Dissent’s volume knob

Back in antediluvian times (before the ‘social’ flood), small arguments and disputes felt different. It often started with ‘I’m not sure that’s a great idea’. The person had to feel fairly sure of him or herself and lay out the basis for their dissent. The others present might weigh in with arguments in support or against on either side and everything would advance, for the most part, to a consensus, a compromise or an agreement to disagree.

Today, we are all on the starting blocks of disagreement. We are honed to fast track our dissent. Any hint of wrongdoing or flimsiness in the action of a perceived foe gets us off to the races before they’ve laced their own boots. Moreover, the audience runs with the dissenter. They are less inclined to pause, think and then react. They’ll dive in.

Last week, for instance, easyJet responded to a customer who posted an image on Twitter of a seat without a back and a woman sitting on it. The wording of the tweet and the image implied that easyJet were sanctioning travel on their planes in backless seats. Now I know that airline safety is a big issue. It’s not a triviality. But under the social lens, simple truths can get lost.

Replying, easyJet said that they’d investigate and asked the person (with a modest social media following) to delete the image while the investigation took place. I guess the calculation was that this could get out of control and that the risk of appearing to be strong-arming the customer was low.

Oh dear. In moments the tweets were trending on Twitter, the world had become aviation experts, the whole basis of airline safety and easyJet’s approach to it were being drawn into question. The story made its way onto the most major news outlets, went international, drew the attention of broadcasters, etc, etc.

The photo was posed. The author of the tweet wasn’t on the plane. The seats were not used during take-off or in flight. The seats were due for repair. There was no risk to passengers. All airline safety rules were tightly observed.

Damage to the brand: significant. Damage to perceptions of the dissenters (and this is my larger point): significant.

This is one example of many. It’s a corporate one, but there are countless injustices. We forget the close up lens, we forget the wide angle lens. We lose perspective. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

The difficulty, or rather one of many, is that social media arguments are binary. They all boil down to the ones and zeros of binary notation, which is to say that even at their smallest, there is no compromise or morphing of attitudes. We hold our positions, look for evidence to support them and will never compromise. There are no apologies on social media, only a pulsating number of people who support your unyielding view. It isn’t a forum for debate. It is a pavlovian chamber for pulsating validation. This motivates us to hold our lines and to weigh in quickly. We lose rationality, and become as someone recently described it, ‘like grifters.’

If we squander our ire on day to day trivialities, we blunt the effectiveness of our most valuable weapons of dissent.