On Politics and Social Media

Over on Slate is a list of 22 answers for creationists, posted as a response to 22 questions asked by creationists, directed at those who believe in evolution. Each response is thoughtful, kind, and respectful, but forceful in their conviction. Question 9 is a great example:

9) “If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance?”

This is an excellent question. It was partly by chance, but it wasn’t random. Chemistry shows us that atoms and molecules are like puzzle pieces, fitting together a certain way. This means some molecules can have astonishing complexity, including the ability to replicate. It’s not like taking all the pieces of a clock, throwing them in a box, shaking it, and getting a working timepiece. The pieces themselves built up over time, attaining more complexity.

And I might turn the question around. Who created God? If you say He has always been, then why not say the same about the Universe (or more properly, the multiverse)?

I smiled as I read this, and, when I reached the end, clicked the share button.

Then I hesitated. Politically charged content is tricky, especially for someone who lives and works on the web. When I first began a freelance career, I rarely shared this kind of material, afraid that a client (or potential client) would see it and be turned off. Even now, most articles with a political bent go to my Facebook page, where all posts are viewable only by friends. Rarely do I tweet this type of thing, since Twitter is, by nature, a very public forum. When I read Phil Plait's piece on Slate, though, I thought about the consequences of reigning in my political opinions.

This isn't limited to social media, of course. When I first moved to West Virginia (before I was working solely online), I worried about the religiosity of the state. I'm an adamant atheist, after all, and I suspected that that wouldn't go over well if it got out. So I hid it from anyone who might be, now or in the future, considered a colleague or associate. Hiding a part of yourself from the general public gets tiresome quickly, though, and I soon began to put out feelers, asking those I trusted whether they thought my lack of religion would impact me negatively if it were known.

I got varied responses- some thought that it would, in fact, hurt me in the end. Others were offended that I put so little faith in the open-mindedness of West Virginians. Some even proclaimed, in group conversation, that it wouldn't be a problem, then emailed me to tell me that they, too, were closeted atheists, and had the same fears as I.

Here's the thing, though: my atheism affects so much of who I am, how I approach the world, how I tackle problems, how I raise my daughter, how I view sunsets and art and life. To hide that aspect of myself amounts to a colossal misrepresentation of who I am, which, needless to say, isn't fair to me, or to those who, rightly, expect me to represent myself honestly in my dealings with them.

The word "political" comes from the Greek "politikos", meaning "of, for, or relating to citizens." That's an extremely broad categorization. Political discussion involves more than politicians and foreign policy; it centers around the very things that make us individuals- our beliefs. In a piece on decluttering your mind with skeptical thinking, Tim Rayner offers steps to do just that. He has this advice to start:

Select a position or belief that many people accept as true (something worth arguing about, like ‘Abortion is always wrong’, ‘God exists’, ‘Human C02 emissions are warming the planet’, or ‘Capitalism and democracy go hand in hand’).

Every topic listed is, indeed, "something worth thinking about," and also falls into the category of politics. The label gets a bad rap, but few things are more important than those issues which are shaping our world, whether we participate or not, whether we realize or not.

The tragedy here is that those who hold shallow or extreme beliefs are often the loudest (and thus, are shaping the conversation and driving the change)while those of us who measure our beliefs, who weigh and consider them, are hesitant to join the conversation, which results in polarization and highly unfruitful discussion.

We're entering (or have entered) a world in which political leanings are viewed as unnecessary, even harmful, to our relationships, both online and off. But how are we to form meaningful relationships in the absence of so large a part of ourselves? More importantly, how can we honestly claim that we're being true to ourselves in doing so?

It's not all black and white, of course. There are those who simply don't consider these things as central to their existence, and, in that case, there's no harm in abstaining from a conversation which you have no desire to enter into. For those of us that do harbor that desire, though, we do ourselves a disservice by censoring ourselves. For one, hiding your beliefs in the shadows prevents them from being held up to the light of discussion, and an unchallenged belief is no belief at all. We are all mortal, after all, and not one of us is infallible. It would be unreasonable to believe, then, that the beliefs we hold are infallible. Knowing that, it's not a stretch to say that beliefs left unchecked are dangerous to the persons we hold most dear: ourselves.

As for the backlash that comes from sharing such content online, I say bring it. If I've learned anything in my short time on earth, it's that beliefs held in a vacuum foster ignorance and bigotry. Exposure to alternate points of view, almost without exception, breeds a mode of thought necessary to the kind of beliefs that move society forward. It cultivates empathy, that most-heralded of human emotions. If nothing else, it's a gift to ourselves: a challenged belief is one we know and understand more clearly; it allows us to get closer to, not further from them.

Those that would dismiss you out-of-hand as a horrid person for your beliefs, that would end a friendship or a professional relationship over such things, is probably not worth the effort required to put into such a relationship. Might you lose a few friends or colleagues over such a thing? Sure- but so be it. To use my atheism as an example, I'm not in the majority here. The vast majority of my offline friends, and a sizable number of the online ones, are religious, and I see their belief in God in much of what they do. Do I care for or respect them less for it? Of course not, and those that remain view me (I thnk) in the same light. In fact, some of my most fruitful, even delightful conversations are had with the faithful. I feel no differently about them, nor they me, for their beliefs, but I do know that I can better understand opposing points of view by having known them.

Already, so much of who we are is the proverbial glacier hidden beneath the water. Social media, and online life in general, is slowly eroding that paradigm, and we are the better for it. How can we evolve as a people if we're so unaware of what we as a people consist of? We're moving towards a world in which we are becoming less afraid of who we are. Complete transparency, I hope, is an Orwellian future that we'll never know, nor should we. But if we hope to achieve anything more than a shallow online existence, we have to be willing to share, not more, but more deeply.