2018年11月29日 星期四

Unpopular Opinions


How are you feeling about the last election?  I'm feeling kind of depressed.  I'm not nearly as depressed as I was during the last U.S. presidential election, but I do find myself wondering just what direction Taiwan is headed in.

This said, I think I'll leave the reasons for my depression out of this entry.  They are somewhat personal, and I feel like including them will only trigger people.  These reasons are also in this instance somewhat beside the point, because what I really wanted to talk/write about is unpopular opinions, and why it might be good to have a few.

Let's start with Facebook, which we all know and which some of us still love.  Let's say you post something there, expecting some kind of response or affirmation.  Someone likes your post.  Someone else shares your post, and then it's seen somewhere else on Facebook, where it's liked by others.  After a while you feel pretty good about what you posted, and you also feel that the response to what you posted reflects on you, the original poster.  "I'm worthwhile," you might think to yourself, "What I think - as reflected in what I post - matters."

You could do the same on Reddit, a more anonymous forum for thoughts and opinions.  Let's say you post something there, also expecting some kind of response.  Someone upvotes your post.  Someone else crossposts your post, where it's seen on another subreddit, and then upvoted by others.  As with Facebook, you feel pretty good about what you posted, and you might even think your upvoted post reflects on your worthiness as a person.



The opposite is of course also true.  Returning to Facebook, let's say that you post something and no one likes it.  Let's say that no one bothers to share.  After a while you might feel somewhat depressed about what you posted, and you might come to think that you posted something "wrong," or expressed yourself poorly, or that the lack of likes reflects upon your worth as a person.  "What's wrong with me?" you might think, "No one cares enough about what I say to like it!"

It could just as easily go the same way on Reddit.  No upvotes for you, my friend.  Nay, even a few downvotes!  Suddenly people are attacking you on a personal level, and you spend the next few days in a black depression, waiting for the storm of downvotes and negative comments to subside.  Then, after those trying few days, everyone on Reddit miraculously forgets about the whole thing, and you're left to ponder the gravity of your next post.

The reality being that we often over-identify with our online selves, and also with the social media our online selves inhabit.  We come to see people's ("friend's?") online responses to us as a reflection of our true worth as a person, and we come to see social media as an all-encompassing reflection of the world around us.  What we are online matters to us.  What we say to each other about our online world also matters.

We get into trouble, however, when we fail to realize that there are limits to our online selves, and that they are at best pale reflections of who we really are.  We get into trouble when we fail to realize that a lot of the outside world isn't reflected in our social media, and that attempts by social media to measure that wider reality always fall short of the mark.



Politics is one example.  Much has been made in recent weeks about how Facebook "radicalizes" political discourse, with more likes given to increasingly extreme points of view.  In such situations it is virtually impossible to reach any kind of consensus, the very thing that political discourse ought to be trying to reach.  Such "radicalizing" conversations also take a toll on the individuals participating in them, in that prejudices become hardened, and opposing views are increasingly viewed as threatening.  

It's in the nature of Facebook to do this to people.  It increases participation.  It generates clicks.  You don't need some team of hackers to break in and spread "fake news."  Given enough time we'll do it to each other, all for the sake of likes.

I've had similar experiences with Reddit.  You might think the anonymity of most Reddit users would tone down the political rhetoric, but in many cases the opposite occurs.  Hungry for upvotes, the two sides of any discussion argue points they don't really believe in with increasing vehemence, merely to win an ephemeral kind of community approval.  I've even had people tell me I was "wrong" simply because I didn't have the most upvoted comment, as if that kind of approval signaled a greater degree of correctness, or was more reflective of a larger reality.  Let me put it this way: if it was 1939 and the Nazis had a Reddit group, you can be sure that all the nationalistic and anti-semitic comments would be getting the most upvotes.

What worries me most is when this kind of thinking bleeds out into the world beyond the Internet.  When people continually assume that the most popular opinion is the right opinion for everyone, we're in real trouble.  What people justify with likes and upvotes can be just as easily justified by actual votes, in actual elections, where actual issues matter.  Say for example gay marriage.  Or the name your country's sports team uses.  Or whether nuclear power has a place in Taiwan's future.



Just because something is popular doesn't make it right.  Just because something is good for most people doesn't make it good for everyone.  This is why someone coined the phrase "tyranny of the majority," and why protections extended to minority groups (and minority opinions) are important in any democracy.  We need to remain on guard against the fact that popular opinion often goes the wrong way, just as it did in Nazi Germany in the late 30s and early 40s.  Most people are perfectly capable of believing any number of ridiculous things, and we only protect ourselves from this fact by allowing dissent, and learning from opposing points of view.

With this situation comes another fact of democratic life: the need to make your voice heard.  Participants in any democracy have a responsibility to translate their thoughts and interests into political activity, especially if these thoughts and interests are unpopular.  It is through the dialogue thus engendered that change occurs, and it is through this dialogue that a democratic state comes to reflect present values.  If people don't participate, and if they don't make their voices heard, then the nation as a whole suffers, and our laws and institutions less accurately reflect our society.

In Taiwanese terms, this means coming into conflict with others and/or embarrassing yourself.  I know many Taiwanese people who fear nothing more than disagreement and the airing of unpopular opinions, primarily because disagreements and unpopular opinions seem to endanger social harmony.  A lot of this thinking goes back to Confucian ideals, but it contradicts the principles on which democracy is based.  A fully-functioning democracy demands your participation.  A fully-functioning democracy demands that you risk pissing off friends, relatives, and strangers.  A fully-functioning democracy demands that you fight for what you think is right (within legal limits of course).

It's not so different on Facebook or Reddit.  You can be popular on either platform by saying either bland things or by agreeing with popular opinion.  You can do so, and over time you'll feel loved.  But over time you have to ask yourself, are you really speaking for yourself, or are you speaking for others?  Are you controlling social media, or is it controlling you?  Are you a reflection of Facebook, Reddit, or existing institutions, or are you determined to make Facebook, Reddit, or existing institutions reflections of yourself?  Of course some people, rallying behind the cry of "realism" will always urge you to conform, but is that always the best course for everyone?

A lot of people didn't vote in the last election.  Maybe they were busy.  Maybe they forgot.  I don't know.  But I hope more of us vote the next time, and I hope more of us vote with our hearts and with our consciences.  I can't blame anyone who conscientiously voted against issues I care about - at least not in this instance - but I can blame those who voted, or didn't vote, because they feared disapproval.  After all it's not about likes, upvotes or social censure, but about matters much more important.



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