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Christmas is a time for goodwill to all but sadly social media has made us a more hostile society

Unyielding: Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell declared recently he could never be friends with a Tory
Unyielding: Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell declared recently he could never be friends with a Tory

By Mary Kenny

There's a theory going around that social media has made people more intolerant of others, their opinions and values. Facebook users sometimes 'unfriend' each other, and people on Twitter quite commonly block other contributors, if they dislike their views or consider them hostile.

When the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell - a man whose first vocation and early training was to be a Catholic priest - said recently that under no circumstances could he ever be friends with a Tory, it was taken as an example of the new bigotry.

I suppose the Brexit referendum, like the Repeal the Eighth plebiscite in Ireland, may well have sharpened political divisiveness, and the free-flowing antagonisms of social media have probably heightened the adversarial atmosphere.

The 'new intolerance', as it's sometimes called, is exemplified, too, by the practice seen in university campuses of no-platforming speakers whose opinions are considered to be unacceptable, whether this be a defence of the state of Israel, an affirmation that a surgical operation and a course of hormones do not make a born male into a 'real' woman, or a deep conviction that the foetus is a human life we are not morally entitled to extinguish.

The holders of such views have been no-platformed at several distinguished seats of learning on both sides of the Atlantic - that is to say, disallowed from expressing their opinions.

What is really needed in our time is a wider circulation of my mother's favourite aphorism - it would be a poor world if we were all the same. Diversity of ideas is not only the spice of life, but the very essence of intellectual fruitfulness. If everyone thought the same way, how dull and conformist the world would be. Creativity arises out of difference, and sometimes struggle, not out of a bland agreement to fall in line with all prevailing ideologies.

To refuse to be friends with someone whose political or lifestyle ideas you disagree with is to practise this type of modern sectarianism and to deliberately reduce your potential for mind-expanding experiences (if John McDonnell had trained in a Jesuit seminary he'd have learned the wisdom of that intellectual tradition - in debate, you usually learn more from your opponents than from your supporters).

The other thing is that most of us don't just have one identity, as defined by politics or values - we have multiple. A person can be, at one and the same time, an artist, a mother, a Sinn Fein voter, a reading club organiser and a lover of horses, and they should be able to strike up friendships on common interests anywhere along the line. To define friendship only in terms of politics or single-interest values is to be, literally, narrow-minded.

If intolerance is growing, maybe it has something to do with more people living in cities, and fewer living in villages and small towns. Small towns may harbour a few feuds and simmering rivalries, but there is generally an incentive among the denizens to be civil to one another, and to make friends with neighbours and those they see every day.

My experience is that there is an open-mindedness in small towns which doesn't operate on the same level in cities, and seldom exists in online relationships. In a small town, people allow for one another's eccentricities; they know a certain amount about a family or neighbourhood history; they accept that old so-and-so is a 'character' or that herself over the road has at least seven cats. They're less swift to make hostile judgements about an idiosyncratic lifestyle.

Whereas within social media, you can dwell within the comfort of your own little echo-chamber. You can spit venom at someone on Twitter (particularly when using an anonymous profile) because you're never going to have to meet them personally.

In big-city life, you can adhere to your own tribe and stay within the same-thinking bubble. In the small town, you can't really afford to show hostility to neighbours you'll see shopping, walking the dog, at a community event, in the library. This enhances tolerance.

The Darwinists interpret the Christian precept to love your neighbour as an evolutionary survival mechanism. The day might come when you might need your neighbour, and how they vote or think has nothing to do with the case.

Christmas is traditionally a time for peace and goodwill, and the ritual of the Christmas card can be a great prompt to treasuring friendships, and the way that friends bring difference and variety to our lives. So what if they are more Left-wing or Right-wing?

With the passing of the years, there can be more accommodation of disparate points of view. When you begin to grasp the point that you are not going to be here for ever, and that each day spent is leading you towards the departure lounge, it seems rather petty to exclude anyone because they hold different opinions.

As time goes on, too, it is the memories shared that become so valued, and the stories of how life turned out, after all, that seem the most beguiling part of any discourse.

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