Lately, I’ve seen a number of chaps on Facebook posting their intention to ‘unfriend’ Trump supporters or those promoting his views (if Obama can say “folks” then I can say “chaps”). This has led me to contemplate the politics of unfriending—partly because contemplating anything else right now is too painful. It is something that can be done so easily, with the mere click of a button. The act itself feels trivial in the larger scheme of things. But the larger scheme of things is so damn overwhelming that it can also feel strangely…..significant.
I myself have taken to ‘unfriending’ some people in recent times, even though I find the very concept vaguely ridiculous. Yet my feelings are mixed. For one, I worry that already we are ‘preaching to the choir’ whenever we post an opinion or article on Facebook, and that by limiting our connections who those who share our world view, we are narrowing the reality tunnel even further. We have already become a society so divided that our networks are more like reality bubbles. Perhaps the best that can be said of Facebook timelines when it comes to political outrage is that it satisfies our need for validation and bonding. Petitions may serve some purpose, but personal rants do nothing but make us feel less alone when they are ‘liked’. One of my Facebook friends recently threatened to unfriend anyone spouting support for Trump on his timeline. In the responses there was this; ‘You can’t unfriend someone for their political beliefs’. I thought about that for a moment and a few things came to mind. First of all—of course you can! Everyone has the right to friend and unfriend away. But the poster had a point. Should political differences be the cause to end all contact , even if they were only friends in a very loose sense of the word?
I think in light of the latest US election, it is pertinent to take a closer look at the politics of unfriending because although it is often done in a fit of pique, I believe it is not always so perfunctory. When implemented by those whose normal modus operandi is inclusion, unfriending someone has less to do with politics and more to do with instinctual mechanisms around circles of trust. When I consider more deeply, it wasn’t politics that prompted me to unfriend these people. It is not as if I can’t stomach sharing a forum with those who think differently to me.
This is not about getting snippy with people who disagree with my position on the minimum wage or universal health care or college loans. This is about choosing to close a circle against those who reject core human values of decency, altruism and respect.
One man I unfriended repeatedly posted anti-gay rhetoric and seemed fond of shaming individuals towards whom he clearly felt superior. (When I met him, none of this was apparent).) Another, went from posting thoughtful pieces about drug policy to incendiary (and inaccurate) remarks about refugees fleeing war zones. These differences are fundamental as are the differences that divide America right now. For those who call for unity, pray explain how to unite with someone who cleaves to what you abhor and abhors what you embrace?
Our choice of Facebook friends is not going to change the world, but in some small way it changes our own private world, and it speaks to a larger trend of isolating ourselves from the ‘other’. Americans have already paid a heavy price from distancing ourselves from what we don’t want to see. But Facebook has never been a forum for mediation. It is more of a personal scrapbook. Anyone who has ever tried to have a meaningful exchange of views (apart from the resolutely polite) has witnessed how rapidly it sinks into mean-spirited solipsism.
It might be time to give up on the future as a singular concept – if indeed, it ever was one. There will be multiple futures going forward as we come to terms with the fact that the forces that divide us have become—at least, for the present—indomitably greater than those that unite. The choice is how we respond to this reality. Do we cling to those whom we recognize as our siblings in spirit, or do we continue to try to engage the ‘strangers’ who seem to have lost faith in their own ability to live in peace with the world? Is there a middle ground and if so, where do we find it? Not on Facebook, that’s for sure.
Jim Morrison chose the ‘feast of friends’ over the ‘giant family’. But was the giant family ever a viable alternative? Do we have time to bring everyone around to the ideals necessary to create a world worth saving for our children? Perhaps the best thing we can do is salvage decency and hole up with the like-minded around the fires of reason and kindness while the bitter winds howl around our ears.