexible approach to the truth and appealing instead to emotion.

One view has been that each of these things has been caused by a hateful and divisive part of society, who are increasingly less tolerant. Loosely speaking the lines are drawn between the more liberalist and nationalist groups, although even this is probably a gross oversimplification. But it does seem that we as a whole are becoming less tolerant of the views of those who disagree with us. 

This is fuelled by a toxic combination of the stifling impact of social media platforms on our ability to think and reason in a holistic way, and a consumerist culture where everyone is always right leading to increased expectations of being able to get our own way.

Social media has had a devastating impact on our ability to take balanced views on issues. In our social media worlds we follow or friend those people who we like, blocking dissenting or unpalatable views from what we see. Our feeds become giant echo chambers of people who, broadly, hold similar views to us – a phenomenon known as siloing. 

This isn’t surprising really. Out in the real world, we often pick friends based on common views and values: in the limited engagement we hold with people in the social media sphere, this is even more exaggerated. A lack of physical proximity means that we can more easily ignore people who we disagree with. 

Slowly this homogenous resonance seeps into our consciousness, forging our worldview and – crucially – our expectations of how we believe others think. Everywhere, the echo chamber bounces our own views back at us to the exclusion of others. Furtive neurones in our brain fire guilty twinges of pleasure every time we rack up another like, share or retweet. 

I must be right: everyone else agrees with me. Anyone who disagrees is mad, bad and dangerous. Racist, bigot, xenophobe, idiot… the labels begin piling up. And mostly because it’s easier to generalise and put people in boxes rather than grapple with the complexities of what are often complicated issues from a perspective other than our own. 

Our ability to analyse and debate complex issues is hindered by a tendency to cram thinking into 140 characters or a provocative image and subtitle, and our reluctance to read anything longer than a few paragraphs (fess up – who was thinking of stopping reading by now?). The name of the game is for maximum impact in the shortest possible message. Hence the tendency to appeal to emotion and the rise of so-called post truth politics… as if politicians never lied or were selective about the truth before 2016.

When our views are challenged, we use the same platforms to overwhelm dissent. Memes, online petitions, pithy pictures, withering put-downs and hashtags all serve as the tools to communicate and generate maximum emotional impact. We avoid talking about them in person and hide behind online personas. The mainstream media egg it on, exaggerating issues. Targets of such tactics fight fire with fire (because who’s going to pen a comprehensive and inevitably dull repudiation when they could tweet a witty and provocative comeback). Is it any wonder that our political messages and public discourse have become ever more polarised and hysterical?

We’re losing the ability to communicate with courtesy, context, patience and intelligence, and to do so face to face, often choosing disdain, dismissal and indignation instead. And when we lose this ability to communicate, anger and frustration start bubbling over. 

Going back to the Brexit debate, in one example, leavers’ concerns around migration were quickly ridiculed as racist rather than understanding the normal folks who had seen their local services overrun and jobs taken by people from another country, because it was far easier to generalise and achieve a greater impact by sharing some anecdotes about a minority of racist morons… with the tacit implication being that if you were worried about migration then you must be racist too. 

Even the more moderate language used is designed to be pejorative: ‘anti-EU’ rather than ‘pro-British’ because the first conjures a negative implication, the latter positive. #anotherlabel. #sigh. 

So… you posted how you feel like 2016 was a year to write off, in a political sense? How ashamed you were of your country for taking a decision? Great, you’ve just publicly slagged off anyone who has a different view by insinuation. Way to reach out to your fellow humans. 

Here’s my plea. Spot anything of yourself in the above? Stop it. You’re part of the problem. Make it your goal for 2017 to see the world from another’s point of view and not be unwittingly rude online. My wife and I run marriage courses: one of the weeks focuses on communication. One of the lessons we learn is to listen to the other so that they say what they’ve got to say without fear of prejudice or ridicule. The sheer improvement in relationships that results is often a joy to behold. 

The less time we spend trying to cut people down online, and the more we spend engaging with them and understanding their ideas and concerns, and realise that sometimes people just disagree on a reasonable basis, the less divided we will be. 

A well known saying by the Greek philosopher Socrates (and the character Ygritte from Game of Thrones) suggests that true wisdom is found in knowing we know nothing.  

In other words, if we’re willing to contemplate the possibility that we might not be completely right, and listen to others with more patience, we might just learn something. 

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