Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In Defense of Compassion on Facebook:

Or, Why Social Media Is No Substitute for Good Therapy

So I don't really love Facebook. Yes, it's been helpful in connecting me to people I've fallen out of touch with. I've given away tickets to shows on Facebook. I've been a part of thriving artistic communities. I'm trying to network--which is going slowly, and which is part of the reason I decided to connect up in the first place. But still, it makes me feel exposed in a way that makes me nervous and I find myself acting as voyeur, peeping at the kinds of lives others portray, wondering how real that life is. There are people that love it and use it as a resource, and although I'm not one of them, I may well be soon. But right now I don't have a lot of affection or understanding for it.

Which makes it hard for me to understand the way I sometimes see it used. I know this guy; he's smart and talented and quite skilled, and I respect and admire him, hope I can call him Friend. Recently my Friend posted a status update about being in a cafe and witnessing a break-up between two people. To hear my Friend tell it, she was the dumpee, an attractive woman in a pantsuit who flipped her hair too much. He was the dumper, a professional-looking dude in a suit. It was a bad break-up--she was shouting at him, evidently she hit him at one point--all of it was ugly and uncomfortable, and presumably my Friend was annoyed and made to feel so icky by witnessing such public relational carnage.

So he posted about it on Facebook. He told all of his Facebook Friends--of which I am one--about what he was witnessing. This opened up a thread of comments (35? at the point I'd read them) from people who were responding to what was happening. These were comments about how thoughtless it was for these two to break up in a public place, and suggestions for my Friend to diffuse the situation that included asking the dumpee out and trying to set her up with my Friend's single male acquaintences. The pervasive attitude seemed to me to be one of witty and careless shadenfreude.

I was confused, and a little disappointed, by what I saw. I know it sounds naive, but I wondered reading the thread, Is this what's become of us? I thought Facebook was a tool of self-marketing and networking. I mean, I've heard some of the stories--I know people have arguments and take shots at each other via their blogs, FB, etc. I know about that young woman in Colorado who was so shamed and humiliated via social media from girls and their mothers that she was driven to suicide. But Facebook is also useful, isn't it? I mean, it's a tool for outing fashion conglomerates who steal designs from working artists, and it's a place to amass awareness and raise money for Katrina victims and tsunami-ravaged Japan. But has it allowed us to become so disconnected from our common link to each other as humans that we can post about someone's misfortune and lose sight of their (and our) humanity? How do we locate the same compassion for equal marriage rights and victims of natural disaster and give it to two real people, two strangers who are sitting right in front of us?

Dig this: I'm not defending the choice to publicly end a relationship. I think I'm asking us to consider that these two people need compassion. What this guy was going through--trying to end a relationship--even in the best of circumstances isn't easy. Has it been so long that any of us got dumped or had to dump, that we forget, in our partnered privilege, how much it sucks? And the woman: I don't know her, but if my Friend's account of her behavior is any indication, she has some problems. I don't mean she's crazy like, "Aw man, I split that chick, that bitch is crazy." I mean there's some serious heavy shit that she hasn't dealt with but she lives with every day, and unless she can get it figured out, she's gonna walk through the rest of her life a damaged, incomplete human being. Who grows, who is healed, who is made better by our snickering at what happens to people like these two, even in a space like Facebook where we can't get caught? 

'Cause here's the thing: we can blog about people who do dumb shit on the train, who piss in public like carriage horses, who are rude or loud or violent. But as hard as this is for us to remember, we are just like them. We are as sad, scared and broken as that woman in the pantsuit who was shrieking at her (ex)boyfriend, demanding that he love her. We are capable of that same level of fear and loneliness, and we're capable of reacting out of it, too. If your brother or sister, if your best friend since 7th grade or your new work bff were hurting to the point of humiliating themselves and others, to the point of physical violence, you'd want to get them some help. You wouldn't want me posting their public acting out to all my friends on Facebook.

I sound so fucking self-righteous, don't I? I don't mean to. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I've used Facebook as a message board when I'm pissed off or annoyed. I publicly lamented witnessing an act of prostitution in the basement of my building. After being nearly hit by a car on my bike, I urged motorists to keep an eye out for cyclists. But that sentiment was borne out of anger and frustration, not a desire for common safety and goodwill. God knows I have a tough enough time showing compassion to people I know, my friends and family, much less to strangers. I fail at being compassionate on a daily basis. Maybe that failure doesn't give me the right to consider how social media cultivates a lack of compassion. Maybe instead of writing this post on my blog I should be on my yoga mat, dedicating my practice to myself, my Friend, and to those two who were breaking up, that we all might learn self-compassion and compassion for one another.

Maybe I will.

But right now I'm in this space.

The thing about social media is that, for all of the connecting and access and information and voice-giving it does, it turns us all into pundits. Political, social, artistic, culutral: suddenly we all have opinions and now we all have a platform to be heard. We compete and hustle for hits and eyeballs and whatnot, and hey, that's great, right? But it's only great if we know what we're doing, if we take the choice we've made to comment on our lives and the lives of others with some reflection and some compassion. In such a tech-savvy world it's easy for us, for me, to feel like everything around is good material, is fodder for my writing or shooting or commenting. And yes, it is. You better believe it.

But what's around me is also real. The woman squatting on the Morse el platform pissing like an animal is a mother, and she has a kid she's trying to raise. The woman in the pantsuit screaming at her ex just wants to be loved. How human are these qualities? These people are just like me. They're just like my Friend. And they're just like you.

We can't let technology foster so much autonomy and independent expression of thought that it robs us of our humanity. If we do, all that connectedness is worthless.

om mani padme hum

1 comment:

Regina Rodriguez-Martin said...

I like blogging much better than Facebook. I had a FB account for a year and a half and reconnected with at least one very important person in my life. Then I cancelled the account. I felt much better after that.