Friday, April 9, 2010

Thrown Into the Box

He called me an idiot.  He didn't say, "I'd like to disagree with you on this point" or "You may want to reconsider your thinking when you make a comment like that".  Nope.  He just wrote "you're a freaking idiot", and that was that.  I was a bit taken-back by the cold swiftness of his response at the time, but I think I'm much more used to it by now.   In the early days, I would feel the embarrassment creep up on me, sense my ears turning red.  I didn't like people disagreeing with  me.  And I certainly didn't like it that someone else didn't seem to like me.  I like to be liked.  But I got over it.  If you want to survive out there in Facebook-Land, you have to take the chink in your armor and move on.

I haven't decided what to make of Facebook.  In a way, I'm not really sure what it's for.  Oh, sure, I understand that it's "social networking", but for what?  I told my friend Brad the other day that he should be on Facebook.  After I wrote that to him in an email, I paused and thought to myself, "Why did I tell him that?  I'm not even sure why I'm on Facebook."  I have connected with a few people from my past and that's been interesting.  We've mostly discovered that we're old and that the things we remember about ourselves happened a really long time ago.  It's also been nice to be able to view photos and videos of people I haven't seen for a long time, or of business acquaintances and partners I've yet to meet.

Aside from  realizing that I have absolutely zero interest in involving myself in this "Farmville" escapade, I have also learned a few things from my involvement on Facebook.  I've learned that most people's day-to-day lives are, like mine, pretty hum-ho, that some people forward some cool videos, and that others throw out F-bombs because, well, they can .  But more importantly, I've learned through Facebook that the battle-lines regarding politics and religion are drawn as succinctly as ever, and that in order to survive all those chinks in your armor, you're expected to jump in one box or the other.

I've been involved in numerous discussions over the past couple of months, especially regarding topics like the health-care crisis and the latest scandal rocking the Vatican.  Reading through various posts, it's generally easy to see where people stand.  It's also easy to see how simple it is for people to automatically lump one another into categories without too much effort.  In favor of a government-run health-care solution?  Well, you must have a Nancy Pelosi poster on your wall.  And you probably recycle.  You attended a Tea Party rally?  Then you must be a subscriber to Glenn Beck's newsletter.  And you're probably going to the shooting-range this weekend.  On Facebook, reveal one thing about yourself, and your DNA is instantly visible.

I don't like being placed into a box.  But they exist.  I responded to a post from a friend-of-a-friend who mentioned something to the effect of "don't people take care of each other anymore".  I responded, light-heartedly, that "that could be misconstrued by those who don't watch MSNBC as socialism".  Did I place someone else "in a box" with my comment?  Possibly.  And the responses flew back at me!  One friend assumed that I must be a liberal because I watch MSNBC and that they're ratings are so low that "they got beat by the Cartoon Network".    

We place ourselves in boxes all the time.  Simply by joining a political party, you've categorized yourself, and others assume that you nod in agreement to that party's every whim.  I suppose the same could be said of religion.  As a Catholic, most people would assume that I'm Pro-Life, that I don't believe that there should be gay-marriage, and that capital punishment is against God's law.  But even if I say what I am, can I not jump out of the box?  Can I say I'm a Progressive and be against abortion?  Can I say I'm a Conservative and still support the passing of the health-care bill?

Some of the pundits say we're all shaped by the media, that talk radio, for instance, has contributed to the dividing lines, the strictly-designed fences that round us up and toss us into a category, and then judge us as such.  I agree.  I frankly think the current evolution of modern talk radio sucks.  Consultants and program directors urge most hosts to be "compelling" as they like to say, and they help them achieve it by asking them to be outlandish, to take a strong stance, and to create havoc.  In fact, some consultants don't even refer to them as hosts as much as they call them "brands".  It's true that most of these hosts are of the right-wing variety.  Rush, Hannity, Beck, and Savage are easy to find on most radio dials.  But they don't do much to blur the lines of the boxes.  While it's understandable to have a strong opinion, it might also be refreshing to have one of these national "brands" actually engage consistently in substantive discourse without relegating themselves to nine-minute intervals of party talking-points, Marxist hysteria, or far-flung political conspiracy theories.  And it's not just Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity.  Ed Schultz, Randi Rhodes, and Bill Maher are guilty of it, too.  But those genteel discussions don't generate ratings.  "That," they'd probably say, " is what NPR is for".  

I'm not advocating sitting on the middle of the fence.  I appreciate strong opinions.  I have some myself.  But I think we're predestined towards "black and white" and "either/or".  We don't like "gray".  There's no time for it.  I'm a 23-year radio veteran so I understand the consultants who talk about all the listening options that are available today, and how it's of the utmost importance for hosts to make their case with "Topic A" and then get to the phones before tune-out occurs.  But sometimes an opinion can't be summed up in a thirty-second phone call to some radio talk-show host right before he gets to his next commercial break.  "What do I think of the health-care bill?"  I have a great deal of opinions about the passing of the health-care bill, but I'm not sure it can be summed up during my tenure as "caller 7" on a Thursday afternoon.  And I don't think my affiliation with a party should encapsulate how I should feel about it.  I want the lowest premiums and the best coverage, and I don't want to pay $239.00 for a prescription.  Is that Republican or Democrat?

Yes, I do watch MSNBC.  Yes, I DVR Real Time with Bill Maher.  I also occasionally tune in to Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and the Fox News channel.  Do I have a tendency to roll my eyes a bit more when listening to the latter?  Yes.  But I've never been a "black and white" guy.  While growing up in a particularly strict Catholic household, some tenets of the faith just seemed...dumb to me, which probably expalins why I'm not a very good Catholic.  Even in the seminary, I looked for other contemplative ways to enhance my spiritual development, some of them in direct opposition to traditional Judeo-Christian methods.  I like the fact that there can be two sides to every story, that every once in awhile the "gray area" appears, and that consideration has to be given to it.  Hell, even though I don't agree with his vision of America, I think it's cool that Mike Huckabee plays bass guitar in a band!

Maybe that's what Facebook is, though.  Perhaps it's sort of like a talk show, and when you post a comment, you are "caller 7" at that moment.  You make your case, you're judged, thrown into the box, and then you move on to the next post.   With all of these social networking sites, who you are is very much "in the now":  I'm doing this, and then I'm going to do that.  Or, here's a link to this story I came across, and now you know how I feel about it.  I guess it, in the end, is an invitation to be automatically tossed into a category.  "Look at that," they say to themselves. "Matt is in favor of gay marriage, therefore he MUST also believe this..."

I'm sure I'll be called a "freakin' idiot" a couple dozen more times before Facebook evolves into something else or flames out, or whatever.  Until then, I'll play along with the rest of my "friends".  I will speak out, though, if I come across instances of blatant fallacious reasoning.  An old friend of mine stated that during the warm days earlier in the week, he was "sitting on his deck, drinking a beer.  When it's this cold it doesn't matter what kind of beer it is".  As a certified good-beer geek, I felt it to be my duty to respond. "Dude,", I wrote. "Are you a freakin' idiot??!!"


Image: renjith krishnan /

Image: Francesco Marino /

Image: renjith krishnan /

Image: Francesco Marino /

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