The Great Unfriending

It’s official: I’m a very rare breed of social media user.

A scientific study of Twitter interactions on climate change discovered that almost all people who tweet about climate change are only listened to by people who already agree with them. Or to put it another way, they’re probably wasting their time. The people who bridge the gap between the two sides are so unusual that some are listed by name. They include Richard Betts of the Met Office, New York Times environment writer Andy Revkin, “… and an account named @moronwatch”.

This isn’t to say that I’m ambivalent on climate change: I’ve often taken the piss out of climate change deniers on this blog, as well as on Twitter and Facebook. So I was very proud to learn that I’m one of the tiny minority that has had the opportunity to change minds on climate change.

But beyond my personal little triumph, the finding is profoundly depressing. Increasingly, and globally, people on social media are building themselves tight little echo chambers. After May’s general election, I saw a spate of updates from Facebook friends, proudly boasting of unfriending Tory voters. Then, following the historic and wonderful Supreme Court decision last week that finally brought gay marriage to all 50 US states, it happened again. People who should have been overjoyed (and magnanimous in victory) instead showing off that they had deleted friends who expressed concerns over the judgement.

But why? What purpose is served by deleting someone with opposing views? If one holds a view strongly, surely one also wants to influence other people’s views too? That, after all, is why I blog, at times, about climate change: because it’s an important issue, and it’s important to change minds.

And likewise, I want to challenge homophobic, racist and other views I encounter. I have many black friends on Facebook, many of whom are religious; black Christians (in my experience) are far more likely to express homophobic, or at least anti-gay marriage views (it’s debatable whether these are the same thing or not). Last week I witnessed anti-gay marriage comments from three Facebook friends – all black Christians. In each case I could have unfriended, or just ignored. But this issue matters to me, so in each case I responded, and made similar points: 1) I disagree with you, 2) I respect (and will defend) your right to hold your views, 3) I’m open to further discussion and would like to change your mind.

In interacting with these three people, I believe I did far more for the cause of combatting homophobia than did any person that decided to delete “homophobic friends” on the basis of their own supposed “tolerance”. In fact, if anybody turned back the clock on gay rights, it was those people who witnessed homophobic views, and decided to ignore them.

To delete “homophobes”, “racists” and other evildoers is to create a childlike view of the world in which every person can be stamped with a simple label of either good or evil. It denies the existence of shades of grey, or the fact that good people can be flawed. It is the action, not of a liberal or tolerant person, but of a self-centred and selfish individual. It expresses a simple belief that so long as MY view of the world is shiny and nice, then the world is a shiny and nice place. It is an abrogation of responsibility to improve the world. I’ll go further: by burning bridges, it makes the world a worse place, building up walls between increasingly hostile tribes.

Ironically, most of the people I personally encounter expressing racist, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, sexist, transphobic or homophobic views are black. To selectively cleanse my friends would be to make my circle whiter. Most of the “liberals” I see deleting friends have almost exclusively white, middle-class social circles. What kind of liberal doesn’t extend their social networks beyond their own narrow social and racial groups?

How do you tackle racism, if your world-view says you must unfriend anyone expressing what you consider to be a racist view? How do you deal with homophobia if you won’t talk to homophobes? By deleting friends, you reveal yourself as intolerant, closed-minded and apathetic. You show yourself incapable of, and disinterested in, making the world a better place.

In 1984, Orwell wrote about doublethink, which twisted the meanings of words beyond recognition. Aptly, this was a creed of English Socialism – INGSOC – which had taken left-wing values and twisted them to mean the exact opposite of their original meaning. An INGSOC slogan was: “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength”.

Let’s add one more to that: Intolerance is Tolerance. By turning on the minority opposed to gay marriage, today’s mob is no different from any other majority that hated any other minority. In this case, the mob is more likely than the average to be white, middle-class and well educated. A white, privileged mob shunning and marginalising a poorer, darker minority. Ring any bells? Same shit, different era.

Gay Marriage: Beware The Backlash

Gay marriageYesterday, by 400 votes to 175, the House of Commons approved a marriage equality law that finally allows gay men and women to marry on (almost) the same basis as heterosexuals. It was a historic step for the UK, especially as the bill had been pushed hard by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who is desperate to modernise his party (or at least, to convince the public that the Tories have modernised).

It was a great day for progressives; the Commons split roughly along the same lines that the public had done in polls. Many people looked back in astonishment at the fact that homosexuality had only been legal in the UK since 1967, and public tolerance of gays only reached a tipping point in the past two decades. We’ve come a long way, Britain.

However, Cameron seems to have miscalculated. While his popularity in the country was no doubt lifted by yesterday’s vote, his own party split down the middle; those Conservatives voting in favour of gay marriage were outnumbered by those voting against, and a number abstained, wavering between a personal wish to support the measure, but pressure from their local parties to oppose it. We learned two things yesterday: Britain has become a more tolerant place; and the Conservative Party still has a long way to go. Rather than demonstrate that the Tories have modernised, Cameron helped expose the fact that they haven’t; and in the process he antagonised the powerful right wing of his party. He emerges from these events weaker, and will now be under immense pressure to bring the dinosaurs back on board.

And that’s where we should worry. The Tory right (and its inbred cousin, UKIP) has been on the warpath recently on a number of social issues. Abortion has been put back more firmly on the agenda than at any time since its legalisation, with the Health Minister Jeremy Hunt declaring support for halving of the time limit from 24 weeks to 12. And just as worrying, the “sexualisation” bandwagon (which is an all-fronts attack on “explicit” sexuality in the public eye, from music videos to children’s clothing) seems to have gained mainstream acceptance.

The obvious reaction to the “sexualisation” panic is to introduce more “morality police” to oversee TV programming, approve Internet censorship controls and create a “slut-shaming” atmosphere in the public space. Right-wing Tory MPs such as Claire Perry and Nadine Dorries have long been pushing for such actions; an angry, mobilised Tory right may now be in a position to force a weakened David Cameron into giving way on these issues.

The short-term outcome from yesterday’s win on gay marriage may be some rapid government moves against abortion and in favour of more censorship. Once we’ve finished celebrating yesterday’s victory, we may have more battles to fight.