Studies of psychology and sociology show that almost without fail, nothing we read or hear changes our opinion on anything. If that seems crazy, think about how many times you have changed your opinion on a subject; one day you were in favor of something, the next day opposed? Doesn’t happen much. Then why even discuss things? We are constantly surrounded by debates on an enormous variety of polarizing topics. What’s the point?
It is human nature to take in what we hear or read – no matter what is – and use it to strengthen our own preconceived ideas. We all do it. Even more important: an opposing view strengthens our beliefs more than a supporting view.
Imagine you are sitting in a room of people who believe just as you do. Any discussion will help validate your point of view. But often there is still variability, and that may actually be more challenging; these are people who think like you do, so they are your peers, they are people you respect, you value their opinion. If they look at things slightly differently – they support a particular political or social or religious opinion, but they come at it from a different angle – that can actually cause more internal conflict. Because they are your peers, you can’t just write them off as idiots. When you are surrounded by trusted peers, you are much more likely to have an open discussion.
Now imagine yourself in a room filled with people who hold a view completely opposite to you. As enraging as any political, social, or religious discussion may be, there is absolutely no concern about your opinion being challenged in any way. These people are nuts! You leave exasperated, relieved to be free of the tension. Depending on the topic and climate, you may be worried about the future, motivated to take action against the propagation of such nonsense. That’s the power of the opposing view: it strengthens your beliefs, and encourages you to fight for those beliefs.
Politics is a big deal. There is tremendous money and power at stake. When there is that much to play for, you can be sure that all the players use every means possible to their greatest advantage. And there is nothing more powerful than our own psycho-social reactions. That is exactly what the field of political psychology is about: using what we know about human nature to get us all to do something.
So here are the facts: (1) Our opinions are essentially fixed. (2) Statements supporting our opinions help strengthen those opinions, but too much of that makes us comfortable and allows us to question our own beliefs (Danger Will Robinson!) (3) Statements opposing our opinion strengthen that opinion even more! They are also motivating, and we don’t question what we already believe.
How to use this to advantage?
I give you the meme, and I give you social media.
Political memes are extremely powerful, as they take advantage of every psycho-social reaction and strengthen the support of those who ascribe to that view. There is no chance of changing someone’s opinion – and why bother? We already know that’s not going to happen.
The purpose of the political meme is to galvanize those who might lean a little to one side and draw them in from the middle, into the cohesive group of motivated followers.
And both political parties are using them to advantage, continuously. They drop them into virtual crowds like tear gas, then step back and watch as the inevitable unfolds.
These memes and headlines are intentionally inflammatory. People have a very short attention span, so it’s got to be quick, and it’s got to be a bit outlandish. To the followers, it’s a funny joke. To the opposition, it’s an insult. But both sides are drawn in like moths to the flame.
And that’s all you have to do, because social media does the rest.
What is under the meme? Or the brash headline of the shared story that no one actually reads? What comes next is the facet of social media that gives it tremendous power: the comments. What do we know about comments? There will be two flavors: those of the people who agree with us, and those of the people who don’t.
We tend to just blow over the ones we agree with, they strengthen our opinion, although some of them will seem a bit off base… It’s the ones from the opposition that we take really note of: crazy people! Spouting off all kinds of crazy ideas! Dangerous, horrible ideas! These comments are inevitable, and the reaction is scientifically proven: it strengthens our pre-conceived beliefs, and motivates us to support the political party we already ascribe too. We have become stronger followers.
And that is the power – and the evil – of political memes on social media. This is the facet of our society that has changed, that has crept in to our world and is being used by our political system to its own advantage, and to our potential destruction.
Destruction? Evil? Those terms are a bit harsh, eh? These are just little jokes, right? So what? And those people, the ones that think differently than us, they really are crazy. There is no changing their mindset, no chance of ever working with them, no chance of getting them to see the error of their ways. Especially because this side is the good side, the correct side, the side that has the answers.
There is no correct side. There is no side with the answers, because the answers aren’t found at the edges. The correct side isn’t a side at all. The place to be is in the middle. The middle is where there is compromise, collaboration, cooperation.
Any system that serves to separate us into two sides is by definition divisive. In the name of freedom, we have allowed the slow but inexorable creation of an insidious monster that is working to tear us apart. For 200 years we have had heated political debates, some have turned violent, some have even led to war. But during that time, our views have actually blended and become more aligned; we have never been closer in our sociopolitical views than right now. And yet this new manner of communication has changed the game.
Social media is not to blame; it is part of our reality. We have to learn to live in this new world. The internet is not going away. Freedom of speech is not going away. But there is nothing to stop us from recognizing that our society has moved on, that we have evolved, that things have changed. There is nothing wrong with identifying a problem and fixing it. We did that some 240 years ago, to great advantage.
It’s not time for revolution, it’s not time for war.
But it is time for some revision.