Isn’t it great that the Ferguson decision came down three days before Thanksgiving? All over this country, people are piling into planes, trains, and automobiles in order to fight their way savagely through hordes of like-minded souls all on their way to family. And those not wading through that travel apocalypse are pacing back and forth in their kitchens, staring at an unnaturally enormous dead bird. They’re eyeballing its pallid corpse and wondering how the hell it’s going to defrost by Thursday, and whether anyone is going to get disowned when the one family member who can’t leave well enough alone decides to toss a politics grenade into the middle of the conversation. Just watch the fucking football, Uncle Sal, why do you have to watch the world burn too?
There’s this thing called “homophily,” and I don’t mean what Giants fans will be scrawling on signs for the game Thursday against the Eagles. It means the tendency of people to associate only with people who are similar to them, who agree with them on most things. This isn’t a harmful thing in general, so much as a description of a basic human characteristic: we like to be around those who are like use. That’s almost a sine qua non for friendship on some level. But in the age of the Internet, homophily is something that social scientists have started to pay a lot more attention to, because the ability to have all media catered precisely to our particular wavelengths at all times means that people are more and more burying themselves in echo chambers.
The irony of the greatest communications technology in history is that most people use it to ensure that they never communicate with anyone saying anything they couldn’t say themselves.
If one were privy to internal Facebook data, I imagine one could make all sorts of interesting graphs showing the great defriending waves of the last few months as one explosion of outrage or another roiled across the web. And while that’s understandable — the refusal to associate with someone whose beliefs you find repugnant is hardly unreasonable, even if that knife cuts both ways — it is also a shame. Because the more cords we cut, the less conversation there is, and the less likely it is for anyone on any side of an issue to change their mind in the face of rational discourse.
But it’s not just about changing minds, it’s about ensuring that we see everyone as human beings instead of just faceless mobs on the other side of vast chasms. Democracy only works if we believe that no matter how repulsive another’s ideas, they have just as much right to them as we do. Democracy fails when we draw the lines of us and them, when we insist that there are people who agree with us, and there are people who shouldn’t be listened to nor trusted with power. When you don’t talk and listen to the other side, when you cast the very idea of their holding power as illegitimate at face value, then our grand experiment is already dead. And every time someone lets those moments pass when they could talk, the body politic’s corpse grows a little colder. Fold up the Constitution, file away the Declaration and Proclamation, let our histories start their slow gathering of dust, for then our time is done.
See, change doesn’t happen when you win some grand debate, but with the slow accumulation of anecdotes, of being exposed to the contrary experience of people you love, who you cannot neatly dismiss into a category of “them”. So when the family comes, when the sarcastic comment is voiced that makes everyone else look away and hope that the moment will pass without argument, this time make the decision to talk. Not to argue, not to convince, not to get angry. Just to talk.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.