Election Anxiety Got You Down? Write More, Post Less
October 30, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Joey Franklin
In the fall of 2016, as the insanity of the presidential election approached its fever pitch, I found myself, like many of you, embroiled in what felt like an endless maelstrom of social media debate. Encouraged by the steady accumulation of “likes” from like-minded followers, I peppered my Facebook thread with pathos-rich political ads, Anti-Trump opinion pieces, and lengthy articles by overworked fact checkers, and then I planted my flag in the comment section of every pro-Trump post that showed up in my feed.
It felt like rhetorical calisthenics—my daily denunciation of hypocrisy, logical fallacy, and fake news—but in the end, what good came from arguing online with neighbors, high school friends, and that old lady from my childhood congregation? If the goal was to change hearts and minds, then not much. In all my 2016 social media activism (such an oxymoronic phrase—like “healthy tan” or “bacon cleanse”) I didn’t win a single convert.
In the face of unremitting Trump anxiety though, it was easy to get caught up in what former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya calls “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” of online engagement. It was easier to imagine such interaction as a noble, civic-minded exercise of free speech, than to accept the reality that such debate often felt more like throwing punches on the playground or leaving a flaming bag of poo on old man Moore’s front porch.
What it almost never felt like? Self-awareness, empathy, and the mind-expanding reflection that comes whenever I essay. If social media debates are generally about declaring to the world what I think I know, and then daring other people to disagree with me, then essaying is a declaration to myself that I don’t know anything, and then daring myself to do something about it.
Montaigne says it best, I think:
“We only learn to dispute that we may contradict; and so . . . it falls out that the fruit of disputation is to lose and annihilate truth.”
Not that political disagreements and public debate are inessential to discovering truth, but that too often online debate has more in common with Alex Jones than with Alexander Hamilton.
Thus, in the wake of the 2016 election, disillusioned by my online echo chamber’s inability to actually change the world, I found myself in a hopeless stupor of slack-jawed exhaustion. And in that stupor, I nearly forgot that I write essays—that making sense of the world at its most senseless is sorta what essays do best, and that outside the insular and artificial world of social media, I had plenty I wanted to make sense of—white supremacists marching on Charlottesville, a racist travel ban on Muslims, black Americans losing their lives to police and vigilante violence. Toxic male culture, religious nihilism, and a bougie disregard for the poor at every turn. Refocusing my intellectual work away from social media and towards writing helped remind me that where social media so often fails, the essay just might succeed—maybe not in changing the world, but certainly in changing me. And that’s an important start.
In his 2018 book, Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Internet technologist and philosopher Jaron Lanier argues that social media engagement is depleting our creativity, dumbing-down our belief systems, and stunting our ability to see and do good in the world. He writes that too many of us are sacrificing our intellectual energy on the short-term benefits of a social media presence:
What if listening to an inner voice or heeding a passion for ethics or beauty were to lead to more important work in the long term, even if it measured as less successful in the moment? What if deeply reaching a small number of people matters more than reaching everyone with nothing?
And though Lanier isn’t talking about literary publishing, is there a more apt description of what we all aspire to do than “heeding a passion for ethics or beauty” in hopes of “deeply reaching a small number of people?” One might even argue that literary endeavors and social media engagement are incompatible, or at least working in opposite directions.
For my part, in the months and years since the last presidential election, I have tried to write more, and post less. I haven’t managed to quit social media entirely, but I have written a book. And though it likely won’t go viral or win any national awards (or many Amazon reviews for that matter), it does represent the best of my ideas revised and reconsidered over the past four years—ideas born of research, self-reflection, meditation, and a desire for clarity about some of the ugliness in the world and my part in it. And that feels like a small, but important literary victory—the kind of victory that comes not from the closed fist of the social media rant, but from the open palm of the essay.
Joey Franklin’s new book Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays is on sale now at University of Nebraska Press. Use discount code 6AF20 to get 40% off.
Joey Franklin’s newest book is Delusions of Grandeur: American Essays. He is also the author of My Wife Wants You to Know I Am Happily Married (Nebraska 2015). His articles and essays have appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine, Writer’s Chronicle, Hunger Mountain, Gettysburg Review, the Norton Reader, and elsewhere. With Patrick Madden, he co-edits the literary magazine Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction (accepting submissions now), and he teaches at Brigham Young University where he coordinates the MFA program in creative writing. His current projects include a memoir about the saints and scoundrels in his family tree, and a professionalization guide for creative writers. He can be found online at joeyfranklin.com.