Living in the shadow of social media outrage volcanoes

Published 6:20 pm Tuesday, August 20, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

Facebook and Twitter are like active volcanoes, freshly risen and spewing lava chunks that disrupt communities and even destroy lives in the blink of an eye. Social media has redefined our cultural landscape in such dramatic ways it is unrecognizable for many.

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Volcanoes can accomplish good things — they make new land, they create opportunities for fresh starts. They have unmatched, unstoppable power and are able to accomplish big, earth-changing things nothing else can.

But volcanoes are not safe. They blow things up, set things on fire and destroy indiscriminately. Volcanoes do not care what happens when they erupt.

We are all now living below the Facebook and Twitter volcanoes, staying under shelter as often as possible, hoping and praying the next blast of liquid fire doesn’t come our way.

There is no room for nuance living in the shadow of an active volcano. That’s tragic because life without nuance is hardly life at all.

There’s a psychological concept not enough people today are familiar with called cognitive dissonance. On its face, cognitive dissonance sounds like a bad thing: The Encyclopedia Britannica says it is “the mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information.”

Cognitive dissonance is when you hold two thoughts at the same time that are — or seem to you to be — incompatible. The volcano is good; the volcano is bad.

Humans are natural-born experts at avoiding cognitive dissonance. We reject facts that don’t fit in with how our brains have defined the world around us; we smear and demean anyone who presents information we don’t like; we seek out bubbles of like-minded people and tell ourselves we have all the answers.

But cognitive dissonance can be a very good thing. It is the only path to learning new information. It can help you discover truths bigger and more nuanced than you are currently capable of comprehending. It’s essential for empathy — you cannot see things from someone else’s perspective without it.

Humans need cognitive dissonance in order to keep living as more than just animals, scared of things we don’t know and unable to learn or do anything except react to stimuli based on our preconceived beliefs.

But cognitive dissonance has been fire-bombed to hell by our social media volcanoes. On every single issue, you’re in either one camp or the other. You hate a politician or you love him. Whole movements, even nations, are either totally evil or infallibly good. Someone who said something racist is either an irredeemable monster or completely misunderstood.

Why can’t we hang on to some cognitive dissonance? Why can’t we oppose specific policies while acknowledging a politician was duly elected and is doing her job by pursuing those same policies? Why can’t someone say something stupid and also be a good person?

Probably because it’s hard and uncomfortable. It requires thoughtfulness, humility and courage — none of which are easy character traits to maintain when you live within range of the volcanoes. But it’s not impossible.

And here’s where the volcano analogy breaks down — because while we live in fear of lava, we are the ones creating the eruptions. If more and more of us choose to be thoughtful, humble and courageous online — rather than petty, spiteful and rage-fueled — there will be less and less to fear.