The Very Least We Owe

“The medium is the message.” That was the late Marshall McLuhan’s theory—a big deal when I was studying communications in the 1960s. I thought then that I understood what he was suggesting, but I didn’t fully appreciate it until the past couple of weeks.

McLuhan argued that technological innovations disrupt and shape society. Prime example: the printing press that led to the Reformation. Would McLuhan ever have a field day studying social media!

I’m not a frequent flyer on Facebook. Yet even from my remote corner of the world I’m aware that a vast number of people view it as their primary news source, that information is manipulated, data are breached, and a five billion dollar fine is chump change for Mark Zuckerberg. It all seemed so remote until it hit home.

I’d written what I thought was a mild but straight-forward endorsement of a school board candidate, sent it to the newspaper as a letter to the editor, and posted it on Facebook. Not one person has commented on the letter in the newspaper. The Facebook post generated a flurry of responses, both thumbs up and heated criticism, including a debate over whether Facebook is an appropriate place for campaign dialogue.

Appropriate or not, Facebook is the place where people show up. It’s doggone hard to get a crowd at informational meetings or voters’ forums.

Ordinarily, school board races are ho-hum; we feel fortunate if we get a single, viable candidate for each slot. The excitement over this one stems from a twice-failed bond issue for a proposed new middle school. The district tried holding open houses to explain the need. People turned out by the handful. The majority of voters approved the proposal, 1,306 to1,132, but that failed to meet the state-mandated sixty percent approval. It appears our small community is just as polarized as the rest of the nation.

How do we get back to agreeing with each other for the greater good? Social media?

Megan Phelps-Roper is a former member of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, known for its hate speech. In a TED talk, she asks and answers the question, “If you’re raised to hate, can you reverse it?” Her inspiration for leaving the church, a courageous act that made her a pariah to her family, came from conversations on Twitter. Not the medium I’d expect for theological conversion.

Essayist Jia Tolentino is quoted in the New York Times arguing that posting on Facebook or Twitter “makes communication about morality very easy but makes actual moral living very hard.”

Social psychologist Robb Willer says we can bridge the political divide by listening to and understanding the values that are most important to the other side. He says liberals are most likely to value equality and fairness while conservatives place their highest value on loyalty and patriotism. Well, shoot. I can embrace all those values. Can’t you?

“Empathy and respect,” are the bridge, says Willer. “If you think about it, it’s the very least we owe our fellow citizens.”

His solution is doable, if not always easy. And, no. There’s no app for that. There’s only the willing heart.