By Kevin Currie-Knight
What follows is the first part of three essays on the trends of increasing political and cultural polarization as well as our diminishing willingness to tolerate opposing ideas. In a sense, these are an outgrowth of previous thoughts I’ve had about toleration and its conditions. What is toleration? What does it demand from both tolerators and tolerated? What conditions can lead to its decline or its renewal? Not surprisingly, some changes in polarization and declining toleration involve the norms of social media. But what norms specifically? Here, I’ll sketch three norms in the social media age that I think affect our increasingly tense political attitudes toward one another: how we share, how we care, and how we do.
“Good fences make for good neighbors.” The saying is old and quaint, but there is something to it. Fences obscure what neighbors can see of each other. In doing that, they give neighbors more control over what each one shares.
But why do these fences – and this control over sharing – make for good neighborly relations? Because those relations require that we only know things about each other that will be instrumental in maintaining them in a healthy way. When you know that I take care of the lawn and that my kids are roughly the same age as yours, that fosters better neighborly relations. If you also knew that I vote for the tribe you think is politically despicable and have strange sexual peccadillos, that might put the relationship at risk. Arguably, the first two pieces of information are also more relevant to neighborly relations. Living near one another is made more comfortable by knowing that our kids can play together, not by knowing what happens in my bedroom with my partner.
This is “impression management,” the idea that made sociologist Erving Goffman famous. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman presents a dramaturgical theory of social interaction, where we behave around others in ways that best reflect how we’d like them to think about us. Since we may want different people – a romantic interest, colleagues at work, our children – to see us in different ways, we may change the way we present ourselves, depending on whom we are engaging with.
Sharing is a key part of this, but it is a selective sharing that also requires omitting. It isn’t insincere of me to share my sexual fantasies with my lover but not with my colleagues or kids or to accentuate a silly side of myself to my children but not to my lover or colleagues. I am showing different real aspects of myself to different people, and also being aware that other aspects of myself have the potential to distract (or be irrelevant), and that they should be held back.
What should be shared, accentuated, or held back depends on the relationships I have with those with whom I’m interacting. I might disagree with my spouse on politics, but the time we spend together need not have politics brought into it, and bringing it in might ruin our evening. My neighbor may not approve of certain aspects of my lifestyle, but she thankfully has the good sense to know that telling me this will likely solve nothing except making her feel more honest, right before our neighborly relationship implodes.
However, we live in a social media age that promotes a less discriminating ethic of transparency. I like transparency, and think that early optimists around social media got a lot right when they extolled its virtues. Evil and corruption thrive in darkness, especially when mixed with power. As a social species, we are often on our best behavior when others know what we are up to and when we know that they know.
But after fifteen or so years of experience with social media, we might return to asking to what degree being good neighbors requires having good fences. For all the good uses to which transparency can be put, is it less good when it jumps out of those lanes?
We can start by thinking about what is good about the weakening and removal of fences. Social media promised us the enhanced ability to share, and as sharers, we would supposedly receive the benefits of making it easier for others to see our pictures and videos and to hear our thoughts; to have the option of revealing more of ourselves to others. As recipients, we would have much more access to information about others – from public figures to friends we already had and everyone in between – than we’d ever had up to that point.
More information flowing between people can obviously enhance relationships. The more I know about a friend’s past, or current hardships, the better a friend I can be to them and the closer we might become. Also, there are cases where the more I feel I can reveal about myself, the more I am relieved at not having to hide what I previously hid. And the more we all share, the more likely it is that we will find groups of supportive people to share among.
One problem with [in] social media seems less that we share too much, but that we share less discriminately than we did before. Goffman’s impression-management largely depends on being judicious about what one shares with whom based on the context. Different relationships have different purposes that demand sharing [and withholding] different things. Individually, there are myriad things we could share, but each of our relationships serves certain purposes, for which only some of them are apt. My spouse, colleagues, and friends need to know different things about me, and while all of those things overlap on a Venn Diagram, most of what I share with one does not overlap what I share with others.
All of this, however, is based on a certain sensitivity to context and the discrimination that follows. What I share with whom should be based on a consideration of what information those I’m sharing with need or don’t need for the purposes of our relationship. This type of sensitivity to context is what I see less and less of on social media today, which makes sense, as social media thrives by depriving what we share of the context that bounds physical interaction.
We can take the example of teen girls’ mental health using image sharing apps like Instagram. At its root seems to be the fact that girls are sharing [and feel pressure to share] an increasing number of images of themselves. Commenters then share evaluative comments on those images. [These girls and women are also seeing an increasing number of others’ images, which they can compare with their own and increase the felt pressure to share alike.]
I’m 45 and male, so maybe I’m getting this wrong, but I can only imagine that if teen girls during my childhood were asked if they wanted the opportunity to take and share lots of pictures of themselves, to be commented on by friends, acquaintances, and strangers, most of them would not have been excited by the prospect. Quite a few would have found it gross. Yes, teens during my childhood wanted to impress others, and we certainly engaged in Goffman-style impression-management. But probably because we didn’t have access to social media, a great majority of our time was spent in situations where we weren’t sharing at all or were sharing with a group of people limited by physical proximity. Without those limitations, one can – and increasingly think that one should – share with a wider audience, and, of course, the wider audience readily shares what it thinks of what you shared.
I only used the example of teen girls and Instagram because it has been in the media of late. But obviously, this widened sense of sharing affects other groups as well. I’ve written recently about two such cases of sharing gone wild. One case was of an assistant football coach who was fired from his job after tweeting some snide things – including “fat” jokes – about then-mayoral candidate Stacey Abrams. A second case I wrote about occurred the day after Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of killing two people during an antiracist protest in Kenosha, WI. Opinions were heated, and people spent several days on social media engaging in debate over whether the verdict was justified. [That’s saying it politely.]
In these cases, too, we share and share and share when it defies contextual sense. When telling fat jokes about mayoral candidates [who may or may not have recently lost a recent race owing to racist voting laws], one should exercise care in who one tells the jokes to. One might even keep in mind that certain relationships could be jeopardized if the joke finds its way into them. This is especially so when discussing the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, first because it is a quite heated issue, and second because our opinions on it have no bearing on the outcome of the case, which has already been decided by a governmental branch set up not to be responsive to public discourse. Surely there is expressive value in sharing one’s beliefs with others, but this ideally should be balanced by thinking about with whom and under what context these things should be shared.
Your neighbor knows you as the person who lives next door, whose kids are around the same age, and who has a well-manicured yard. Your colleagues know you as the person down the hall who bangs out killer spreadsheets and is great fun at holiday parties. Your spouse, kids, and friends know yet different angles of you. Only some of these people need to know or even care about your political convictions. Impression-management has generally been about what to share and what to keep close to the vest depending on the context.
Your boss used to think you a model employee until you made a fat joke about the mayoral candidate she voted for whose candidacy she thinks was torpedoed by racist voting laws. Now “racist” is what she sees. Your neighbor used to say “Hello” to you and loved it when his kids hung out with yours, until he learned through social media that you and your spouse are swingers who are unmarried by choice. Now he thinks you are morally loose and maybe something even worse. Your extended family used to have amazing if occasional family dinners, but these have become tense ever since you learned of your differing opinions on the exoneration of Kyle Rittenhouse. In each case, indiscriminate sharing took an “us” and needlessly broke it into conflicting “thems.”
I’m not against sharing or the social media industry that trades in our willingness to do it. But sharing should be approached with more caution than we often give. Once you share, you invite others to – and this is the next essay – care about what you shared and possibly change their view of you in response to it. Maybe it will bring you and them closer together. Maybe it will drive you further apart. Maybe it will enhance your reputation. Maybe it will tarnish it. But it will have an effect. And for that reason, you might want to tighten up your impression-management.