A few days ago, one of my Facebook posts went viral—at least by my not-so-lofty standards of social media reach (88 shares is roughly 85 more than my previous record). When I first noticed my post was attracting an audience, it felt like I’d downed half a dozen shots of Southern Comfort. My insides felt warm, and I was kind of giddy. But it didn’t take long before queasiness set in, and by the next day I felt the dull fog of a hangover.
For all the hours I’ve spent drafting and re-drafting novels, short stories, essays and songs, it had to be my 20-minute stream-of-consciousness rant that caught fire. I was just dumping out various thoughts, as I’d done a few times recently (to little fanfare), and I hastily clicked “post” when my family called me to dinner. Clearly, something about this raw piece of writing resonated with many people—and offended others. Although my comment thread was mostly filled with words of support, I know that’s how the Facebook echo chamber works. Thinking about materials I’ve read and watched recently—The Social Dilemma; Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society; and various texts and lectures for an English course about rhetoric and meme culture—I am pondering the broader implications of posts like mine. I’m quite certain that I will see only those who support my views, plus a few of the boldest detractors, while many others stew quietly, feeling skewered by my words.
For reference, here is the original post:
I understand the very real pressures that restrictions put on small businesses, parents, people in abusive relationships, employees of hard-hit sectors, and so many others. I understand skepticism in both government and private enterprise. I recognize that evidence-based science is complex and ever-changing, and that in this age of infinite information it is difficult to tell truth from fiction. I believe that surveillance capitalism is a real and present danger, and that we walk a fine line between legislating for the good of the people and for control of the people.
Having said all of this, I have no time for people who accuse the majority of their fellow citizens of being indoctrinated, and who insist that anyone who follows public health directives is stupid. It seems to me that many who claim to be anti-dogmatic have become the most dogmatic people in our midst.
I believe the stories of thousands of front-line workers who have dealt with the strain COVID-19 places on health care infrastructure. Yes, there are many other health issues, some of which are exacerbated by pandemic lockdowns. Yes, deaths from COVID-19 still pale by comparison to the number of deaths from cancer, heart disease, and many other causes. But we cannot view statistics in a static way—we need to understand that we are dealing with trends, and realize that our health care system works much like our electrical grid: it is built to withstand a certain load, and it breaks down when a major surge occurs.
I am sure there are many opportunities for systemic change in health care, but we can’t rebuild the ship while we’re sailing in a storm. We have to make the most of the systems we have in place, and support the people—real people, as in the thousands of individual persons—who keep it running. If we overload those people, then we will be in for a whole new world of hurt.
Philosophically, there are countless angles from which we can view COVID-19. We could fill our days debating it, and the only thing I could guarantee is that we wouldn’t find an easy path to one truth.
So, to all the so-called experts who have Googled their way to superiority: I plan to wear my mask, respect the orders of people who have a lot more access to information than I do, and keep trying to flatten this curve. Because I don’t profess to be smarter than the thousands of scientists who tell me COVID-19 is real—or to have access to some alternate “truth” that negates the reports of so many front-line workers around the world.
This post led to some lively discussions with my wife, Sheila, which I could paraphrase as follows:
Sheila: Isn’t your post a little judgmental?
Me: Yes, it is. I was judging those who judge others.
Sheila: Isn’t that hypocritical?
Me: Yes, it is.
Sheila: Don’t you want to build bridges with people instead of dividing them?
Me: Yes, I do.
Sheila: Did you think this post would do that?
Me: No, not really. And frankly, I didn’t care. I was frustrated—am frustrated—by people who selectively Google information that supports their views, then mock people for following public health directives that infringe on their personal freedoms.
Sheila: Do you think people searched Google for that information, or is that what Google is showing them, just like you’re seeing whatever Google chooses to show you?
Me: Yes, definitely—algorithms are a huge problem. The thing is, I wasn’t trying to call out people for having dissenting views. I have many dissenting views myself, about many topics. I was calling them out for standing on their soapboxes—
Sheila: So you stood on your soapbox.
Me: Exactly. Which is hypocritical, like I already admitted. My post was based on reactive anger. Truth be told, although I wrote specifically about COVID-19, my frustration stemmed from a variety of inter-related issues—like Trumpism, climate change denial, accusations of election fraud, Qanon, and anti-maskers, of course. I’m tired of reading lectures from people who claim to be anti-dogmatic while buying into dogmatic narratives. I’m pushing back against the people who are pushing back against—well, against efforts that I believe to be for the good of the whole. I was trying to call out the superiority complex of people who believe they’ve “seen the light”, who now mock the rest of us as indoctrinated fools.
Sheila (still calm): But your language was insulting, too. You said you don’t have time for those people—
Me: True. I could have said, “I’m tired of reading that…”
Sheila: And “so-called experts…”
Me: I know, but wasn’t that a zinger? Oh, never mind. I could have worded that differently, too. And that person who accused my post of being ego-driven … I can’t deny there’s some ego baked into every opinion I share. I don’t know if it’s possible to completely separate my writing from ego—at least without watering down my message until it’s not worth sharing.
Sheila: Isn’t that what you’re trying to do now?
Me: Sort of. I’m trying to be civilized, and offer an olive branch to those people who disagree with me but are open to reasonable dialogue.
Sheila: Glennon Doyle has some great things to say about being able to receive criticism.
Me: Which I’m perfectly willing to do. Whenever I share an opinion, I am open to both the criticism it generates and the self-reflection that criticism invokes. Moments like this present me with my greatest opportunities for growth. I actually kind of enjoy the criticism—to a point. I’ve engaged in some productive dialogue as a result of this post, though I realize there are many people who aren’t open to that. Someone pointed out that my post was “passive aggressive”, and there’s even some truth in that, since I was attacking other peoples’ viewpoints—and by extension, other people—in an indirect way. This past spring, I tried challenging people directly on their posts, which led to arguing logical points against emotional replies (which, in turn, led me to take a break from social media). Now I’ve shifted away from “trolling” other people, opting instead to post opinions on my own page—which invites people to troll me instead. It can be a vicious and divisive circle, but I’m trying to find a way to break through that.
You get the idea. Suffice to say that Sheila, as usual, has helped me to see the whole picture. To be a better man.
I appreciate that my post resonated with many people, and I stand by the essence of my message. For those offended by it, I hope my words act as a mirror, as Sheila’s questions have been a mirror for me. I would rather build bridges than fences, but I also want to shine light on issues that are important to me. COVID-19 is literally a matter of life and death, especially for the elders and immunocompromised people in our midst; we simply don’t have the luxury of waiting to act while we philosophize about all the far-reaching implications of both the disease and our attempts to mitigate it. There will be a huge post-mortem for this pandemic—sadly, both figuratively and literally. For now, we need to recognize COVID-19 for what it is: an unwelcome guest that none of us asked for, but which has the potential to devastate our health care infrastructure and lead to many untimely deaths.
I can’t relate to the struggles many people feel as a result of social distancing restrictions. I can’t say whether the collateral damage caused by lockdowns will be as devastating as the disease itself. I can’t feel others’ pain. I can’t assure anyone that vaccines are 100% safe, or explain to you in medical detail why COVID-19 is so dangerous to some and not to others. And I can’t guarantee that anything I read on the Internet is the one and only truth. I’ve never professed to know all the answers, even if the tone of my post suggested otherwise. I am horribly conflicted by the competing crises faced by humanity and the planet we live on. I am both blessed and cursed with a tendency to see all sides of an issue, and to debate myself into a state of utter confusion.
What I can say is: I believe there are times when collective action is more important than individual freedom; I believe the people who run our public health systems are doing the best they can under very difficult circumstances; and I view COVID-19 as an immediate, worldwide health crisis. For these reasons, I intend to wear a mask; minimize social contacts that are not necessary for my mental health; support my local businesses and fellow humans any way I can; and continue articulating my thoughts, as imperfect as they may be.
I could sum up the intentions of my original post as follows:
I know the effects of this pandemic are devastating for many people, and I do not want to diminish those impacts. This disease raises many philosophical issues that are difficult, if not impossible, to reach consensus about. However, I believe that COVID-19 presents a real threat to our health care infrastructure, and to a significant number of our fellow humans. I am frustrated by people who insult those who believe in mainstream science and reports from front-line workers. And I will do my part to put the collective good ahead of my personal freedom, until this crisis is behind us.
Perhaps my original post was nothing more than another piece of divisive rhetoric in a sea of competing opinions. This abridged version leaves me open to criticism or debate about the issues I’ve raised—but I hope it removes the judgemental tone that made me sound every bit as closed-minded as the people I spent 20 minutes ranting about.