My Goodbye Post to Facebook

I’m reading a lot to try and figure out why the world is the way it is. I can’t say it makes me feel much better, but it does help—if you can’t fix what’s wrong, at least being able to name it allows you to stay sane. The last book I finished was The Age of American Unreason, by Susan Jacoby, about why irrational thinking and anti-intellectualism have shaped the U.S. so strongly in the past few decades. She says this, which I think summarizes the most important issue we’re facing now:

As the astronomer Carl Sagan notes, real science differs from pseudoscience in that the former “thrives on errors, cutting them away one by one,” while the latter involves theories “often framed precisely so that they are invulnerable to any experiment that offers a prospect of disproof, so even in principle they cannot be invalidated.” Then, when real scientists refuse to accept a pseudoscientific premise, “conspiracies to suppress it are deduced.”

It almost sounds like a non sequitur, but I think science—more particularly, scientific thinking—is the only thing that can save us now. Because if we can’t even agree on what reality is, there is no hope for anything. I will never be able to understand how people can use their resources to hurt others, whether intentionally or through willful self-delusion. But they do it, and if we allow even the concept of reality to be up for debate, we just pave the way for them. We can’t stop people from being terrible. But we can refuse to help them do it.

Most of us don’t have much power beyond our own lives, but the power we do have depends on our ability to think, question our beliefs, understand evidence, and discuss things with a shared vocabulary that is based on acknowledgement of the actual world around us. We have made a lot of progress as a species, even if half of us are doing everything they can to undo it. I think objectively there must be hope, even if I genuinely cannot find it most of the time. We can become better. It won’t fix the thousands of years of damage we’ve already done, the unnecessary suffering and cruelty and oppression that have ruined the lives of most of the people who’ve ever lived. Becoming better won’t fix any of that—but we can stop adding to it. Right now, I think that’s the best we can do.

The Solution

I just had what feels like the most incredible idea ever. Fix all the problems in the world: take the entire population of the planet, mix everyone up, and redistribute equally across the globe. Old systems of oppressiongone. Old prejudicesgone.

How fast would things get fixed if we could strip white people of the ability to ignore every issue that doesn’t personally affect them?

The Garden of Earthly Delights

I saw this quiz posted on Facebook the other day and was surprised by how much it amused me. I’d been in a fairly bad mood for most of the evening, one of those times when I don’t really know why I’m in a bad mood, I just am—usually something that I’ll recognize only later as one of the phases of a migraine. Getting my result for this quiz made me laugh, though, and I’ve been surprisingly cheered by it.

garden

In all seriousness, it also makes me think of something I’ve been mulling over the last few days: Why are so many people, and societies in general, opposed to pleasure on principle? Did it originate with religion, or is religion just the vehicle for people who would feel that way anyway? Where does the idea come from that pleasure is a temptation, something for “righteous” people to rise above?

It’s tied in with, if not completely the same as, the question of why people are so opposed to any (non-religious) method of altering one’s state of consciousness, particularly with drugs and alcohol. I read a fascinating report in Harper’s Magazine a few months ago, about the American “war on drugs,” and the idea has been in the back of my mind since then.

As long ago as 1949, H. L. Mencken identified in Americans “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” an astute articulation of our weirdly Puritan need to criminalize people’s inclination to adjust how they feel. The desire for altered states of consciousness creates a market, and in suppressing that market we have created a class of genuine bad guys — pushers, gangbangers, smugglers, killers. Addiction is a hideous condition, but it’s rare. Most of what we hate and fear about drugs — the violence, the overdoses, the criminality — derives from prohibition, not drugs.

Incidentally, I agree wholeheartedly with Dan Baum’s premise in this article, that the way to win this ridiculous “war” is to legalize everything. One of the things that surprised me most as I started discovering my own liberal beliefs is that I can’t see any reason why drugs should be illegal. Not just marijuana, but even heroin, cocaine, meth. Because I just can’t see why the government should be able to tell people what they can and can’t smoke (or eat or drink or shoot up) if they goddamn want to. Just like with everything else, the minute your choices infringe on someone else’s rights, then your rights end. But if you want to spend your weekend rolling on ecstasy, why shouldn’t you be able to? The host of societal ills that currently come with that question—the smuggling, theft, murder, whatever—those come from our criminalization of the drugs, not from the drugs themselves.

Mostly, though, beyond the question of legality, I wonder about that prejudice against pleasure. I want to know why it exists, and then I want it to go away. I want to live in a world that doesn’t stick its nose in everyone else’s windows, that doesn’t judge people for doing what makes them happy. If the trend toward increasing secularity continues, is that something that will go along with it? I’d really like to think it is.

Face-to-Face Is a Myth: Thoughts on Internet Communication

I had one of those pseudo-philosophical conversations with a coworker today, the kind where a 19-year-old laments the fact that “no one eats dinner together anymore” and “people don’t appreciate the little things.” Aside from doubts that my coworker is  qualified to make such claims, this seems like such a fake social problem to me, like Trouble in River City—something easy to moralize about instead of approaching the countless real problems a society could be worrying over.

This is how I often feel when people talk about online conversations, too.

“I really prefer to have this kind of conversation face-to-face.”
“Maybe this is a conversation we need to have in person.”

Have you ever noticed how often this kind of phrase is used to shut down a discussion that has extended into difficult territory? It deserves to be named at this point, to take its place alongside Godwin and Lewis as a Law of the Internet: If an online conversation gets tense, someone will suddenly remember that they only like to have serious discussions Face-to-Face. It’s such a disingenuous concern.

There are legitimate reasons why people are afraid to have serious conversations online. For one thing, it’s easy to misunderstand someone without body language and facial cues to provide context. And without the accountability of being in the same room together, yes, people will sometimes be more rude or insulting than they normally would.

But I disagree with the idea that real conversations should never take place online. In the first place, there are plenty of benefits to balance out the drawbacks.

You have time to think about what you’re going to say instead of just blurting out your every thought. If you’re like me, and have very strong emotional responses to things, writing also gives you time to calm down. A conversation will always be more productive when your response can come from rational thought, not overwhelming emotion. Most importantly, or close to it—when you’re online, you can research something before you comment on it. You can provide references for your arguments, so we can actually learn things instead of just disagreeing with each other repeatedly. You can check out Snopes before getting into an argument that didn’t even need to happen because the basis of it was totally made up.

A downside (for me), but a partial solution to the first problem I mentioned above, is emoticons. I have always hated emoticons, and I’ve had to get over that, because I need to do what I can to bridge the gap created by the lack of body language. If I say something tongue-in-cheek and people can’t see the smile on my face, I know from experience that they don’t always get the humor. Cheesy smiley faces can help with that.

In the second place, I think we need to stop being afraid of online conversations just as a matter of reality. The internet is not going anywhere. You do your banking online; that’s where most of us get our news and current events. Important things happen here now, and it’s time to get used to it.

The truth is that I think it’s an amazing opportunity. If these conversations weren’t happening on the internet, most of them wouldn’t be happening at all—because ‎”there is no place in real life where your grandma and your barista and your best friend and that guy you went on two OkCupid dates with are going to sit around and have a conversation about gay marriage” (from this post on Jezebel).

It’s a new social dynamic, and that makes things difficult. But it also gives us access to more of the world than we’ve ever had before. I have family and friends I never see in real life, college friends who live far away now, local friends whose schedules just rarely match up. Should we limit all online relationships to fail videos and cat memes? If online is the only way you can have a relationship with someone, does that mean you must keep that relationship completely superficial? Never talk about anything important, just because you can’t talk about it in person? Who would even have time for all these very serious formal gatherings that are apparently supposed to be happening?

Ultimately, I think what “I prefer face-to-face” often comes down to is just conflict avoidance. Sure, maybe you really do prefer to sit down in real life. But probably you didn’t bring that up at the beginning of the conversation; probably you have no intention of actually picking up this conversation the next time you see me. For most people, this phrase is just a way of bailing on a conversation that got complicated, trying to blame it on the internet rather than dealing with difficult issues. And I’d rather not do that.

These issues aren’t going away. The world is smaller than it used to be, and we can no longer expect to limit meaningful conversations to “real life” (we’re probably also approaching the time when people will realize that life on the internet is real, too).

We need to learn how to communicate better online. We need to learn to communicate better, period. That’s all there is to it.