Facebook and the culture of violence

panopticonIn the wake of the shooting in Oregon–which is still fresh in people’s minds though by the time this post is published, it will probably be a couple weeks old and, who knows? perhaps eclipsed by a new shooting–my Well-Meaning Liberal (WML) Facebook acquaintances have been all in a dither about gun control. The discussions all go like this:

“Another shooting! What is this country coming to?! We must have more gun control!”

“But how? What exactly should we do?”

“I don’t know! Control the guns! Control the mentally ill! Stop them from getting guns!”

So a friend of mine–someone I have actually been friends with in real life, though we live halfway across the country from one another now–posted something similar, and because we are friends I broke my cardinal rule: Never get involved in a land war in Asia. No wait, the other one: Never get involved in a discussion about an emotional, controversial, or sensitive subject on Facebook. Since people get butthurt on Facebook like it’s their job, that actually means that I can’t discuss anything that matters, unless I’m just reiterating the party line. Which I never do.

It’s not like I’m the first person to comment on the degenerating level of interaction on Facebook. I don’t use Facebook for the groups or anything, just to stay in touch with my friends far away and for publicizing lost and found dogs to get them home. I have longed to abandon it completely but I know this would probably mean completely losing touch with some people even if I tried to maintain contact via other means. Perhaps it’s time I realize that if they can’t be bothered to do their part in keeping in touch, I can let that friendship go; but then I feel like a hypocrite because I can be pretty terrible about keeping in touch myself. But anyway, at least you used to be able to exchange empty pleasantries. Now it’s like:

“Nice weather we’re having, huh?”

“FUCK YOU YOU HAVE TRIGGERED ME YOU INSENSITIVE FUCKWAD I HATE YOU DIE DIE DIE!”

So anyway, yesterday this friend posted something to the effect of “more gun control! stop the mentally ill from getting guns!” and I said, I thought pretty diplomatically, that I consider gun violence and much of our mental illness to BOTH be symptoms of the same deeper issues, among them materialism, hyper-capitalism, and pathologization of normal emotional states for the sake of Big Pharma. “Cui bono?” I said. I also pointed out that I am increasingly seeing reports that antidepressants cause suicidal and aggressive behavior in young people, that they result in further chemical imbalance in the brain, and that the chemical imbalance model of depression was being challenged in the first place.* Therefore, I proposed a thought experiment: What if gun control is just a band-aid on a gaping wound? What if mental illness and gun control are both symptoms? (I suggested this in less detail in my last post.)

You would not believe the amount of pearl-clutching approbation this comment received. Some person I have never met or communicated with in my life–some other friend of my friend–went immediately for the ad hominem and straw-man attacks, lecturing me with the consensus opinion on mental illness as if I had the luxury of not knowing it thoroughly, and even my friend accused me of being cruel and unsympathetic to people who suffer from depression and use antidepressants.

Well, that pissed me off. Because that friend was around when I was going through severe depression. We talked about taking antidepressants, compared the side effects we were having from them. (Side effects I’m still struggling with years after stopping the pills, which never really worked, by the way). The fact that she doesn’t know me better than that after all these years…well, some people would write a person off for a lot less. See the thing is, I don’t judge people for taking antidepressants. You gotta do what you gotta do to survive, to drag yourself out of bed and face the world. For some people, antidepressants make that possible. But no one in their right mind (heh heh heh) can deny that non-pharmaceutical alternatives are under-explored and under-promoted. I found mindfulness, and that’s what worked for me. But I had to find it on my own because I was desperate to get off the pills. While they did take the edge off the pain enough for me to get through the day in a benumbed haze, they utterly wrecked my endocrine system. It was out of the frying pan and into the fire. But the fact that some people get benefit from placebos antidepressants is completely irrelevant to the issue of whether mental illness is the cause of gun violence (it’s not) or a corollary symptom.

(Before exiting the conversation I clarified my point of view, admittedly not in the nicest of terms–that friend of my friend was a nasty bit of goods–but I then wrote a private apologia, reminding her that I have personal experience with the issue, had no intention to wound, and that Facebook is a cold medium that breeds misunderstandings. I have yet to receive any reply and if I don’t, well, that’s that then.)

I never cease to be amazed at the hypocrisy of both political groups in this country, but I think I’m more offended when I encounter it in liberals. At least the conservatives don’t make a pretense of being the Nice Guys. They also do a lot less simpering and hand-wringing, which I have to say I appreciate. I’m astounded that these WML extollers of empathy don’t see that labeling people as mentally ill (many of them suggest doing this to children and then isolating them from their peers and subjecting them to pharmaceutical “intervention”…because that couldn’t possibly have any negative results) and essentializing the mentally ill as The Cause of Gun Violence, they are scapegoating an already vulnerable, marginalized population. Precisely the sort of people who they claim to defend. It’s truly sickening and I have no time for that bullshit.

Between you and me, dear readers, I think these shooters are more sick at heart than sick in the head. And it’s not just their sickness, it affects our whole society. We can’t address the real problems because our ontology, our identity politics, and our rulers won’t even let us acknowledge them, let alone take action. All we are allowed to do is double down on “solutions” that have never worked. New ideas would require new perspectives–thought experiments such as the one I proposed–but new perspectives are non-canonical and thus, heresy.

But this encounter on Facebook made me realize that Facebook is itself a crucial element in the “culture of violence.” It’s always easier to misunderstand someone in print than in conversation; but even if you leave aside the creepy emotional manipulation Facebook (and their pals DARPA) do on people, there is something about that platform that riles people up, frays tempers, causes people to draw battle lines and turn on old friends. I don’t know exactly what factors are involved, but I think a big one is the sense that others are watching us. Identity politics and image management then take precedence over sincerity and empathy. Intimate truths and sensitive communication cannot happen within the Panopticon.** What is so insidious about Facebook is that it uses our own friends as the disciplinary mechanism. All that would be horrifying enough without Facebook actually working for the military-industrial-archonic complex. Truly, it sends shivers down my spine.

So before we tsk-tsk at all the tragic shootings, shrug our shoulders and sigh at the tragedy of undiagnosed mental illness in America, we each need to consider our own role in contributing to the culture of violence. Our Facebook personae are a great place to start.

*I’d love to Google that for you and give you a full list of citations but life is short. If you go to Google Scholar and type in something like “antidepressants cause chemical imbalance,” you’ll get a lot of hits. You might also enjoy Gordon’s Apocalypse Pharmaka series.

**When searching for an image for this post, I discovered that others have made this connection as well. I’m relieved to have finally found the words to articulate the creeping sensation of horror that Facebook gives me.

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