With the U.S. Presidential Election season out of the gate, a shrill bloodbath of social media soon will decry or herald the records of President Barack Obama and Republican presumptive challenger, Governor Mitt Romney. Triumphs of software engineering, trumpets like Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and other infant terribles of the digital age will push all our buttons: favoring the candidates we already like (at least a little), and vilifying candidates we consider “ones who dare not be named.”
The rancor of quadrennial duopoly plays out as Red vs. Blue states, as Republicans vs. Democrats. But the rancor of mightful rite plays out daily, not every two- or four-years through an election cycle. And we’re no longer playing for the high-stakes aphorisms of the White House, the Senate or the House of Representatives.
No, the game is now played as cause vs. cause, like MAD Magazine’s Spy vs. Spy, but for real stakes: jobs, families, healthcare, environment, taxes, regulatory relief, schools.
Without much notice, social media entitled every well-intended to bully and outshout its opposition, by making the cause’s relative importance (relative to other causes) omni-important, beyond question, dialogue or simple "aren't we all in this together still" logic.
Take women’s rights and veteran’s rights, as powerfully championed examples.
There was a time, in the 1960s, when civil rights were equally and compellingly so for a swath of American diversity starting with African Americans, and extending through the entirely infinite spectrum of racial, ethnic, religious and other demographic Norman Roockwell and Dianne Arbus portraits making up America as a landscape founded by immigrants. No more. Women’s rights seem an unattainably unfillable pit, despite Women’s Bar Association control of divorce courts so as to control men’s past and future earnings, and criminalize failures to pay unaffordable child support (even in the worst recession in 60 years). Women deserve equal rights to those of every other gender, male, LGBT, every gender. But do women's rights in parenthood or other society functions deserve to be elevated, championed, shouted from the rooftops to drown out the possibility of a pendulum swinging too far, or road-killing fathers and fatherhood in the process? Indeed, women can never achieve and should never seek de facto or de jure omnipotence, because they deserve and have justifiably won "gender neutral" equality.
Now take veteran’s rights. Brave men and women answer the call to enlist and serve our country in times of peace and war, and put their lives on the line as part of their jobs or as is the honor of fulfilling their duty to safeguard our freedoms. Police officers, fire department officers, teachers, emergency responders, good Samaritan volunteers, construction workers, trade union members and innocent bystanders every day knowingly and often instinctively rush to put their lives and futures on the line, as do small business owners, factory workers, transportation employees and journalists. So where and when did we as a country decide that veterans deserve a different place in line for healthcare, re-education, a decent job at decent pay, housing, protection from creditors and other benefits, ahead of the civilian population that they serve, and that, through civilian procurement contracts serves them, building their barracks and vehicles, educating their kids, raising the food they eat and keeping the water they drink safe? Are veterans and their families making heroic sacrifices for which they too often pay with physical, mental, familial and economic consequence? Yes. Do the rest of us take similar chances on behalf of others, with similar consequences? Yes.
Why is any of this relevant to social media and the Presidential Campaigns using it? One could just as easily ask whether climate change is the only issue worth discussing, when public health, jobs, the economy, a banking system left over from the Information Age, and other topics lay along the roadside barely noticed by any politician, except their issue fans or foes.
America used to be a great nation because we knew how to come together. After World War II, 9/11, Hurricanes, Deep Water Horizon Oil Spills and other disasters, Americans knew how to contextualize everyone as a neighbor in need of their own mix of supports through the challenges of individual and group lifecycle events.
Politics and funding in the Social Media Era risk demonizing anyone having what the social media broadcaster says must be given before anyone else earns or gets their equal rights or attention. Tribalism risks becoming mob rule, with control of whole areas of the economy, courts, tax system, banks and other infrastructure bits of America as civil society pealed and cordoned off in an arrogance of virtue, insatiably feeding off a menu of unequal rights and privileges, claiming to be about balance and fairness earned or entitled.
I was a photographer for Senator George McGovern in 1972, and a lifelong Democrat from an immigrant Jewish family heritage of Democrats. My politics are straight and true liberal.
But liberal or conservative, Tea Party or Occupy Movement, Blue State or Red State, Americans are poaching off the decency of America the Land of Equal Opportunity - turning America into the Great Land of Opportunists and Opportunisms. Stacking the decks and courts won’t get women’s rights balanced by threatening men’s rights and fatherhood of soldier dad or civilian dad, pitting women's and veteran's rights against each other. Promoting jobs and healthcare for veterans in debt to banks for payday loans, won’t assure getting vets meaningful jobs in, or the capital to start, small businesses when they can’t get credit from banks that only lend to Fortune 1000 companies (who, like governments, in turn slow-pay their small business suppliers). Championing climate change and cleantech while poor neighborhoods starve for decent food, healthcare and housing won’t stop the crime and violence nightly killing or imprisoning a growing African-American, Hispanic and white underclass in America.
This Presidential Election cycle, social media will message the wedges to divide us from ourselves as neighbors. Abortion, the classic wedge, will come out to rally faith-based communities for the unborn, to take focus away from how as immigrants we were all (nearly all other than Native Ameicans) “once strangers in this strange land” (Exodus 23:9) and should be looking out for each other’s quality of life, beyond how we procreate life.
Social media, as a bludgeon, is susceptible of favoring the issue bully, who does not debate the issue, but instead intimidates equally valid voices, as if to shame them, and in the process closes up our ears and minds to learn of all sides in the debate.
The disabled veteran and the disabled civilian deemed unfit to serve, are both disabled. The PTSD suffered through the trauma of war-fighting, is as debilitating as the PTSD stiffened and suffered through the peacetime fights for equal rights and justice in work settings, courtrooms, agency hearing rooms and life. So why would the peacetime civilian be left to fend for himself or herself unentitled to healthcare, and the veteran given politicians’ ingratiating embrace of election year promises of healthcare? Veteran's disability status should focus, but not determine, America’s resolve to bolster adequate care and compassion for the disabled. Neither should “any gender but male” determine claims to gender equality or protection from domestic violence or justify using parenthood to line the pockets of divorce lawyers and profiteers.
The Internet is a powerful mode for informing conversation and augmenting Doug Engelbart’s ideal of “collective intelligence.” With HootSuite to pile up and pile on 24/7 messaging, Facebook to celebritize causes, and Twitter to shout 140 character acronyms at every issue that has or will form an association in the Washington DC phonebook, it is time this Presidential Election season to exercise a bit of curation, to filter out and turn off the social media of those whose causes can never be won, because winning them or tolerating the equality of contextualizing them, would put the industry built up to proclaim any single cause as supreme, out of business.
America is not a business. It’s a neighborhood, physical, human, social and digital.
Let’s act through social media to rebuild neighbors and neighborhoods.