September 26, 2012

Stick 'Em Up

The Ersatz Scholars of Facebook

er·satz (er-zahts, -sahts): Adjective. Serving as a substitute; synthetic; artificial.

Election year always riles people up, and the American voter base is more amped than I’ve ever seen in my short life.  At 31 years old, I haven’t voted in many presidential elections, but I seriously can’t remember any election year since 2000 where the dialogue was so rich, so plentiful—and so stupid.

Of course, I’m not talking about the way it happened in the days of yore, when you sat down face-to-face with someone and talked about the things that mattered to you.  I don’t hear many rich political conversations happening at bars or at shows around town, and very few people out there are trying to create hands-on political dialogues. It’s all moved to the realm of Facebook, where everyone’s a scholar, but no one reads books.

A big problem is all the image macros. The upcoming election has made for an influx of macros—picture with big letters saying something dumb—and it’s surprising how most people take them as factual when anyone could slap letters on a photo and post it on Facebook. People see these obnoxious images and decide that they “get” it, and then they share it with no thought to accuracy or truthfulness. It’s great that people are feeling empowered to speak up and talk about the issues that are important to them, but just in the act of reading and sharing a macro, the uneducated person transforms into an ersatz scholar, an expert with no credentials who can’t be told any differently. The nature of interaction on the Internet often cheapens our online dialogues and reduces them to one-up contests that eventually devolve into name-calling and slur-throwing. It is directly related to the shocking lack of learnedness that people take into political conversations. People are feeling empowered to burst into discussion that they know nothing about, such as the time a man told me that white privilege did not exist just because he’d never heard of it before. Empowerment is a double-edged sword, because now everyone wants to speak up; everyone’s got an opinion, and guess what—it’s probably stupid.

Look, I’m an educated woman.  I don’t come from a privileged family with lots of college graduates, so my smarts are a point of pride for me, and I take that very seriously. I work hard on understanding the concepts that are important to me, and I try to stay literate about those issues so that I can communicate them accurately to others. This is something that plenty of people do as a rule, and I want to surround myself with the likeminded. The problem with Facebook is that, even though you can control your friends list and your news feed, you still end up interacting with all manner of mouthbreathers who magically turn into Noam Chomsky: The Militia Edition, after they read a Gerald Massey macro.  

Political dialogue is important, and I love having it with people, but only other educated people. “Educated” doesn’t have to mean that people have an advanced degree or are able to namedrop this anarchist and that philosopher, but that they have a heartfelt desire to nourish their brain with truth. Truth is found both in print and in our conversations with people, and I like people who prioritize truth over emotion. I mention truth specifically because so often accuracy doesn’t matter to those who don’t prioritize self-education. Certain politicians are attempting to appeal to emotions and religious principles instead of discussing the facts of what needs to happen in the next four years. When one’s discussing that and educated people start mentioning truth, the pushback can be horribly cold and brutal. Uneducated people in a place of privilege aren’t known for their ability to listen well or synthesize information, and so often the response to a hard fact will be, “Well, when they don’t get what they want, they just blame people like me.”  

Educated people will take the time to examine their arguments and make sure that they’re presenting themselves well, and often the uneducated response is to lash out and fingerpoint, blame minorities or poor people—whomever their particular faction are hating on that day.  I once witnessed the Facebook failings of a drug-abusing single mother of two who hustles the system like crazy. She said she wanted to see drug testing for welfare recipients, not even realizing that she’d lose her own golden parachute if she got her wish.

I want to talk to you about politics. I really do. I wanna grab a bourbon and ginger and wax philosophical all night. I want to talk about race and gender—but only if you’re educated. You can’t be convinced that you’ve got it all figured out. You can’t be sure of your rightness if you’re going to talk to me.  Most of us are wrong about something. You have to be able to own your wrongness, learn from it, retain that information and reproduce it for others one day. Healthy dialogue will help us all to educate each other more, but I never have and never will suffer fools.