Is the world getting meaner or does social media expose it more? Question, posted today from a Millennial
I have to take a minute to answer this question because I think it is so critical that we ask this, we repeat this, we look at this up close every day. I think you all are decidedly more self-reflective than any one knows. This question was posed by a friend and one that I know to be quiet, thoughtful, wickedly funny. He’s a generous and inclusive young man. He is also laid back, easy to get along with, and is a lot like many of you. He asked this question on social media. I answer it here (with his permission) because it’s worth asking.
My friends, people will always be mean. They have always been so. The world is made up of humans, after all, and we are all capable of these things. Read more, read historical books, read old journals, read personal accounts from times of unrest. At the very least, read Letter from a Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr. Not kidding, y’all. This man wasn’t just a symbol. He was an incredibly enlightened human. Yes, he was a human and he made mistakes. But he felt a lot of the frustrations you are feeling now. Please, see this not as a racial statement but as one about marginalized humans. Substitute “black” with gay, Muslim, disabled, women, immigrant, liberal, progressive, and yes, MILLENNIAL, and it will open your eyes. (http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/undecided/630416-019.pdf)
People, even those in positions to help and to serve, will be mean. Much of it is based in fear. A great deal is based in misunderstanding and in humans NOT standing for each other but for their own interests. As Scrooge noted in A Christmas Carol: Mankind should be my business. My friends, people will always be mean. But it doesn’t have to be acceptable. And that’s where we find ourselves now. With a new, mean, normal.
I am going to discuss a topic that has gotten some attention recently: Normalizing. This is the center of the question from my friend. Normalizing, as I learned it, is a statistical reference. But we hear it used more now and I want to talk about it because I think that’s what your peer- my friend- is getting at. Most of you know what a bell curve looks like. You know when something is an outlier, an anomaly, something that sticks out. Usually when something sticks out, we want to know why it isn’t “normal.” I have seen this in my own social media feeds this week referring to you all. “Millennials aren’t normal.” This is said by those who want you to normalize toward what they believe is the right behavior. Normalizing anything requires adjusting it or adjusting your standard so it fits. You don’t fit the standard of behavior according to some, so they lash out. They want to normalize you toward their idea of universally accepted “normal” behavior.
I don’t buy it. I won’t and I am going to keep pushing because the normal right now, as my friend and his responders pointed out, is meanness, ugliness expressed with the gift of anonymity. Most humans wouldn’t say the things they do online if they knew that person. Most of my friends wouldn’t speak about your generation the way they do if they had seen your brilliance. and your flaws. Because your flaws can be coached. Most people, I believe, wouldn’t act the way they are right now except that it feels “normal” now. Social media has allowed a person to say, for example, “Well if she said it, then I can say it too.” Social media has exposed ugly opinions because it has made it into entertainment. And it isn’t just social media, y’all. It’s “Reality TV” and scripted arguments that make us believe that slapping people, screaming obscenities, putting people in their place, having to be the one that “tells someone off”- all of it-is normal and acceptable.
But, here is where I am going to beg you, plead with you all to step up and step in. Help us. Because if this behavior can be normalized, why can’t we set a new standard? Why can’t we re-adjust? Can you all think of ways we can un-normalize this meanness? Social media isn’t a bad thing, my friends. It has created the most connected generation (YOU) that we have ever had. The one coming after you, the Next Gen, is even more so. Connections mean that we can share our struggles, we can reach out and learn from other cultures, it means that we have access to science, to problem-solving, to kindness. Right now, it feels like you are hearing only the bad things. I admit, it’s hard to see so much of the meanness coming from social media. But I have seen good things too. I have students walk out protesting the deportation of friends. I have seen parents teaching children the importance of protecting those who look differently, think differently, worship differently. I have seen beautiful moments of people coming together in spontaneous song and art and dance. I have seen some of the funniest most human moments imaginable. Social media isn’t’ the problem, my brilliant friends. Humans are the problem.
Want to know a secret that I have learned in my 20 years of working?
Humans are also the solution.
How do you change a norm? How can you readjust the standard? You can do this by speaking your truth. You can do this by learning, evolving, breaking down the very things that have created this normal. It was created by people believing their way is right and everyone else is wrong. It was created by applying standards of one group to all groups. It was created by allowing silence as acceptance. It was created by those who, as leaders, know they are more powerful when their constituents (the ones that they serve) are fighting with each other; they encourage division because it helps them retain power. If people, all people who want a kind, inclusive, generous, connected, rational world banded together against all the mean people on social media, guess what would happen? The standard, the norm, would change. And the world, as you see it, would also change. That’s why Gandhi said “Be the change you want to see.” Because kind people outnumber the mean ones. The mean ones are just louder. And when they have power, as they do when we give it to them without diligent and persistent accountability, they find ways to keep power. Because they know they are outnumbered by kind people. That’s a truth of history too. Look at the people who helped liberate countries, concentration camps. Look at the ones who have taken beatings and continue to speak for equal rights. Look at the ones who are wearing safety pins or who are still protesting. What are they saying? That they don’t want this new normal.
I ask you, my friends, to join them by not participating in the meanness on social media. Don’t jump into the middle of an argument trying to change someone’s mind or get a score on another. This is what has created mean behavior. Speak your truth loudly- speak your humor, your desire for goodness, for inclusion, for engagement, for diversity, for responsible citizenship and, as you say, let the haters go.
Take over the world, my Millennials.
I love you so-