Returning to Twitter and Election 2020
Hello, good people! I hope you are doing well. The first order of business. We are dipping our toes back into the social media waters, specifically Twitter.
Justin and I took the last year completely off from social media (and loved it). But as I’ve gotten closer to finishing my book and Justin and I look forward to a few future projects, it became clear that we were putting ourselves at a disadvantage. More on returning to Twitter in a bit. For now, please follow:
On to the stuff!
ONE FROM THE AGES
George Washington on the wisdom and discernment required to form America’s constitution:
“Much was to be done by prudence, much by conciliation, much by firmness.”
Source: Letter to Catherine Sawbridge Macaulay Graham
ONE FROM TODAY
“Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker…. Contempt is one of four behaviors that, statistically, can predict divorce in married couples. People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long.”
Source: Tribe, by Sebastian Junger
ONE FROM US
I may have picked an especially wild week to return to Twitter, but a few things struck me that I wanted to share:
Twitter can be a phenomenal medium if you are very selective about limiting the number of people you follow to a few hundred high-quality sources. The quality of your Twitter experience is a reflection of the quality of who you follow. Take home message: ruthlessly unfollow.
Twitter is very addictive and it has a way of co-opting your time. I just went to Twitter to copy the links for our Twitter pages and found myself watching a video and clicking on an article. Without intentional limits, it can very quickly become something that fills every void in your life. As a meditator who had to work my way out of a pretty serious anxiety disorder, social media apps seem a perfect recipe for the monkey mind.
And finally, what you follow really does shape your view of reality. In a very real way, people today often live in entirely different mental worlds. This is a challenge of modernity that makes it harder for people to make sense of the world and to connect with neighbors. As Justin put it to our Live Course group on a recent call: “In nomadic times we all congregated around the same fire. With the birth of television, every family congregated around its own fire. And now, with smartphones, we all isolate in front of our own individual fires.”
I like this metaphor but there is more to the discussion. If having an individual information gathering experience was a problem, then we would have been railing against newspapers and books for the past five hundred years. But we value reading for its mind-expanding potential. We expect citizens of a republic to be well-read so they are capable of understanding complex issues. The primary difference between reading and smartphoning seems to be:
the quality and depth of our information (this can’t be understated);
the unconscious/unintentional nature of smartphone consumption;
and the way this consumption sneaks into every part of our lives.
It has become normal for people to check phones at dinner, in the middle of conversations, while sharing a television program, and in many other socially destructive ways that aren’t typical of books or newspapers. But most of these issues seem containable if we are willing to do a little pre-work. Some suggestions:
Limit the number of apps you use and use them for specific purposes. If Facebook is only for sharing photos of the kids so your parents and Aunt Sally can see, keep it to that. If you want to get rid of Facebook but use FB Messenger, try Signal instead. Twitter seems to have the most upside as it has become a respected and expected medium of our most impressive thinkers. Instagram and the rest are candy. They are fortified with vitamins to help us justify them, but still candy at the end of the day. Nothing wrong with something sweet every now and then, but, for me, Twitter has enough added sugar already.
Create strict boundaries about where and when you use social media. You wouldn’t pull a book out of your pocket while you were peeing. More importantly, you wouldn’t pull it out at family dinner, while socializing with friends, or while you were working on a project. In addition to these boundaries, I’d suggest, no phone in the first 30-60 minutes of the day and nothing in the last hour or two before bed.
Adjust your notification settings so you aren’t being distracted when you’d prefer not to be. This goes for email and other phone apps too.
Beware of the potential for limits to fall away and for bad habits to creep in. Reflect and adapt - the essential requirements for living well in modern times. The reflective, adapting person will be alright in the long run.
Much of the insanity we perceive in the world today is a consequence of a poor collective adaptation to social media tools we weren’t ready to handle. Like with sugar or coca leaves, impulses that serve us well in a natural setting go haywire when we are presented with high doses and artificially refined transport systems. We are a social species who cares about social comparison and acceptance because these have assured our survival. But there is nothing nourishing about modern social media norms that make us think we are supposed to keep up with every person we ever had a slumber party with or post a picture every time we make ourselves breakfast.
We should be very dubious of the claims that social media is a net positive for our communities and relationships. Facebook, in particular, has become a platform for deranged views to appear normal, whether Moms who think the Freshman football coaches should give their son more playing time or Dads who become convinced that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles in the “deep state” is running a global sex trafficking ring that can only be stopped by The Donald (consider yourself lucky if no one has tried to convince you of this QAnon conspiracy). Social media is distorting our collective grasp of reality and then facilitating conversations that should take place privately, in-person, or on the phone. We can avoid these traps on an individual level, but we still have to live in a society where distortion reigns.
I’ve heard a lot of arguments from people all across the political spectrum lately about how We have to meet their trolling with more trolling. Or some less explicit form of the same. I could not disagree more. This hardens extremism and invites an equal and opposite reaction. No one changes their mind because they got owned on Facebook. I explain the psychology of belief changing in my piece, Humanize Them, but I want to quote the intro before a brief note about the election:
By all appearances, Megan Phelps-Roper was a monster. As the granddaughter of Westboro Baptist Church founder, Fred Phelps, she spent much of her free time picketing soldiers’ funerals and gay pride parades with signs like, “Thank God For Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags.” To her well-educated family of lawyers, angry confrontation was just a part of life - a trial of faith that only served to reinforce moral certitude. Megan’s primary role was to maintain Westboro’s Twitter presence, where she poured through pages of unbridled venom. From the safety of their keyboards, her opponents were free to unleash their darkest thoughts as she defended the “truth” no one wanted to hear.
Yet, some people didn’t confront her with anger. They asked questions and tried to understand the theology behind her beliefs. It was these civil conversations that opened her eyes to the contradictions throughout her dogmas. Her responses remained confident, but the certainty began to unravel. This was the beginning of the end. In 2012, she and her sister, Grace, left the church.
Election 2020: Regardless of how you are feeling about the election results, I hope you see how much we need to find a way back to having civil conversations. The temptation right now, which much of the media has fallen into, is to fit everything into a neat little narrative. Women voted this way or Americans came out in record numbers to say X... I do think the majority of us are tired of what President-elect Biden called “this grim era of demonization…”, but the story is more complex. These complexities matter, as oversimplification often breeds demonization.
Biden did get more votes than any candidate in history, with over 75 million, but Trump did too. At just under 71 million Trump also got more votes than the previous high - Barack Obama’s almost 70 million votes in 2008. There is a lot to this story. First, both 2020 and 2008 were times of turmoil. More people vote when they feel there is more on the line. But, more relevant to today, a whole lot of people voted for Trump, most of whom don’t believe in QAnon. Trump made shocking gains among many of the identity categories we are told to think of as one homogenous right-hating block. Millions of Trump voters were disturbed by Trump but more troubled by something else.
Full disclosure: I voted for a third-party candidate to voice my dissatisfaction with both options. Coming from a non-battleground state, this seemed the most important expression I could make (in retrospect, I don't think I'd ever do it again). I don’t mention this to sew division. Just the opposite. We live in a representative democracy, which, as Winston Churchill said, “is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that we have tried from time to time.” It is worth remembering that no government is perfect but a republic is something special that requires a lot from its citizens. We have to try to understand one another without fitting each other into neat categories. Likewise, we should be wary of ever fitting too neatly into someone else’s archetype.
As always, thank you for reading and sharing! Justin and I are very grateful to have seen our readership grow over the past year, even without social media. I can’t thank you enough for all your support.
Life is too short to be normal,