Social media platforms, like nothing before them, expand our networks to include people who, without them, might have remained distant remnants from our past. That girl who peed her pants in grade 2? Found her on Facebook. That guy who broke your heart when you were 13? He tweets regularly now about his vegan diet. That cousin you haven't seen in years? You can see pictures of his kids on Instagram.
Once the initial glow of reconnecting passes, you have to come to terms with the fact that their 'stuff' shows up in your newsfeed. And you soon realize that shared childhoods and dormitory rooms do not equal shared political views. In fact, you may be subjected to disturbingly offensive opinions, and find yourself dismayed as you try to reconcile your happy memories of him/her with the person who now seems to be a total blockhead.
For too long now, I have been a deer in the headlights when it comes to these sorts of situations. But I've hit a wall. It is time to cut some people loose. I am beginning to understand that I AM allowed to give up on people. I AM permitted to shake the dust off my feet: un-friend, un-follow and disengage.
A case in point: a while back I noticed on Facebook that a guy I went to grade school with had posted a link to a video showing a nanny slapping a toddler. The story had gone viral. The child's parents had evidently suspected something was not right, and had installed a hidden camera to confirm their suspicions. The video was difficult to watch. Indeed I'm certain few could view it without thinking of painful ways to impose justice on that horrible woman.
But here's the thing.... the man who'd posted it, my childhood friend, had written the following introductory remarks: "Stupid slut! Hope the cow is in jail now!" I was gutted! My childhood pal was not on the side of the injured child. He was on the side of those who hate women and collect evidence to support that position.
Another time, I posted a link to the Oscar Pistorius verdict in which the athlete was given a ridiculously mild sentence for killing his girlfriend. The eyes of the world were on the trial in South Africa where the judge was considering Pistorius' claim that he'd thought an intruder was hiding in his bathroom when he shot multiple times through the locked door.
I provided the link to the story and commented that the verdict was an injustice. A childhood friend responded to my post with a comment that people have the right to own weapons and protect themselves in their own houses. Huh?! How could he have distilled that as the central point of the story?
Then there was the time, I tweeted a meme that listed the rules with which female elementary school teachers in Canada were forced to comply 100 years ago. The list of rules included absurdities such as: "You may not dress in bright colours". It never occurred to me that anyone would do anything other than shake their heads or laugh when they saw it. I was wrong. A distant cousin replied that society would do well to bring back those kinds of restrictions.
A woman I went to high school with (but barely knew... so why did I accept her friend-request?) posted a meme in which a gold-digging woman gets her comeuppance. In the meme, a woman rejects the proposal of a man who tells her that he has no house and no car. After she snubs him, he explains that he has no house or car, but he does have a villa and a Ferrari. The dialogue smacked of Google Translate; the drawings were bad; the meme was just pathetically lame. There was nothing about it that made overlooking its misogynistic message worthwhile, so why share it?
A Twitter friend tweeted a "hilarious" video in which a man dressed in stereotypical Arab garb abandons a gym bag near a park bench and calls out "BOOM" to the horror of the passersby. Sorry...what is the joke exactly? Pretend Muslims pranking people with pretend bombs! The woman who posted it is an activist and a victim of racial stereotyping herself. How could she not see how damaging that video was?
Here is what I am coming to terms with:
• Just because I had fun playing tetherball at recess with someone when I was 7, does not mean we will have similar political views and certainly doesn't mean I am obligated to educate him when he behaves like a troll on social media.
• Just because someone shares a common progenitor with me, doesn't mean I have to explain myself, engage with him, attempt to enlighten him, or treat him any differently than I would any other objectionable person. A shared bloodline does not make us comrades.
• Just because someone shares my passion for the same causes, doesn't mean that she sees inequities in all the same places that I do.
• Just because someone is a victim of oppression doesn't mean she is prepared to fight other people's battles, or even her own.
I'd not have been forced to learn these lessons if not for social media. Those difficult cousins? We'd not likely have discussed controversial topics at the three-funerals-per-decade encounters we'd have had otherwise. Those red-necked school friends? At occasional reunions over the years, we'd have embraced, posed for group photos and returned to our separate lives without ever knowing how disparate our positions on important topics were.
I have been tempted to deactivate my accounts, and surround myself only with like-minded people. But I know that I have been nudged, stretched and challenged by the people I engage with on social media, and I'd like to think that I've had that effect on others as well. However for my own sanity, I'm going to have to learn the rules of dis-engagement. My time is a non-renewable resource.
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