When I quit Facebook in late 2016, it was because the site had shifted so much from learning about people I knew and keeping in touch with them to a collective political scream, with divides worsening as the people I knew, all of us processing what happened during the 2016 elections, fought with conservative relatives and friends over the versions of reality we all knew. Since then, the Cambridge Analytica scandal was revealed. Last summer, on Twitter, more divisions and divisiveness came to a head; I began to lose my faith in our collective ability to get out of these places.
I pray to Athene about many things. Among them, I have prayed about the climate crisis. When COVID-19 started, I added prayers for people in positions of political power to do something to ease human suffering.
There is a podcast, Your Undivided Attention, devoted to figuring out what went wrong in tech that led to the social media crisis (fake news, disinformation, propaganda, and so on), and what we can do to move forward. There is an understanding in the information industry that a pivot is needed, and quickly. The digital wild west is now a brush fire that has almost completely encircled us, and our society is too frozen to do what we need to do to get out.
At some moment — or some many moments — I went through everyone I was following on Twitter and stopped following people who mostly tweeted about politics. I muted the names of many politicians and some political issues. I decided that I needed mental cold water, a pause to figure everything out to verify that the convictions I hold have a sound basis. In the silence of my own mind, some things did not hold to scrutiny; others did.
In Episode 14 of Your Undivided Attention, Claire Wardle said, “I see the speed at which this is happening. In two years’ time, this country will be fully polarized. We will have two different sets of media, nobody will believe anything from anybody, and I do think that there is still hope. We cannot keep talking at convenings, we can’t keep talking at podcasts about what we’re going to do. We could have done this podcast three years ago and said almost exactly the same thing.” The podcast was released in March or April of this year. I listened to it while folding laundry, a nerve-wracking experience during COVID-19 because I use a laundromat. Folding, bringing order to a tangle of warm fabric, is soothing.
When I pray to Apollon, I frequently ask to find the still, cold heart of truth at the core of all things. Beyond the messiness of perspective is something objectively real, even if all I see is a shifting chaos of shadows cast by an ever-moving fire.
When police fired at journalists and outside actors surged into protests to commit acts of vandalism last week, I looked at what everyone was saying. Two years, Claire Wardle had said. It feels, in some sense, like we are already too late. It troubles me deeply that anti-fascists are being blamed for violence breaking out during protests when, at least in the cities I’ve read about, it seems like a menagerie of far-right, white supremacist groups and Gods know who else. What am I seeing in the news? What are they all seeing?
Last week, my voice faltered mid-prayer. I didn’t even know what to pray for or say. The misinformation and reactionary spin surrounding the recent protests was starting to get to me. I sighed and just asked for whatever blessings Athene could give.
One thing I fear deeply is making a mistake and perpetuating something false. It’s inevitable that this will happen or has happened because people do make mistakes. What if it’s not something small?
I went back onto Twitter temporarily after deciding to do a hiatus. I donated money to a racial justice organization, Black Visions, because people who know what they’re doing in antiracist activism should have the resources they need to do it. On Sunday, I noticed that the drone of I-95 had completely stilled. It was eerily quiet, save the birds. So, so quiet.
One of the Delphic Maxims given to me this week for contemplation was εὖ πάσχε ὡς θνητός.
The unsteady thing about polarization and knowing how it works is that I could cite data until all breath has left me, flip through printouts of scientific articles until my hands are chapped and my fingertips sliced, and it would still not be enough. People are not predisposed to sucking empathy from charts and tables. They need stories. The easiest stories to tell are ones that pluck one’s deepest fears and anxieties, and those rarely lead to good places. It’s harder to tell stories that are inspiring. In the words of someone in a social media feed a while ago, I don’t know how to teach you that you should care about other people.
I awoke at 1:22 AM this morning and, half-asleep, started thinking about people. I don’t have to know precisely how they are and are not like me to treat them as people, don’t even have to know who they are. Some part of me thought this was related to likeness and unlikeness, that if I knew how to completely describe that totality of otherness that was sameness, I would have something. Maybe that is the key to explaining altruism and caring about strangers, the non-overlappingness of ourselves with one another a key, the embrace that needs nothing of itself in another apart from a recognition of mutual personhood to recognize the other as real. Of course, I was half-asleep, so the paragraph I am finishing only makes half-sense.
Lately, while praying, I’ve often felt like those moments in the Iliad when Homer is like, “and his prayers were not answered.” Some of this is stress. Some of it is an acknowledgement that, as a white woman about to turn thirty-three living in a country nurtured by unjust blood, addressing agos is much bigger than myself and my family. So much of what we have is not ours. In a state, we are all judged by our worst members when we fail to exact justice appropriately.
After I donated to Black Visions, I set up recurring donations to the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, the Climate Emergency Fund, and Equality Now. I already donate monthly to Doctors Without Borders. I give money on Patreon to a group making apps for language revitalization among indigenous communities. It is all a faucet’s drip, lost in the ocean. It is a lost ocean, hidden in pipes. Last night, in a nature documentary, I watched a single wild boar fend off an entire pack of wolves; she lived. There are things that all of us can do even when the situation seems unmanageable.
There is an owl hooting outside of my window, one who has lived there since I moved into my current apartment. It unnerved me for a while because the hoot of an owl is an omen of death — but in a city with so many houses in such close proximity, whose? Or of what?