Thursday, January 05, 2012

Vegetarian tipplers

«A modern vegetarian is also a teetotaler, yet there is no obvious connection between consuming vegetables and not consuming fermented vegetables. A drunkard, when lifted laboriously out of the gutter, might well be heard huskily to plead that he had fallen there through excessive devotion to a vegetable diet.» --G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Sharing Meme

It seems to me that this whole sharing meme is a bit out of whack. Someone puts a picture or a quote identifying some reprehensible behavior on facebook and gives you a moral shove saying that, “if you don't pass this along, then you are a bad person who condones this." Alternately, they do the same thing for positive stuff.

A case in point is a picture posted in my FB stream recently showing a bruised woman wearing a slit skirt and pink blouse collapsed at the feet of a man wearing bluejeans and a plaid shirt. The man's hand is closed, but you cannot see his face. The bruises, the spraddle-legged posture of the man, the position of his hand and the camera angle lead you to leap to the conclusion that he has just beaten her. The message beneath the picture says, “hit share if your against women abuse. lets get 1000 shares."

Well! Who wouldn't be against the abuse of women. So why not click?

But I have two problems with the post. The first is the picture. It has too many inconsistencies to be effective. The man's hand, though closed, is not clenched, his forearm is not tensed, his knuckles do not show the damage that would be evident had he been beating someone. His posture is as likely to be that of someone reaching down to help spreading his legs to balance as he helps her to her feet. So now there are multiple new possible scenarios involving helpful strangers or off-duty EMTs coming upon auto accidents, or the aftermath of a drunken brawl or perhaps a woman being abused.

So the photo is either bad staging or a misrepresentation. So what‽

Too many people skim their emails and social media, not reading deeply or interpreting, making snap judgments and, when they see something for which they can construct an easy conclusion, saying “me too" by hitting the share button. They have constructed a scenario, supplying the missing pieces according to their own prejudices. That can't be helped. Our brains are hard-wired to supply narratives, sequences, causal chains to fit what we see. There is an excellent recent article in Wired about how that propensity for humans to construct a narrative has occasionally led science in some disturbingly bad directions.

In a way you could say that my problem with the photo is that it was done poorly and offends my editorial sensibilities in such a way that it interferes with my ability to create the expected response. I would add that it seems to me to be a gratuitous use of shock values, no better than using a pornographic photo and saying “share this if you are against pornography."

But the problems with the photo are petty compared to my real gripe.

I want to talk about the veneer of involvement that we apply to ourselves by tapping the share button, a kind of non-invasive soul-surgery accomplished with a single click. The question to ask is, “What does that click on share do?"

It does a couple of things. It lets the person, who is saying “me too" think that they have added their voice to some kind of petition, or that they have joined some kind of movement. It lets the “me too" feel that they have raised their voice in outrage. It lets them think that they are on the side of good. Solidarity!

Give me a break.

What it actually means is that the “me too" has been socially engineered through embarrassment and implied social pressure into passing along a message with someone else's name on it. At best the result will be that the originator of the message will be able to harvest the names of, in this case 1000 people who forwarded their message on. This then gives them the chance to “friend" them (since the initial contact has been made) and potentially sell that list of names, spam them or, in the best case scenario, inflate their own importance.

What it doesn't do is anything else. It doesn't pay for shelters or medical treatment, it doesn't provide psychological or social support, it doesn't change the mind of any brutalizer or victim. It does nothing except make “me too" feel like they have done something. It lessens the impact of real appeals for actual support. In essence, it lets the person say that they support something that they are actually ignoring. They can pretend they have done something. It's like the ultimate, “I gave at the office" excuse.

“I condemn the battering of women by clicking on an ambiguous photograph," they say. “My soul is clean and I am a good person and I can be counted among the morally upright without any cost to my wallet, my time or my life."

You cannot dry clean your soul so easily. Don't share the damn photograph. Go do something about it.