A Thing or Not a Thing, That is the Question
Recently and apparently out of nowhere, one of my daughters got “blocked” by one of her closest “friends.” For those of you who don’t have screenagers and are missing out on a front row seat to millennial and Gen Z social mores, “blocking” is the Boomer equivalent of “unfriending” on Facebook. It’s what a “friend” does to you on Snapchat and other forms of social media when you do something that (even mildly) bothers them, or worse, is merely the result of the random ruling of a clique. I could tell my daughter was upset by this, even more so confused, because she got blocked by one of her closest friends with whom she was inseparable. Until suddenly, and inexplicably, they were not.
Sensing her consternation over the surprising turn of events (though certainly not uncommon in the social landscape of today’s youth) I made a suggestion that I thought was quite reasonable: “Why don’t you just call her and talk to her?” I asked. My daughter looked at me like I had suggested she take off her clothes and run naked through the boy’s locker room. “Mom,” she said, with all the indignance and umbrage she could muster, “that’s not a thing.” Gen Z thought bubble: “Okay, Boomer. You’re an idiot.”
So, apparently, in 2020, looking someone in the eye and talking through a problem is “not a thing.”
I love and respect my children. And I adore most of their friends. But I also fear that we are raising a generation of emotional cowards. That their dependence on social media as the primary form of interpersonal communication, now more than ever, is depriving them of the opportunities to develop the social skills that allow us to have healthy, deep, and durable interpersonal relationships. And the courage to take responsibility for their words or actions. The tools to work out problems. To respect different perspectives and ways of communicating. And the courage to engage in communication that creates opportunities for intimacy. The chance to experience how relationships can strengthen when they are battle tested. How, when we invest in them, relationships can actually become stronger in the broken places. Challenging stuff even for those of us who grew up having eye contact.
My older daughter and her girlfriends regularly receive texts from boys the contents of which are often stunningly offensive to me. Things are said and invitations made in quickly disappearing messages that, in a million years, would not/could not be said while looking someone in the eye.
And what about these kids who send crude electronic invitations? Are they actual friends? Our kids, who have a handful of very close actual friends, have the illusion of having thousands of friends, or “followers” – a word that has come into its own with the advent of social media. When I was growing up, calling my friends “followers” would not have been a compliment but rather would have evoked Jonestown. I think the sheer numbers of followers our kids have creates an illusion of many friendships when we all know what actually makes friends valuable is quality not quantity.
Why am I bringing all of this up?
Recently someone in our community wrote an Op Ed taking a strong position on a controversial local issue. I personally happened to think the writer made a number of good points though some disagreed, of course. What I found disappointing was not the passionate debate or disagreement that resulted, but rather that one community member (who has known the writer for years) took offense at the writer’s perspective and thus declared that she would “unfriend” him on Facebook.
I’m not personally a big Facebook user, though at one point I did appreciate the function it served to reconnect me to a wider group of friends. But over time I found the platform to be more of a time suck than a value and eventually I didn’t appreciate the confusing and sometimes destructive role it began to play in our country’s political discourse. But I digress.
Here are my questions: If someone unfriends you because they object to a position you’ve taken, were they ever actually a “friend”? And if we only “friend” those who share our own points of view, aren’t we asking to live in a world where we are only ever looking at infinite reflections of ourselves? The selfie-ization of Life? Most importantly, isn’t that what got us into this cauldron of mutual intolerance in the first place?
So here we are, at home, socially distancing. Much like my teenage daughters who, in many ways, have been doing this for much of their adolescence, we are now, due to this pandemic, conducting most of our social and interpersonal interactions on a screen. We’re existing in a universe where we can “unfriend,” “block,” or simply “mute” one another with the swipe of a finger. So, there’s not even the possibility of sitting across the table and hashing things out. No need to even hear the pesky opinions of the ignoramuses who disagree with us. Just “unfriend” them. “Block” them. “Mute” them. It’s so much easier than engaging.
In college I majored in history. One of the figures I found particularly intriguing was a man named Henry Clay, a statesman who represented Kentucky in both the House and in the Senate. Over his long career Clay served as the Speaker of the House, the Secretary of State, and unsuccessfully ran for the office of President five times. Nevertheless, Clay had a lengthy and storied political career, running each of the major political parties at the time, including the Whig Party.
Clay is referred to in history as “The Great Compromiser,” because he was responsible for several major compromises between the Northern and the Southern states over the issue of slavery that likely helped delay the Civil War by 40 years. Clay inherited slaves himself but freed them as he gained both power and empathy. (Of little comfort, I suspect, to those enslaved for 40 more years.)
Clay also negotiated the treaty with Britain that ended the War of 1812 and negotiated the Missouri Compromise. Whatever you think of his politics, at his core Clay was a nationalist, devoted to the economic development and political integration of the United States. And Clay was unsurpassed in the art of bringing people together to talk, often in the interest of moderation and most importantly, moving things forward (like the end of slavery) while avoiding war. And certainly, these were not easy conversations.
I look around at our country and our local community and the daunting challenges we face. And I look at all the deep divisions and digging in over the many possible paths to an uncertain future. And I wonder, where is our Henry Clay, our Great Compromiser? Is that no longer even possible? Have we lost the great art of compromise? Or perhaps, as my daughter insists, that is no longer a thing?