On Divisiveness

And Belonging

Opposites are easy. Black and white are easier than shades of gray. North and South are easier than WNW and SSE. Left means nothing without right.

Everyone feels alone and left out. It is the universal human condition. When the alone and left out get together and commiserate, others feel left out, and resent them, because even though the alone and left out thought they were being left out of something, the people they thought were leaving them out felt alone and left out too — all of them unaware of their shared human misery.

But in conflict they find themselves — or a version of themselves. They attain identity. In opposition they feel together and like they are part of something — this seems like a cure for their pain! They belong… in opposition. They belong… when they’re opposed. They belong… against the others.

The well-off straight white healthy native-speaking masculine boy with every advantage in the world feels alone and left out.

What hope do the rest of us have?

But this is human nature — it’s a part of our biology, like hunger and thirst, unpleasant feelings that keep us chasing what helps our survival: being around other people helps our survival, and so along with hunger and thirst we feel anxiety and loneliness, and we seek out the others and we say “hey, what’s up?”

Even in the best and most natural conditions, this escalates to murder and warfare: “what’s up?” becomes “look at those others” becomes “look at us” becomes “we hate those others” becomes “we love us” becomes the only way I feel safe is if we continue attacking those others, so that attacking them is a defense of my very sense of self, and then it’s nothing short of total war.

Now add social media: other people appear to be always having the best life. Your life, being real, feels inadequate. You feel utterly alone and left out. So you go to social media to feel better, and you share a version of yourself you hope will garner admiration or connection. Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t. Like a rat in a cage with a lever that distributes food on a variable schedule, you begin tapping the lever maniacally, you feel desperate, then embarrassed, then resentful, then more desperate than ever to find your “tribe” — the people that distinguish you from others in opposition and make you feel distinct and better, like left from right, black from white, north from south, wrong from right — the people who will always affirm that you belong, against those others.

This is why we are tearing each other apart. It’s the same reason we make ourselves fat: evolution programmed us to fear and dread being left out and alone like it’s death; because in nature, it usually is. Social media hyper-charged our ability to group-up and define ourselves against others. Just as an environment rich in deep-fried fast-food and high-fructose corn syrup wrought havoc upon bodies evolved to seek out sweet calories and hang on to them tight, social media has exploited the deadly flaw in the feedback system evolved to keep us alive by keeping us around other people.

We splinter and fray into smaller and smaller versions of ourselves, and defend what little is left of us with sick burns and owns, bloody attacks born of anxiety and fear.