Sat, Dec 20, 2014 ●
BathHarpswellTopshamBrunswickCumberlandNorth YarmouthFalmouthFreeportPortlandCape ElizabethScarboroughSouth PortlandChebeague IslandYarmouth

The View From Away: If laughter is the best medicine, Facebook is a placebo

Opinion

The View From Away: If laughter is the best medicine, Facebook is a placebo

So I suspended my Facebook to avoid the ideological robots who made it uninhabitable in the run-up to the election. It was a surprisingly isolating decision. It turns out email is the new snail-mail, more an object of ridicule than a means of communication, and the people in my life do not seem to remember that you can use a smart phone as, you know, a phone.

After six months of feeling like I was living in pioneer times (as my son likes to call my youth), I reactivated, swearing not to read or write anything remotely political. I forgot my Facebook and Twitter accounts were linked until I started getting Facebook-heckled for a couple of tweets about Egypt (one about America’s official reaction, or lack thereof; the other about the media’s obsession with celebrity minutiae, even at the height of the violence; both a little too colorful for this forum).

I wasn’t in love with the disapproval, but fair enough. Everybody is a judge on the Internet; but the curt, condescending form it took made me wonder if there is a place for my kind of humor in the brave new world of social media.

Too many people on social media seem to think, wrongly, that jokes about a serious event trivialize it. Lazy or pandering jokes might. The best jokes do the opposite. They surprise you and make you think about things in new ways. They also encourage you to stop thinking in cliches, another thing there is too much of on social media. There are still places, like "The Daily Show" and the "Colbert Report," where humor challenges people. Online, though, jokes are becoming more like starter pistols for pissing contests between people who have already made up their minds.

I understand why these childish arguments happen. We like to think we’re right, but doing enough research to know what you’re talking about is such a hassle, y’know? For instance, I am inclined to be outraged by the media’s focus on celebrity at the expense of bringing attention and perspective to events like the upheaval in Egypt. Ditto about the suffering my country often causes around the world, seeming through a flawed foreign policy that manages to be both cynical and naive, policy that has cost us a fortune in money and international prestige.

The problem is that outside the context of a larger, more nuanced discussion, such statements are as fatuous and unproductive as the inflammatory, limbic responses from flag-wavers who spring from the woodwork whenever someone suggests their beloved country isn’t perfect.

So how do you avoid these school-yard arguments masquerading as discussions? You can stay off the social media, the modern day equivalent of becoming a hermit. Appealing at times, but not practical for a writer. You could avoid expressing an opinion about anything that matters, but there is something Big Brother-ish about remaining silent because of anticipatory fear.

You could give in and be one of the ditto heads. I’m trained for it. I was a TV writer for a long time. God knows I know my way around a shallow, glib phrase. Unfortunately, the elitist in me hates the thought of joining the idiocracy. It reminds me too much of an exercise we used to do when I was studying acting, back in the Pleistocene Era. We paired off and repeated the same sentence to each other until no matter how we said it or how we heard it, we believed it. The same thing is happening on social media today, only with politics. People repeat the same simplistic phrases until they acquire the ring of truth that only constant repetition can give a cliche.

The difference is, in acting school we knew we were pretending.

Again, I understand the appeal. Real truth is messy and complicated and usually impossible to find. Looking for it makes your head hurt. But the ring of truth, a nice simple statement that sounds true and lets you stop thinking? You can build a pretty good sense of superiority on that. You really grab the brass ring if it makes somebody else look bad at the same time. The only thing better than being part of a group that thinks exactly like you is knowing your group holds the moral high ground.

That desire to be one of the chosen few is my best explanation for how so many people that I know to be thoughtful, reasonable people in person turn into such knuckleheads on the Internet. And why so many of what they call jokes are merely disingenuous verbal clubs to beat opponents over the head. I try to aim a little higher, and it is annoying to see my attempts dismissed out of hand because they do not fit in the right box.

Unless they are dismissing them because some of my jokes aren’t funny.

Hmm ... No. That’s crazy talk.