September 07, 2016

Politics, Civility and Social Change

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

A friend of mine recently announced that she would not log onto Facebook until after the presidential election is over in November, tired of the political rhetoric from her many Facebook friends across the political spectrum. It got me thinking of the old cliché about religion and politics—two things not to be discussed in polite company once upon a time—and how much has changed, particularly since the introduction of new communication technologies. It is a good example of how norms surrounding interactions can shift along with structural changes.

Both religious and political beliefs may be deeply and passionately held, and thus could stir up ill will between people whose beliefs differ. So in many cases people will avoid these topics so as not to offend or alienate others. I remember as a small child hearing a relative at a holiday dinner bringing up politics. Even though I didn’t know who they were talking about, and had no opinion about the subject at the time, I could sense the discomfort in the room and wished it would stop. Only occasionally would I hear my parents discussing political topics with each other, but these discussions were private and kept to the confines of our home, so it wasn’t an uncomfortable experience.

There are many more ways to communicate now compared to when I was young. Back then, other than face-to-face conversation, most people’s access to the public arena was very limited. As Jonathan Wynn described, his grandfather regularly wrote letters to various newspapers that were frequently published. This was one of the few ways an ordinary citizen could interject their ideas into the public sphere, short of speaking in a public space or handing out their own leaflets (written on a typewriter and painstakingly copied until photocopying was introduced in 1959.

The advent of the Internet and email made it much easier to engage in political discussions with a wide range of people, often anonymously. Social networking platforms make it even easier, much to the delight of some and the dismay of others.

Social media is at once a public space with the appearance of a private, even intimate space. Public and private easily overlap: we might be part of multiple conversations without thinking about it. When someone “likes” a public post, seemingly part of a more anonymous public discussion, their “friends” (which might include anyone from family, friends, co-workers, classmates we knew decades ago to acquaintances we barely know) might be updated on their “newsfeed” of the endorsement.

This can lead to embarrassing missteps—and not just about political beliefs. Do you really want your grandmother to see you wearing a suggestive outfit or pounding shots at a bar? Should your boss know your beliefs about legalizing drugs? Social media can put us in the middle of many overlapping Venn diagrams that might not otherwise overlap.

But sometimes we might consciously want them to overlap, particularly if we have very passionate beliefs about an issue. Social media is a powerful tool for activism, a way for people to organize and to advocate for and identify with a cause. It is so powerful that totalitarian regimes sometimes interfere with or ban their use outright. Social movements today rely on sharing information about their cause, informing people of events, and creating pressure for change through social media. Tweets can travel around the world in seconds.

Not everyone who likes or retweets a link or image is part of a social movement. Sometimes (paraphrasing another cliché) a like is just a like. The “liker” might not have even intended for anyone else to know what he or she liked, but it is built into the social media platform. A Facebook forum discussion includes many users who would prefer that their friends not see what they like at all.

As new communication technologies change the way we share information with one another, new norms for interaction emerge, but not without disagreement about what these new norms should be. Is discussing topics that might produce strong disagreements becoming more acceptable? If so, under what circumstances? How do people navigate these arenas and create new modes of acceptable behavior?

These are just a few questions sociologists might investigate as political discussions become more accessible and at times more polarizing. What else might sociologists study about these interactions?


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