Guest columnist Olin Rose-Bardawil: Merely reacting only fuels rancor

By OLIN ROSE-BARDAWIL

Published: 11-25-2023 7:15 AM

In recent years, it has become clear that social media platforms have the capacity to deepen social polarization and worsen the already dire political situation.

Many of the negative effects of social media on our political environment are well known and are discussed frequently; we have heard about echo chambers and misinformation, divisiveness, and the like.

But another symptom of modern social media culture is that we are exposed to constant tragedy and controversy on an international scale, and there is little we can do to drown out this constant stream of bad news coming from our personal feeds.

We are not designed to react to tragedy on a global scale with such regularity, as it is simply too much for us to process cognitively and emotionally. We continue to be bombarded with it, though, and it seems as if every day there is a new debate, crisis, or tragedy to which we must respond. If we do not, we will become complacent, society tells us. To have no opinion is to side with the aggressors.

We often take to social media to provide our thoughts following a crisis or when there is a political debate on a national or international level. We look to others’ posts to decide “which side we are on.”

Even if we lack knowledge or understanding of the nuances of a specific situation, we are expected as citizens of the world to respond in some way or another.

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And because of the way social media is designed — as we know, it actively invites vitriol and divisive rhetoric — our responses don’t usually draw from our best selves. Instead, they pull from our fear, confusion, and worst assumptions about people.

If you have ever felt the strong urge to respond to a comment that you disagree with on Twitter, Instagram, or another platform, then you know what I mean. It’s as if all the common sense and comportment you would have if you were talking to that individual face-to-face vanish, only to be replaced by something you are much less proud of. When you can hide behind the mask that is your screen, it becomes much easier to justify extreme reactions.

This fact has been strikingly evident since Hamas attacked Israel in October. If you talk to someone who is generally politically knowledgeable, chances are they will have some stance about this conflict to share with you.

Rather than seeing the deep complexity of the situation or showing sympathy for all who have suffered amid the conflict, it is more likely that we will be fervently on the side of Israel or Palestine, depending on our existing political beliefs, religious values, or simply the sources we have been predominately exposed to in learning about the conflict.

Sadly, so many of us do not know enough about the intricacies or nuances of the conflict in the Middle East to have any truly informed opinion. We are not knowledgeable at the levels that a scholar of the Middle East would be. In political circles to express a strong opinion signals complacency, though, so we adopt stances with the authority of one who is a true scholar.

As a result, the conflict has been a point of division and hatred not only in the Middle East where it is taking place, but also here in the U.S., where it has paralyzed college campuses and turned people against one another. People on different sides can often no longer talk to each other without an utter hatred for the other’s opinion dominating the interaction. Even the language I just used of “sides” and “the other” indicates how deeply ingrained in our society binary ideological division and tribalism have become.

The solution to this social crisis is not simple, but changing the attitude around our responses is a necessary start.

Marcus Aurelius, the ancient Roman emperor and stoic hero who has gained renewed attention in recent years through the modern popularization of Stoicism, wisely recognized in his private journal now known as “Meditations” that you are not obligated to have an opinion on an issue that is outside of your control: “You always own the option of having no opinion. Things you can’t control are not asking to be judged by you,” Aurelius reminded himself amid the chaos of the Roman Empire.

Your choosing to have no opinion is not complacency. Simply saying “I don’t know enough about that to say one way or the other” does not mean you do not care, but rather shows that you want to acknowledge the presence of moral complexity.

In fact, it can be the most helpful thing you can do in a heated situation. Because when you avoid involvement in conflicts to which you have nothing to contribute, the words or thoughts you provide in the situations you do truly understand become all the more important and powerful.

Despite what the world of social media outrage and 24-hour news cycles try to tell you, being silent and reflecting before adopting an ideological stance does not have to mean you are indifferent to the suffering of others. If you use it right, to learn and investigate, such a period of reflection could yield the most powerful stance you can take.

Olin Rose-Bardawil is a student at the Williston Northampton School. He is the editor in chief of his school’s newspaper, The Willistonian. He lives in Florence.