Pulling In the Same Direction

The Dangers of Expressing Black-or-White Reasoning on Social Media

11 mins read
Photo from pxfuel.com. Creative Commons Zero - CC0

The 24 hours after the most recent Democratic Party primary debate have filled me with a deep unease. All over social media, I saw views expressed by my friends and acquaintances, most of whom are Democrats (a topic in itself for another day), expressing variations of the following ideas: “My candidate is the only good candidate.” “I will not vote for person X or Y if they become the nominee.” “I don’t trust any of the candidates except for X.”

Now, in this particular instance, the ideas were being expressed with regards to the kerfuffle between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But theirs is not the exclusive province of such expressions. I am sure we have all seen similar ideas expressed in support or opposition to Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Yang, and many others.

The unease comes in when it becomes clear that 2016 is happening all over again, and Democratic voters’ propensity towards the “circular firing squad” and “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” looms ever larger.

I want to address this issue from two perspectives – holding the beliefs at all, and expressing the beliefs in public on social media. Both are dangerous.

Let us begin with an axiom: 4 more years of this present administration would be a disaster. This administration and its president have proven themselves to be grossly immoral, dangerously incompetent, and to hold values profoundly out of step with main-line American and (small “d”) democratic values, not to mention the scientific consensus on climate change. The present administration, if allowed to continue its policies for 4 more years, will set the world even further back than it already has into dangerous territory with respect to science, popular governance, toleration, and treatment of vulnerable populations. The next administration will also likely appoint two more Supreme Court justices. If the current administration is the one that enjoys this power, we will be looking at a durable 7-2 conservative Supreme Court majority for the next several decades – the same Supreme Court that at a 5-4 conservative majority has created Citizens United, effectively legalized gerrymandering and voter suppression, and sent dangerous signals on executive power and privilege. Several legal nightmare scenarios become a near certainty at 7-2.

This cannot be allowed to happen.

Now let us address the Black-or-White reasoning inherent in some of the candidate support ideas expressed above. Black-or-White reasoning entails artificially restricting one’s choices to one which is deemed “good” whereas all other choices are deemed “bad.”

I guess we need to just start by stating it simply: The candidate you support is not the only good or honest candidate. Every person on the debate stage is not only qualified to become president, but they also, to a person, have expressed and worked for policies that are in line with the values of the Democratic Party, broadly construed. The Democratic Party is, by necessity, a coalition. It must, if it is to have any chance at electoral success, encompass ideas across the spectrum of economic policy prescriptions, health care proposals, agricultural policies, trade policies, and so on. What unites every candidate on the stage, and I think every Democrat who watches, is a shared belief that the government has a role to play in making the lives of citizens better, guided by science, data, and shared values. A Biden presidency or a Yang presidency would not be disastrous when it comes to health care policy, climate policy, or foreign policy. They would take different approaches to be sure, but either of them would share a basic belief that government policy should be utilized to minimize suffering. A Warren or a Buttigieg presidency might have different approaches to trade or banking regulation. But both of them (indeed, all of the current candidates) would share a basic, bedrock belief that those policies should be shaped with an eye towards alleviating the crushing financial burdens that now sit upon people outside the top 1 percent of incomes.

The choice of a Democratic Party nominee is simply not a black-or-white, binary choice between good and bad, virtuous and vicious. It is easy to become trapped in this kind of reasoning in the click-driven, outrage-fueled social media landscape. But it’s not true. Each and every one of these nominees wakes up in the morning thinking that their ideas are the best ones for addressing the real concerns and the real pains of their constituents. Each of them represents a distinct improvement over the current dumpster fire in the White House.

OK. So we’ve dispensed with that. But now the real tricky part comes in. It is profoundly dangerous to express this kind of all-or-nothing reasoning on your social media feeds, or in person, to friends and acquaintances.

There was a time in which you might express this sort of opinion to a friend or a spouse. Your opinion might have the effect of changing theirs, or softening their individual resolve to vote in the next election. And so the harm to electoral prospects, though real, was minimal. But we do not live in that time any more. Now, when you express an opinion on social media, tens of thousands of people, if not more, are exposed to it.

“So what?” You might ask. Well, study after study has shown the out-sized effects that social media have on individual behavior and ideation. Being exposed to an idea, however false, invariably moves the person exposed to it towards belief in that same idea. If someone spreads a false story or image about an event or belief held by a candidate, people move towards believing it in appreciable numbers. If you express a false equivalency between candidates, regardless of the education level of and prior beliefs held by the listener, the persons exposed will move towards believing it.

How many times did you hear “There’s no difference between Trump and Hillary” in 2016? How many of your friends and relatives wrote in a candidate, voted for a third party candidate, or simply stayed home, based on that belief? Why do you think messages like these were the ones chosen by outside actors who were attempting to tip the scales in Trump’s favor in 2016?

In addition to simply not holding them, we must not express these sorts of beliefs over social media. They are dangerous, and they have real, measurable effects on the behavior of those exposed to them.

I want to close this piece by addressing an opinion expressed by one particular friend of mine. When I cautioned him as to the dangers of Black-or-White reasoning with respect to his support of a particular candidate and his disdain for the others, he wrote this: “sometimes you gotta let people move further toward the bad before they’re ready to embrace the good.”

I have heard and seen variations of this many times over the past few years – we have to let things get worse before they can get better. Allowing this administration to destroy X, Y, or Z is a necessary precondition to improving it in the future. And while I am sure this was not the intent of the persons expressing it, I can have only one response to it: this is a grotesquely immoral thing to say.

No potential future scenario justifies allowing or inflicting suffering upon human beings in the present. Real children will be separated from their parents and interned in camps, with lasting psychological damage inflicted. Real people will be denied food stamps and needed medicines, increasing their suffering and reducing their positive health outcomes. Real and accelerating damage will be done to the environment, increasing suffering and reducing happiness for potentially billions of future human beings.

We need to work together now to reduce the suffering of our fellow human beings both now and in the future. You almost certainly believe that your candidate of choice offers the best slate of proposed solutions to these problems. But 80% of what you want is better than 0%. And even if it were only a 1% reduction of suffering, that reduction carries with it an ethical responsibility to try one’s best to make it happen. Please be careful with what you express on social media, and please guard yourself against the sort of Black-or-White reasoning that allows the perfect to become the enemy of the good.

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