Political unrest is not just a problem of social media, but one of good, old-fashioned, geography as well.
Watching the events that unfolded last week as President Trump and his cabal incited his followers to storm the US capitol building to “stop the steal” was both shocking and terrifying. Many fingers have pointed to social media and its role as an echo chamber where algorithms serve articles and stories that are easy wins and almost always agree with an individual’s beliefs. It is hard to argue that this effect is not significant, but surely one can’t be fully radicalized virtually to the extreme of risking one’s life to attempt a ‘revolution’ in Washington D.C. supporting an aging demagogue who wants to be king.
A lot of ink has already been spent talking about social media and echo chambers, so I won’t go deeper into this subject here. What I would like to highlight is the importance of geography. Before I really dig in though, I want to state up-front that this post is going to sport a lot of sweeping generalizations. I’ll try to acknowledge each, but I surely will fail. I’m also willing to bet that I’ll offend some people. I’m sorry, but hopefully you’ll read along and recognize that my aim is not to do so.
One of the most difficult things for many of us to understand is why, without any hard evidence presented, and despite claims being rejected as meritless by numerous judges and courts of both republican and democratic states, such a large number of people believe that the election was stolen. Media echo chambers aside, I would suggest that a more significant issue relates to geography.
If one looks at the electoral map in the United States… boy that is a lot of red. Without any question, spatially, Donald Trump won the 2020 election. When you look more closely though, you’ll see that almost every big city voted for Biden. Logically, one can recognize that about four-fifths of Americans live in urban areas (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urbanization_in_the_United_States). Not all urbanites vote democrat, and not all rural voters vote republican, but there are certainly strong tendencies in those directions.
Part of the issue with the radicalization of the right-wing is the effect that this split has on different people. For example, if you live in New York or Los Angeles, you are likely to interact (even in times of pandemic) with a large number of diverse people on various spectra (Ethnic, religious, political, etc.). As a result, you are very likely to deal with people whose viewpoints differ from yours. Conversely, take a look at the US heartland (and recognize it isn’t particularly dissimilar politically from many other countries including Canada) and notice that most of those darkest red districts are in rural areas. If you live in a rural area, you probably only interact with a small number of very like-minded people regularly. I live in a city with more than a million people, but it tends to lean right politically. That said, I encounter people who are both fairly extreme (at least compared to me) left and right. I get to “enjoy” the “tempered” arguments regularly. It is exhausting, but at least I get exposed to both viewpoints. (Further: there are never just two viewpoints, but a spectrum of middle-ground that gets ignored scoring political points.)
Consider though, somebody who tends to lean right politically, who is exposed only to news sources Fox or further to the right, that are all reporting Trump’s repeated claims that their landslide election win was stolen by the opposition; who are repeatedly subjected to the same claims on their social media feeds, and then (and here is where Geography comes into play), they go out of their house angrily and talk to their friends and neighbours who are all or almost all of similar mindset and hear that, yeah, we all voted for Trump. This lends credence to the accusation that the election should have been a landslide win. Everybody, or almost everybody that this person hears from, whether on social media, mainstream media, alternative media, in person, or even from the lips of the President of the United States, supports the contention that almost everybody voted for Donald Trump. It is entirely understandable why that person would start to feel like they had been disenfranchised. One doesn’t even need hard evidence when belief and a mob mentality start to take over.
Add to that fire the repeated and unending claims by somebody in a position of authority, occupying a once-respected office, the highest one in the land. It would take quite a lot of nerve to suggest that these people are stupid, for that is not, I believe, at the root of the issue. Unfortunately, the messages they hear from all quarters say the same thing, everybody who doesn’t agree with them are sheep, cowards, and traitors, and that only they have the power to preserve their country from a perceived liberal conspiracy.
Those who have read my book, On Swift Wings, will recognize a number of social and political themes. As most of the islands are isolated environments, separated from the outside world, there are numerous examples of the effects that this isolation has on their political and social structures. If one looks closely, starting right at the foreword of the book, you’ll see that I believe that this is a useful thing, to develop disparate and dissenting opinions and ideas. What I perhaps have not elaborated upon to the degree I would now have liked, is how important it is to bring these ideas together in a calm, humble, and respectful manner. I believe that with strong leadership, this is possible. It is possible to understand people and to discuss in a reasonable way the things that we hold to be self-evident and yet others view them completely differently. I hope that in time, and I’m optimistic, that the extreme polarization of our current society will be replaced with acceptance and partnership.
I hope I have not offended anybody unduly. This is a traumatic and challenging time on a number of fronts, and it is my aim, small though its effect may prove to be, to help heal some of these rifts. At the very least, you’ve now read some of my opinions and you are now able to evaluate, whether you agree or disagree, and contribute your own thoughts. I would love to hear what you think in the comments here, on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.