This is no revelation: people on social media are incredibly polarized when debating social and political issues. Many debates on my feed begin when someone posts a meme. I often wonder how much thought people put into re-sharing these vaguely evocative images overlayed with simple rhetoric in block text. Once it hits their feed, though, comments follow in one of two modes: vehement disagreement or unwavering support.
In my own feed, I’ve been noticing a particular–and awful–type of rhetoric in these memes: the false equivalence. These are typically expressed as support for some social construct or idea, with the unstated implication being that any criticism of that construct is tantamount to a denouncement. Thus the false equivalence: one cannot be both critical and supportive of an idea or construct.
Policing in America is a current topic of much debate on social media. In my feed, it is not unusual to see posts that feature these sorts of memes:
The implication of all of these posts is that the poster supports the police, as opposed to all of those people who are criticizing the police and therefore do not support them. Memes like this eliminate a rational middle ground where people can hold complex thoughts about social constructs such as policing. When the debate starts with an image like this, it creates two nice little categories: those who support the police, and those who do not. And support must be all or nothing. There is another false equivalence here: wanting to hold individual officers accountable for their behavior, not supporting them when they overstep their limits, equates to not supporting any police officers.
I’ve begun ignoring these sorts of posts, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to passively condone this sort of lazy and polarizing rhetoric. I’ve come up with a stock response that I can post anytime I see a post like this, “This meme supports a false equivalence and reduces a complex social issue to two polarized sides. This post detracts from it’s own argument. I know your point of view is nuanced and not nearly this simplistic.”
Logical fallacies like the false equivalence can be hard for rational people to argue against because they exist outside any sort of reasonable progression of thought. In my experience, the best way to respond is to point out that the argument is a logical fallacy, is false by its own merit, and then disengage. Someone who clings to a broken argument is unlikely to be convinced, no matter how strong the evidence or counter-argument.
I’m disturbed by how readily people re-share these sorts of posts. I’m sure I’m guilty of it myself. It is too easy to think, “I agree with this” and to feel it reinforce my own personal narrative and thus conclude it is a sound argument. I’m pushing myself to try to engage in a more meaningful form of discourse. At the same time, I’m raising the standard to which I’m holding others. People can delete/unfollow/unfriend me if they dislike it. I hope, though, that they’ll instead respond with thought and consideration.
We’re smarter than the sort of simplistic, black-and-white, us-or-them debates that we have been engaging in. In regards to the issue of policing, as usual Jon Stewart said it wonderfully.
How do you respond to polarizing memes in your feed?
Leave a comment and let me know.