'No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.' -Voltaire

Learning by Bridging the Left and Right

by Ethan Glover, Sat, Oct 21, 2017 - (Edited) Wed, Jan 10, 2018

The internet may be the greatest achievement of the human species. It is a system that can connect to anybody in the world in an instant. To share information via text, picture, audio or video with the click of a button. It is what created the digital revolution and a new dawn of human evolution.

It is from that digital revolution that we came to the world of social media. Social media arguably plays the most important role in organizing social movements today. But there is one key weakness. Zeynep Tufekci, techno-sociologist, asks an important question in her TED talk. "As digital technology makes things easier for movements, why haven't successful outcomes become more likely as well?"

On social media like Facebook and Twitter, you may have realized that people have a little more... social courage. They're willing to say things online that they wouldn't say in real life. The internet gives people the opportunity to break away from pluralistic ignorance. In real life, people are more likely keep opinions to themselves. Expressing radical opinions may cause undue stress and strain on personal relationships. On the internet, there is relative safety from that. And it becomes easier to express those opinions without consequence. With the internet, you can send a radical opinion to thousands of strangers. People you don't know and don't know you. It gives people an opportunity to "come out of the closet" in agreement. This can have good consequences, or bad.

In another TED talk, Theo E.J. Wilson says, ", y'all, is a lot like money. It just brings out what's already inside you and amplifies it." He notes that the world wide web doesn't always mean worldwide communication. Sometimes, it means a worldwide exposure of personal demons.

People start out using the internet to express opinions that they can't in real life. But after awhile, they stop seeing those responding as other people. As Theo says, they see other comments as faceless ideas. Objects that they feel the need to attack.

Social media and the internet is an opportunity for us to come together. To have an honest discussion and even make a change for the betterment of humankind. But that's not happening.

Zeynep compares using social media to organize movements to using 60 sherpas to climb Mt. Everest. It can connect you to thousands of people at once. But Facebook algorithms only show you what you want to see. The viewpoints you agree with. If you want to organize a protest, it's easy to get it in front of people who might take part. Or at least be sympathetic to the cause. But it's not easy to get those messages in front of the people you want to effect.

Movements like Occupy Wall Street and Arab Springs were large and got attention. But they didn't have much effect. They didn't last long and don't have much historical relevance. Compare them to the movements for gay rights, women's rights, and civil rights. Those movements endured and became an important part of our history. We continue to learn how to organize society because of those movements.

Rosa Parks didn't sit at the front of a bus and start a revolution. Many people before her did the same thing. The movement had already begun. The NAACP chose her to be a representative of the movement. 68 organizations in the Birmingham area worked together to organize everything. Through real-world conversations and meetings, they organized protests. They even organized a large, complex carpool system. Not through social media, but every day, in person planning.

The problem with social media, Zeynep says, is that modern movements are going from 0 to 100 in a few days. When governments are responding to repress them, they are able to do so with a small amount of effort. Governments are bigger and more experienced. They're organized and have established systems of strategy. You can't take them head on after forming a protest in 5 days. Having a lot of people isn't good enough. You need organizational depth. People need to work together and make decisions for a long period of time to make a difference. Getting a lot of people to show up in one place isn't going to cut it. The truth is, that's all social media provides.

Zeynep says that social media is good for generating energy around an idea. It's a great way to find those who agree with you. But the question is, how do you harness that energy? How do you get people to work together? To create consensus? And to figure out specific goals along with the steps to achieve them?

Diving deeper into Theo Wilson's talk provides a surprising answer. To understand the alt-right and its internet trolls, Theo decided to go undercover. He created fake accounts along with the persona of a white nationalist. It was the only way to get around the social media algorithmic echo chamber.

What he discovered is something many may already be familiar with. That those on the alt-right are everyday average joes. They are people who are fighting against the demonization of white males.

True, many of them take it way too far. Theo says that their arguments and "facts" are too easy to debunk. But that's not the point. Instead, he points to what is at the center of those arguments. "...why should I be hated for who I cannot help but be?"

Theo recognized what the alt-right was feeling as a black man. He could now connect to, and understand what they were going through.

What Theo hits on, whether he knows it or not, is the deep issue of identity politics. There are extremists on both the right and left that make their own race political. Black or white. And so today we're seeing a fight between races rather than ideas.

"You see, nature doesn't care about your race. That's man-made. Nature just cares about healthy organisms, and your precious ethnic features are expendable to that aim. So the moment that you let go of that racist identity and relatch onto humanity, all your problems go away."

Theo goes on to say that technology has helped us to conquer the outside world. But it hasn't helped us conquer the inside world; ourselves. The issues that we have within us that we project out onto the rest of humanity. That's the problem. To fix others, we must fix ourselves.

The solution, Theo argues, is to have courageous conversations with difficult people. People you don't agree with. People you can learn from. Not online, but in person. Theo had to become someone else to discover that he could connect to those trolls on the alt-right. And those trolls, if they chose, could learn that the left and minorities are not their enemy.

The internet is an echo chamber built for entertainment purposes. Facebook is not your teacher or your parent. It's not there to teach you something. It's an advertising platform that will hook you into mindless scrolling. If you want to improve yourself and improve the world around you, you're going to have to talk to people.

"We have to understand something. Human beings all want the same things and we have to go through each other to get these things. These courageous conversations are the way that these bridges are built. It's time that we start seeing people as people and not simply the ideas that we project onto them or react to. Human beings are not the barriers but the gateways to the very things that we want. This is a collective and conscious evolution."

It is through conversation that we are able to connect and to learn. It is that education that can move us away from warring with each other. That can move us toward building a better future. Without the weight of identity politics on our shoulders.