A few months ago, a friend of mine posted this tweet to her Facebook page. Its author clearly shared some of my broader political beliefs, but the final message infuriated me. The structure is common to many tweets and memes shared online, in which a bad faith premise leads to false syllogisms. It offers the most humanistic take on the Left, the most extremist take on the Right, and somehow uses those to draw an aggressively untrue conclusion about the media. Fun!
The tweet is an exaggerated semi-joke, sure, but one where the division created is far more powerful than the punchline. And scores of people do this — deliberately mangling the arguments of “the other.” Do a search and you can find one-part-funny/nine-parts-despair-inducing memes reductively tackling every issue that society is wrestling with. To file these under “humor” seems like a stretch. Memes and tweets were Russia’s favored brand of propaganda while tampering with our election. And in a country where people view themselves as more divided than ever, the end result is even more testing of the tensile strength of our societal fabric.
“Human beings tend to make decisions emotionally, not logically,” says John Gable, co-founder and CEO of AllSides, a bi-partisan organization aimed at helping people break out of their filter bubbles. “We start with our feelings and intuition and then use our brains to convince us that we were right all along. Online, it’s easy to get caught up in the willingness to be enraged or to mock those who think differently.”
Gable (who admittedly leans right) and his partner Joan Blades (who skews left) are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but share a goal of creating a higher form of discourse online. That’s no small task. It demands that we slow our judgments enough to understand the better arguments of those we oppose. Not to oppose them any less virulently, but to oppose them in an intellectually brave manner.
By exposing people to each other, and each other’s ideas, memes are part of a broader phenomenon that expands the range of acceptable discourse, feeding a hungry public who wants to talk about issues that in previous eras might not have been discussed as openly. At times this can support progressive, antiauthoritarian actions. At times, this also means the expansion of false narratives and information.
That quote, from Quartz’s January 18th piece on the connective and disruptive power of memes, gets right to the heart of the matter. Tweets, memes, and (to a lesser degree) Facebook statuses, have the power to give voice to the voiceless and expand our thought processes. They can also be weaponized and add to the cultural divide. There’s a reason that Breitbart’s most commonly shared Facebook statuses are images, not articles.
Pretending for the sake of an easily shareable meme that all liberals want to take all guns ignores the chorus of thoughtful liberal voices saying, “That’s not what we want, look at our proposals.” On the flip side, tweeting that Second Amendment absolutists don’t care about kids getting shot down in school willfully ignores the better arguments for gun rights. If you doubt the power that such messaging has to translate into actual ideas, consider this: In 2016, 38% of Floridians thought Ted Cruz might be the Zodiac Killer. Some may have been trolling but certainly not all.
“We get a training, culturally, that scares us away from listening to different points of view,” Gable says. “Personally, I’m scared for democracy because of that. Democracy requires educated, engaged citizens who can listen to different points of view in a free and open exchange so that we can come up with the best solutions.”
Gable doesn’t advocate “all sides” in the way that it’s been used as a pejorative since Donald Trump invoked the notion following Charlottesville. He never calls for an end to discourse. In fact, the point of AllSides.org is to allow people to argue in good faith. The site ranks new sources based on bias and urges listening to understand — so that discussions can be productive and not end in gridlock.
Though it seems that bad faith arguments would get us nowhere, that’s not the case. They do something even worse: spur on the rapid increase in fear that both Republicans and Democrats feel toward their opposition and speed up our increasing polarization. What happens then? Researchers at University College London recently released a study which observed that people with extreme beliefs failed tests in metacognition. They concluded that the more radical you are, the harder it is for you to recognize when you’re wrong.
Though despair seems to be the only reasonable response to this downward spiral, Gable finds hope. Once upon a time, he was the product manager for Netscape Navigator. While there, he became convinced that the internet was broken. But he also gained a supreme faith in its ability to transmit ideas.
“I see a pushback beginning,” he says. “When you study movements, you quickly realize that it really only takes about 3.5% of the people of a nation to be engaged in a new idea for a massive change to occur. So we only need to engage about 11 million people in the United States with an idea to listen to understand rather than listen to mock or insult.”
Of course for us to actually make these changes, there has to be a desire. And that starts with people forgoing the easy tweet or meme in order to take part in genuine discourse. It means challenging ourselves to be intellectually brave and doing our best to understand the myriad motivations of those who oppose our thinking. It’s not served by warring pro-life and pro-choice meme pages of Facebook or any of the other false dichotomies, bad faith reactions, and failed syllogisms that the internet hurls at us daily.
“Before alcoholics are able to get clean they often need to hit rock bottom and have a horrible experience,” Gable says. “Many people believe that we are in the midst of a horrible experience now. Hopefully, it will wake some of us up in a different way and we’ll see real change.”
If America is going to move forward, we don’t need to agree. Friction and progress often work hand in hand. But we do have to truly consider the thought process of the opposition. We have to come to understand their better arguments. Even if only so that we can rail against them more forcefully than ever.