On Social Networks, Redux: Is Real Dialogue Possible?


This is a follow-up from an entry I made in 2012, before Trump’s presidency, before fake news, before Russian interference in our democracy, before doctored videos that made Nancy Pelosi seem like a drunk, from a time when, nevertheless, half way into Obama’s two-term presidency, a vicious kind of divide was taking place, exacerbated by and made manifest in all social media platforms. In that moment, I was writing about a facebook fight that ensued between myself (a public classroom teacher) and a “friend” of mine who posted that school shootings were somehow the direct result of Americans falling away from religion.

I thought I had learned my lesson. I have, since 2012, been in the habit, when facebook friends of mine post something that makes me angry, rather than engaging in the faceless debate, of simply ignoring or de-friending them. It’s easy enough. But yesterday, when a facebook friend (who is not a close friend but a former peer from high school) posted a meme with the image of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accompanied by text seemingly attributed to her, text that she clearly has never uttered, text that, nonetheless, made her sound like an idiot, I felt compelled to respond. I responded. I said something to the effect that the meme was bullshit because AOC had never said the words the meme attributed to her: “Yes, we can land on the sun; we just have to go at night.” So, to unpack this a bit: the message, of course, inherent in the meme is not necessarily that AOC said this–but that if she were given the chance, she would have–because, you know, she is, after all, just a stupid waitress. This is unfair and inappropriate on so many levels, but that, I believe, is the gist of it. And there are lots of mouth breathers out there who would just mindlessly accept that the sentiment here is true. Additionally, and even more troublesome, there may be a number of slow-thinkers reading this meme who believe that AOC actually said these words, and thus, believe it provides proof of her lack of intelligence. This is the fake news–this is the propaganda so perniciously and easily spread throughout the web by an ideology that has no respect or regard for truth.

So I called out my high school friendly-acquaintance. He wrote back: it’s just a joke. I wrote back, how is this funny? He wrote back: get a sense of humor. I wrote back and thanked him for the sage advice. He wrote back: go ahead and unfriend me, then. Okay, but then, a couple of his buddies chime in. One says, to confirm the veracity of the meme, “AOC is a dumbass.” And then, some other guy, after calling me “bitchy,” says this: “Mike, I’m close. Come find me.” And I’m like, what the fuck does that mean?–but I didn’t post that. In fact, at that point, rather than unfriending or blocking the friend or any of his brilliant pals, I just decided to turn off notifications to the thread. I don’t know what that guy meant, but it seemed to me potentially threatening. It’s the grade school playground all over again. Someone disagrees with you? Threaten to beat them up. And here’s the thing that I would like these guys to understand, even though I have refused to further engage with any of them: I don’t care what your politics are. I DO care that your idea of political engagement is to post insulting and blatantly untrue memes about your opponents. I DO care that you take the time to articulate your criticisms of policy and politicians with substance, thoughtfulness, and above all, honesty. I went back to this thread today to see if anything else had happened there, and this is as substantive as it got: “Three words: green new deal. How stupid can you be?” Wow. I’m convinced, aren’t you? This guy has deemed stupid the green new deal–and me into the bargain. I am sufficiently put into my place. I can’t even begin to unpack the ridiculousness of this comment.

So the question, again, is this: is dialogue possible in this format? I am almost completely convinced that it is not. There’s a part of me that feels responsible for calling out bullshit when I see it, because that’s the ethical thing to do, and yet there is another part of me that does not have that kind of energy to invest, that believes that ultimately, any effort I make to ask people to explain their insane ideas will fall on deaf, dumb, and hostile ears.

It’s all kitty and puppy pictures from here on out.


Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

19 thoughts on “On Social Networks, Redux: Is Real Dialogue Possible?

  1. Articulate, and you have friends who read! But I share your dismay when the image is so easy and easily spread. Makes me wish Susan Sontag were able to help us through understanding these images. I was reading earlier this year her essay “Regarding the Pain of Others.” (on pain ‘porn’) The thing you’re describing as the opposite, causing pain with image. She would have something to say I think.

  2. One man’s bullshit fake news is another man’s harmless meme. It’s quite the leap to call some boomer’s political joke quote “fake news” when it’s just for laughs. People who genuinely believe quotes like that are far and few. Furthermore, it’s disingenuous to say this “propaganda” is spread by a single ideology. Every group is more than capable of producing this brand of fake news you believe halts political discussion.
    As for the question, the internet allows you to have political discourse as you wish. It also allows you to make insincere, comedic commentary. It’s your job to differentiate :^)

    1. Okay, thanks, Sam, for this. I think I see what you’re saying. Question for clarification: is the meme in question an example of “insincere, comedic commentary”? And my job is to see it as such, and thus, prevent myself from getting upset by it?

      1. However, Sam, if it’s true that people who believe quotes like this are few and far between, what explains the post from the guy who says, AOC is a dumbass? He seems to think, as I asserted in the blog, that either she said this thing, or is capable of saying the thing, or, has said similar things in the past.

  3. Correct. Don’t believe what ((they)) are telling you. Not everything political is an attempt to subvert with false information. Many people use the internet just to shoot the shit with some friends and share what they deem humorous.

  4. Perhaps it is kitsch of me to ask this, but I am personally wondering exactly the thought process behind this post. Is it not just as “grade school playground” to just make a blog post of the incident as you have described, assumingly in an online forum of which the other party cannot defend themselves? (While I am not declaring the offending party would defend, nor am I saying they are in the “objective right” given the information presented in the way you have presented it to us.)
    In my opinion, a one-sided blog post made to a group of peers who, I am under the impression, mostly agree with your political and personal beliefs, seems equally childish and of the same mind as the AOC meme posted. While they have posted that to FaceBook, to have their peers laugh and jeer at, have you not done similarly? You have made this post, framing them as the enemy, for just posting a meme? I hardly believe that the AOC meme (of which I do admit to not being familiar of) was truly being used as a tool for fake news. Not only this, but I believe that as a teacher AND a father, you should be in the mindset of hearing both sides of the story before coming to a conclusion. I 100% concede that this is your blog. But while making an attack, however small, should they not be given the right to defend themself? This is a luxury you have not given us.

    1. Hey Willy L, thanks for taking the time to respond to this post. I really do appreciate it. I’m concerned about a couple of things you’ve said here. First, I’m not sure it’s fair to equate a one sentence meme caption with an 800 word blog essay. I mean, the one is meant to get a laugh by insulting a public figure, while the blog, at least I hope, is to simply raise questions about the effectiveness of political discourse on social media. My purpose is not to make anyone “laugh and jeer.” And I have threatened no one. Nor have I framed anyone as the “enemy.” There’s no need for anyone to defend themselves either–in my blog all parties have remained anonymous.

      1. Hey Michael Jarmer, thanks for taking the time to respond to this post. I really do appreciate it.
        Perhaps my original arguement was lost in my rhetoric. So I’ll answer the question now.
        No, I do not believe social media can be used in true political discourse.
        Provided your “friend” and you had an actual, fruitful political discussion, would your mind have been changed? Do you belive you could have come out of that discussion believing AOC is a dumbass? If not, is there an actual point to wanting a political discussion over social media? I believe that few people are open-minded enough to truly gain enough from a social media argument to change their way of thinking. I can understand the want for real discussion, but until everyone is under a similar political banner, and there is less combat between beliefs, I think it is a rather moot point.
        To reinterate, I am asking you if political discussion is worth it if no one will change their mind.

      2. Yeah, probably not. I mean, I would have appreciated hearing a real, specific perspective on why AOC might be on the wrong track, rather than just calling her names, or saying that The Green New Deal is just stupid. I don’t know if my mind would be changed, but I would appreciate understanding what the specific criticisms of her were. Thanks, again.

  5. Facebook, and the internet in general, is not a platform designed to foster dialogue. Thus, it is not surprising that you have difficulty convincing others to engage in one. Instead, the internet allows one to voice one’s opinions to the world. And although it may seem that the purpose of various areas, such as comment sections, is to provide a space for discussion, comment spaces (as demonstrated by your silencing of any replies to your seemingly unpopular opinion) truly only serve to deceive the masses into thinking that their ideas actually matter to anyone. Indeed, the concept of dialogue is greatly overrated (and not just on the internet). No one expects to have a dialogue with an author, researcher, or journalist. Instead, these influential elites grace the hordes with their enlightened revelations, and the people gladly accept them. When has any significant group ever been affected by dialogue? At best, the leaders of several groups duke it out, and then the majority follows whoever seems to have won the duel. Does the average man accept Darwinian evolution, the existence of certain historical figures, or any slew of commonly held beliefs because he has thoroughly researched each and every topic? Of course not. The average man believes them because he trusts an authority.
    So, let us return to the topic at hand. Say you had a fruitful dialogue with your “friend.” Would he proceed to bestow his newfound knowledge upon each and every other person he comes in contact with? No. Nothing would change. Humans respond to authority and propoganda. We are not logical, big IQ intellectuals. We are terrified, group-thinking, hateful, prideful, dishonest, and stupid beasts.

    1. Paul, I believe the last statement made about humans being, quote “terrified, group-thinking, hateful, prideful, dishonest, and stupid beasts.” is perhaps not completely the truth.
      Is the implication here that the influential elites who grace us with their knowledge are also group-thinking? If that is the case, then in what capacity are new ideas truly formed? If not, could you please explain a bit more?

      1. Thank you for your thoughts, Willy, but with all due respect, I can only conclude that your a bumbling dumb. Any analysis of history would show my assertation to be correct. Just look at Nazi Germany, the Crusaders, or the American South.
        The elites at the pinnacle of society do indeed think more individualistically, but this is irrelevent. They are the incredible minority, and minorities do not define populations. Even so, some elite groups, especially those involved with the media, do engage in groupthink. Those at the top want power, and power is best gained by looking out only for your fellows’ interests. Furthermore, it is indeed rare for new ideas to be formed, as most “new” ideas are spawned from modern reinterpretations and analyses of old and near-genetically ingrained values.
        The weak will always rule the strong.

    2. Hey Paul, thanks for this. Lots of food for thought here, and I appreciate that. I just want to make one clarification, for what it’s worth: You spoke of my “silencing of any replies” in the facebook exchange. I didn’t do that. I turned off notifications on my end–everyone else was free to carry on as before and read everything in the history of that thread. And I did that for my own well-being. Does that make sense? Maybe that’s still a kind of silencing–but I wasn’t preventing anyone from speaking–only preventing myself from hearing. Can you fault me for that? Maybe. Anyway, again, thanks for taking the time to respond.

      1. Is silencing yourself not the same, if not worse, than silencing others? You claim to want political discussion, but do not partake of it yourself.

    3. Thank you for rapid response, I’m sorry I couldn’t respond faster but I, unlike you lazy millenials, was living my everyday life.
      Clearly, you sir, are a bumbling dumb. Unable to even spell “you’re” correctly. But that’s besides the point.
      The point herein being, that you clearly aren’t socially aware enough to actually understand the words you type. How is it good for those in power to actually look out for other’s interests? I find the notion completely inane, similar to your political ideology.

  6. Semantics, I guess. But choosing not to listen is not self-silence. “You claim to want political discussion.” I think you misunderstand: I was asking a question–is political discussion possible here? My answer, not likely. And that was your original premise, wasn’t it? “Facebook, and the internet in general, is not a platform designed to foster dialogue.”

    1. I think you may have confused me and Willy. I did misinterpret what you meant by turning off notifications, but I think the “self silencing” you are referencing was something Willy was more focused on.

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