When Leah and I were still reading together each night, one of the last book series that were read through was Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan. Leah loved the books. Me, not so much. However, there was one scene in the first book, The Lightning Thief, that resonated with me as we read it together. It still resonates with me today. It was a chapter called The Lotus Hotel and Casino. In this story (which borrowers freely from the structure of Harry Potter), a young boy named Percy discovers that he is a demi-god and goes to a camp on Long Island Sound in New York to hone his Olympian skills. There, he becomes friends with a smart girl and a goofy male centaur and they end up on a cross-country adventure to retrieve Zeus’ lightning bolt, which has been stolen. Eventually, their trek brings them to Las Vegas. If you are familiar with U.S. geography then, you will appreciate that it is a long way from Long Island in NY to Las Vegas. In the story, the three kids are tired and hungry and willingly enter a place called the Lotus Hotel and Casino. Once inside, they are amazed by what they see. The casino is filled with beautiful people, music is pumping, lights are flashing, everyone is having a blast! They are offered as much cool drinks and tasty food as they can manage. The staff of the casino welcome the three friends with open arms and cater to their every need and desire. It is almost as if the three friends have stumbled upon paradise. It is only after talking to some of the other casino guests that Percy realizes those folks have been there for fifty years or more! He shakes off the drug-induced effects of the tasty treats they are being fed and realizes that, in fact, the Lotus Hotel and Casino is a trap; a pleasurable trap but, a trap, none-the-less. Percy manages to shake his friends out of their stupor and escapes back out into the real world, where life is tougher but, where he and his pals are meant to be.
The reason this scene resonated with me is because I often feel that my social media world is a lot like the Lotus Hotel and Casino. This is, especially, true of Facebook.
One of the appeals of being involved in social media is the ability to have contact with people we like without ever having to leave our homes. The Internet connects us all effortlessly. It is easy to reach out to many like-minded people at the click of a button. If we don’t want to be connected with someone, we don’t have to be. We can pick and choose who we interact with and, because we usually pick people we like and who like what we like, we often find ourselves in a positive-feedback loop. In this loop, we post things like photos of our families, songs that we like, places we are travelling to, recipes and so on. In reply, our like-minded friends send us “thumbs up” or “hearts” and reinforce our opinions of what we had posted as being worthwhile. We exist happily in this positive-feedback loop which is why it is so easy to spend way too much time on sites such as Facebook.
That is why it is often shocking when one of our “friends” posts something controversial. I don’t mean controversial, in the sense of a topic such as child abuse or animal testing but rather, controversial in the sense that is goes against the belief system of your social media family; the ones who think like you and who always reinforce each others opinions and posts. What happens when a “friend” strays out of their lane, as it were? Here are three examples of this happening recently, what this tells us about the person who made the post and why our responses to such a post are important.
First of all, I have a relative who almost exclusively posts funny memes. Keri and I get a chuckle most days from what this relative posts. She is a good person. But, every now and again, she will post something that has a nostalgic-bent to it. Something like how life was back in the “good old days” when kids were taught respect with a strap at school and a spanking at home and how they ended up turning out “ok” in life. Sometimes, folks, especially if they are older, find the multi-cultural, multi-task oriented way of our world overwhelming. I get that. I may not agree with it but, I get where they are coming from. So, when this relative recently shared a meme that said, “There is only one Messiah and His name is not Allah. Share if you agree”, I took note. I did not share her post as I did not agree with the anti-immigration undertone it was trying to promote. The meme was created by a group called Canada Proud which is a group whose aim is manipulate public opinion through social media, particularly, promoting a white nationalist agenda. Many of their posts are anti-immigration. So, what to do about my relative who shared the meme? Well, first of all, I know this person and she has a good heart. In my heart, I truly believe that she did not completely understand the subliminal messaging going on. My guess is that because she lives in a small town served by Post Media newspapers (who promote a Conservative point of view) and because of her longing for the “good old days” when life appeared simpler that, she was drawn to this message of a white Christian God being venerated. My response was to note how susceptible she was to right-wing Conservative messaging and to start sending her posts about the positive contributions immigrants are making in Canada so as to counter-balance the information she is getting. While I acknowledge that not every immigrant is a wonderful person, I do, generally speaking, believe that most are good and I welcome the opportunity they present for me to broaden my own horizons, as well as, to indulge in my penchant for wanting to be helpful to others who may need help. I believe in multiculturalism, as do many of my Facebook friends but, as my relative’s post indicated to me, not everyone shares the same opinion as I do and that is an important reminder to receive.
My second example of a post that caught me off-guard came from a respected friend of mind who had grown tired of, what she termed, “political correctness run amok”. She shared a video of a statue of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, being removed from its pedestal in a public square. The person in the video decried the rush to erase “our History” based on people judging the past actions of others through the lens of modern day values. I was surprised that my friend had shared this video because, normally, she is on the Left, politically, and usually supports a Progressive agenda. So, unlike how I reacted to my relative in Example #1, in this case, I reached out directly to my friend. I asked her if she was aware that the statue was being removed because of what we have learned, as a country, about Sir John A. MacDonald’s role in the establishment of Residential schools and the attempt at cultural genocide inherent in that policy against our First Nations peoples. I had read the recently published report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was established to look into policies and practises surrounding the establishment of Residential schools. In that report, it was noted that one of the intentions of the government’s policies was to “take the Indian out of the child” and accelerate the assimilation process of First Nations peoples into white society. My friend and I had a robust discussion, with each of us presenting our opposing views in a respectful manner. Neither of us wanted our friendship to crash on the rocks of an argument so, in the end, we agreed to disagree. But, the whole incident brought home another point for me and that was, how easily we can become seduced by, what we deem to be, the “obvious” moral superiority of our belief systems. To me, if we are going to criticize Trump for separating migrant children from their parents at the southern border, how do we not equally hold a historical figure like Sir John A. MacDonald to account as well? Well, as my friend showed me, sometimes the lens I view life through is not the same one that others apply to their decisions. It is easy to criticize a decision someone makes that varies from one’s own beliefs but, to ignore the idea that others think differently about matters that seem crystal clear to you, is pure folly.
My final example is about something I recently posted and about YOUR reaction to it. It was on the subject of Abortion and of a woman’s right to control what happens to her own body. I shared a letter from a female friend of mine who wrote a well-stated, passionate letter about women’s rights and how frightening it is that those rights seem to be under attack from Conservative elements across Canada and the U.S. Knowing that this post was important to her….and, because I wanted to show my support of her views….I shared her post on my feed. I did so with a fair degree of confidence that her views would be well-received by my Facebook “friends” because, as stated above, the vast majority of my friends share my views on a lot of things. My Facebook “friends” did not disappoint! Her post received many Likes and Shares and earned her lots of supportive comments. Most of what I post turns out like this. People, generally-speaking, agree with the positive nature of what I write or of what I share on behalf of others. But, it was the reaction to what I posted a day later that tells an important tale here.
After posting the “My Body, My Choice” post from my friend, I heard from my high school pal, Eric. As I said in my second post, Eric was one of my best friends all through high school. He has gone on to become a Church Minister back in Nova Scotia. He said that he had seen my friend’s post but felt obligated to reach out to me because he said I wasn’t getting the whole story on this issue. He went on to tell me about how many of the women he counsels in his capacity of a Minister have taken Jesus into their hearts and are morally conflicted about ever taking the life of, what they consider to be, an unborn child. He added that, for many of these women, they feel that following the teachings and philosophies of the Lord trumps their own quest for rights as a woman. Eric offered up a video that I ended up sharing because, as he stated, it is important to be able to have a conversation about contentious topics in as respectful manner and, in his mind, the woman in the video was speaking as gently and respectfully as he could want her to be. In my post of his video, I stated that I was posting it with his permission because, if there was to be blowback from my facebook “friends” I wanted him to be prepared. Well, there was blowback but, instead of Eric, it all came to me. As it turned out, I had strayed outside of my lane and violated one of the unwritten rules of the positive-feedback loop by promoting a viewpoint at odds with a majority of the group. I know that some people were disappointed with my decision to post Eric’s video. I am sorry if I disappointed you in my attempt to balance the viewpoints I was presenting. I do support a woman’s right to decide for herself what happens to her body. But, I feel it is important for those of you publicly expressing your disappointment to temper that with the knowledge that one aspect of what Eric pointed out is very true. That is, like it or not, there are women out there who do not share the same viewpoint on abortion as most of you do. You can disagree with the viewpoint of that lady in the video…as I did….all you want but, that doesn’t change the fact that Pro-Life women exist and to ignore them is something you do at your peril. Pro-Life women vote in elections, just like you do. They just tend to vote for candidates that support their world view and, in this case, those are candidates that don’t usually support a woman’s right to choose.
Facebook, like the Lotus Hotel and Casino, is a wonderful place to hang out in because everything is dreamy and cheerful and everyone loves what you say and do and think. But, as Percy Jackson discovered to his chagrin in the Lotus Hotel, Facebook is a trap. It isn’t a forum to change public opinion much at all. It is more a forum to gather support and firm up beliefs. But, with a Federal Election in the offing, it has never been more important to try to influence the opinions of those who think differently than you do. Those conversations are never easy to have because there is no guarantee that differing points of view can be reconciled respectfully. But, venting to a choir of likeminded peers is not the type of activism that will stem the tide of Conservatism that is sweeping North America. Someone out there voted for Trump in the U.S. and voted for Doug Ford, here in Ontario and for Jason Kenny, in Alberta…….no one in my positive-feedback loop, apparently…..but, someone, somewhere certainly did.
So, moving forward, if you have a bone to pick with life and want to vent about it, feel free to blast away on Facebook because you will be smothered in virtual hugs for your efforts and you will probably feel better for having so vented. But, if you have a bone to pick with the world and want to affect some sort of actual change in the situation, then, my “friend”, it is time to check out of The Lotus Hotel and Casino and venture out into the real world, where life is tougher but, where you need to be.