How Should We Talk In The Digital Age?-By Kyle Leach

How Should We Talk In The Digital Age?-By Kyle Leach

I was inspired to write this piece after reading a post by Ray Buckley from his personal Facebook account. He had wandered into a comment section of a Facebook post, an online quagmire on the best of days, and was shocked with what he saw. He proceeded to tell us what he found and then gave everyone some of his thoughts to reflect upon. I reflected. You can read the post above if you didn’t already see it, to see Ray’s thoughts.

His post is actually a great place to begin the conversation we need to have about 21st century communication.   I think we, as a party, need to start talking about this. We are already a decade and a half into this century. Digital and social media are now powerful tools for communication, the subjects of research studies. Social media connects people in ways we have never been able to connect before and allows for sharing and collaboration at rates we never thought were possible. They can motivate and connect people around the globe. They can make human beings stronger and give them courage and help people everywhere feel they are not alone.

With that great power, comes great responsibility. You’ve probably heard me say before, words have power; words can change the world. I really believe that; I’m not just using that as poetic literary decoration.  I don’t believe in saying things you don’t mean or saying things simply because you can. Once words pour from your lips, or your fingertips, you can’t take them back. With that being said, are these modern tools too dangerous to use? Should we discourage usage because they can harm? Absolutely not. 

Tools cannot be good or evil, if you even believe those things exist. Tools are only as good as the human beings using them and that means it is necessary for all of us to monitor ourselves individually and monitor each other. We have to take the responsibility to help each other use these technologies in the best ways we can and teach each other to use them well. We need good digital citizenship.  If we did this we could all speak freely within the ether,  and reach each other without causing undue harm or encouraging homogeny or compliance, two things toxic to discussion, debate, and open discourse. To apply this to Democrats at large this would mean we need our organizational structures to promote these ideals and provide funding, time and people power, dedicated to this end. Anything less is just lip service.

One of the first suppositions Ray proposed in his post was that the digital realm provides a false sense of security and false courage. This is good place to center the conversation.  It is true that the online environment has a fair share of bullying and that can foster it. In some individuals, it provides a sense of protection from recrimination. However, most reasoned people using digital devices are careful in what they post and what privacy settings they use.  Facebook’s own research found people will quite often type something and change it several times before it is sent; and that often people type something out and erase without ever sending it at all. As Democrats, I think we should be very careful about acting as “thought police”.  That is not our job. I’ve always preferred the idea that the best library is the one that has something to offend everyone. The best environment for our party would be one that is supportive of diverse ideas, even if they are not convenient; even if there is something that may offend everyone.

Next, his response talks about your associates online understanding more about you, your leanings, and efforts you would support. This might be true of people like me who keep online friends and associates to a manageable minimum.  But many of us have accounts with followers into the thousands or tens of thousands. There isn’t any way a human being can keep track of that many people; we aren’t built like that. What we share can reach people we don’t know well or people we might be able to talk with. How our online world is decorated can be a way to show support, attack something we oppose, or simply be blank because we don’t care.  Are our online comments going to change every mind, sway every voter, or persuade an adversary? Definitely not. I know for sure that each individual’s space is theirs and belongs to no one else. What they choose to post or say is up to them. If you don’t like something you can always unfollow them or you can block them, or delete any comments that upset you. It really is as simple as that. But use that control sparingly. The worst thing we can do is to turn social media into a gated community where conformity is the expectation, and new ideas are squelched. 

I liked the second thought in Ray’s post very much, but I also find it to be short sighted. If a Democrat is feeling lonely or anxious, he says they should go to a local campaign office, local committees, or to a local Dem event, in order to feel more involved. It’s unrealistic. Many people would have to travel quite distance to find to these things.  And it is not like they are there all the time, and then there is just the fact that not all people connect with each other in those ways. Why limit ourselves? With social media you can reach out to the world for inspiration, help, and advice. You can learn about anything in history, read commentaries from around the world, and access video, audio, and podcasts of many political and social events. Information online comes with the same dangers of information in the real world. Democrats don’t want to discourage people from meeting face to face, but geography and financial limitations might. We expect people to learn and find new information. Why would we, as Democrats, discourage people from finding solace and information online?

The last four points in the post are the most problematic from my viewpoint. All are fearmongering, to an extent, and put severe limitations on speech at the least. Each reinforces mitigating or silencing dissent.  I have said this many times before; silencing dissent is not a Democratic value. Curbing passion and differing ideas might streamline communication and make it easier, but it has the chilling effect of dampening energy, limiting creativity, and fostering isolation. Sameness can be a tempting construct, but the differences we have are what make us special as individuals and as a collective. That’s when we shine. It would be a shame to shadow that potential because we fear social repercussions, because we fear our flawed past, or because we fear tomorrows we have yet to write. As Democrats, we have to make decisions wisely online.  We have to be better at inclusion and acceptance of new ideas. We can’t perseverate any more in the land of ones and zeros than we would in the physical realm.

In the online world some of us are more, myself included. If I were in front of you now, my agoraphobia would limit me tremendously. My social phobias would shut me down, and my connection to each of you would be strained terribly. It would be very hard to say all of this at once or even pull it together as I have here. In this online space, I am not limited by my body, or age, or perceived gender, or sexuality, or any of the confines of my real life. My soul and intellect reign here.  I don’t take that lightly; and many people don’t. We shouldn’t limit the potential of each Democrat by making them fear this space. This space can empower so many of us, in so many different ways. I hope it will eventually ignite the social humanity of many, many more. We don’t have to unite the party to be successful. We have to learn to arrange ourselves into a coalition that others want to connect with, want to become a part of.  We have to learn to share; to collaborate. We have to learn to be social, without the old constraints, and use our collective intelligence to move us forward. That’s what the 21st century is all about for Democrats. That’s what being a good digital citizen is.

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