Another Thursday, another special guest post. Today’s guest blogger is an award-winning psychiatrist. Dr. Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco, and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks is his full-length nonfiction debut, and is the winner of the 2017 Nautilus Silver Book Award for Religion/Spirituality of Eastern Thought.
A friend who knows my interest in social media and mental health forwarded me this clip from The Daily Show, “What if Facebook were a Real Place?” (The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, June 7, 2018) It’s a hilarious three-and-a-half-minute view, well worth your time:
While the bar’s patrons share cute kid pics, butt into other people’s conversations, and antagonize each other with political opinions, outright insults and “hey, you – fight me!” come-ons, the bartender rakes in the profits, much like Mark Zuckerberg and his Facebook managers profit from our wish to “connect.” Now, maybe this is still early-stage social media, and there are better things to come. After all, the bartender says he cares, right? I mean, he’s apologized for basically the same thing, like, 13 times already in 14 years! (“14 years of Mark Zuckerberg saying sorry, not sorry,” Geoffrey A. Fowler and Chiqui Esteban, Washington Post, April 9, 2018)
To be fair, Facebook does have a “compassion team” that has put a lot of thought in making Facebook a less toxic and more healthy environment. I describe what I learned of their work in my book, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks:
“When (Arturo) Bejar (Facebook’s Director of Engineering) speaks of his attempts to help users navigate offensive and bullying posts, I’m reminded of the boundary issues inherent in Facebook that have spoiled the experience for me in the past. We can’t control what we’re exposed to. Opinionated others find their way into our feed, and even a ‘friend’ can annoy. But Bejar and his team are working on this issue. They want to make the ‘box’ happier. But what if the box is the problem? The medium is the message, after all, and this medium is an unusually limited representation of relationship, self and other.
Disagreements are part of all relationships, but on Facebook, they become divisive diatribes instead of dialogues. A generally conciliatory, diplomatic, perspective-taking viewpoint doesn’t fare well amongst the colorfully provocative flamethrowers who see the world in black-and-white, certain terms. We can sometimes report or object to offensive posts, we can ignore them, we can “hide” offensive posters, we can unfriend – but none of these bring us closer to the kind of relationship that can truly accept and hold our differences, or even, possibly, to transcend them.”
The Buddha supposedly said, “People with opinions just going around bothering each other.” Now, we’re so advanced that we don’t even need to look up from our smartphones to annoy each other. Just post an update, and you’re done!
It’s not, I think, that we should not have opinions and perspectives. The question is how do we hold them, and how do we deal with people who view the world differently? Online, we rarely approach people with curiosity, empathy, and a genuine wish to understand them. We defriend them, hide, block or fight them – whatever gives us peace or fortifies our own sense of self. Sometimes, the online conversations work, and there’s a moment of change. But mostly, it’s early-stage-bar, like The Daily Show.
We have a chance at genuine conversation, empathy and understanding IRL (In Real Life) – but it still takes work. It takes a lot of skill to navigate awkward or hot conversations. But as human beings, we’re built with “open limbic loops” – we are subtly responsive to the signals of presence (facial expression, tone of voice, body language), and change in response to others in our environment. We actually can soothe each other by being present with each other. That little trick has been working for 150,000 or more years of our evolution. But technology coupled with our socio-political divides and rapidly changing economic and demographic environment threatens to unmask our amygdalae (the part of our brains where our fight-or-flight responses originate) and turn not just social media, but the entire country, into a Narcissistic Fight Club Death Match, with all sides claiming self-righteous higher ground and fueled by a desire to eliminate the other. We’ll stand our ground until there’s no ground left.
Let’s take one recent example. Michelle Malkin just excoriated Robert De Niro on Facebook for angrily saying “F—k Trump” in front of a large, cheering Tony Awards crowd. Malkin then goes on to say De Niro should “take a mindfulness class and get off cable news.” Considering Malkin’s history of outrageous and antagonistic statements on the conservative side, and the conservative side’s seeming aversion to mindfulness and affinity for Fox News, this is laughable: Physician, heal thyself. Apparently, Malkin thinks only the right is entitled to anger. When the left gets angry, they’re being childish. I know … she’s just in it for the attention. I’ll think of that next time I want to tweet.
Try unhooking from social media (and maybe even reconsider your news habits) with the Facebuddha Social Media Mindfulness Challenge. Consider whether your style of attachment to your opinions is helping or hurting you. Have some conversations instead of going to bed angry at someone on the internet. Deepen your sense of who you are.
I think we are all going through an Identity Crisis. Who are we and who are we to each other?
We won’t find the answers online. We might find information online, but we won’t find ourselves.
Note: This article was originally published here.