We received a bit of a shock the other day. Veronica, a casual acquaintance whose life seemed to run parallel to ours for several years, announced that she and her husband of three years had split up, leaving a young child to be cast onto the choppy waters of life between two households.
Nothing unusual about that, I hear you mutter. True, except that Veronica and Seamus had been an item since their school days, they had planned their marriage with unbridled enthusiasm and could hardly wait to begin a family. Having seen them at a local coffee shop not so long ago, holding hands, gazing with adoration at each other, I, for one, would have put money on them being the great success story of the decade. But, no.
Now, I’m not a snoop and Veronica is not a blabbermouth so I really have no idea as to what drove the final wedge into a relationship that seemed to have everything going for it. But I do know this: Veronica was the full bottle on social media and I wonder if the influence of this incomprehensible adjunct to our lives might have cast a brooding shadow over their flowering happiness.
To an electronically challenged Neanderthal like me, Veronica was a marvel. She faced the world bravely on Facebook, she twittered on Twitter, she snap, crackled and popped along to Snapchat, and hers was an instant success story on Instagram. Yet I’m not suggesting that some evil troll out there in the ethernet might have cast a spell over her marriage, but the thing that troubles me about social media is not at all what most people point the finger about. That is, all the trolling, boasting, bullying and the rest of it that occasionally earns a ritual hand-wringing in the nightly news, particularly if it has caused serious harm to a victim.
No, what bothers me about social media is the absolutist way in which it touches everything. It is the epicentre of conviction, definitive statement, assertion and anthem and I’m not even going anywhere near prejudice. If you’re looking for evolution or change or growth or the need for patience to cope with adjustment, social media is not the place for you, I believe.
It is the natural home of those who know best and who have no reservation in reminding the world about their omniscience. And so I worry that if a marriage, for example, is in trouble, then looking for help or advice from social media runs the risk of being overpowered by the sheer weight of the success stories of those who’ve made it and the salutary tales of woe of those who didn’t.
In many ways, it seems that social media is now filling a role that was once the preserve of the guidance counsellor with this one critical proviso: the counsellor usually had enough grey around the temples to offer common sense and life experience sufficient to encourage awareness of the difference between a temporary hump and an impassable mountain range. In any event, such professionals seemed generally to be guided by caution, in not urging irrevocable steps until the full extent of the situation revealed itself to those they were helping.
Moreover, they were guided by the very practical outlook that a difficult marriage might well be a problem but that hitting it with an impulsive piece of four-by-two, especially after all the ‘life lessons’ of social media had legitimised your own angry feelings, might have even worse consequences. As my wife Grace commented on Veronica’s news, “we only have one life, it’s not a trial run for the one to come”. So one ought to hasten slowly.
In penning these words, the image of Winston Churchill, funnily enough, came back to me through the medium of that recent Gary Oldman movie Darkest Hour. If there had been a range of social media available in 1940, then I have little doubt that a avalanche of comment from all kinds of armchair experts would have urged Churchill (“Cut yer losses, mate!”) to follow the lead of the defeatist Lord Halifax and seek a negotiated settlement with Hitler, since all the objective criteria then pointed towards an imminent Nazi victory.
Can you even imagine what sort of a world we would have inherited if Churchill had been panicked by a panicking social media that claimed to speak for an isolated people staring down the ugly barrel of the largest armaments industry in the world?
Now this is a long way from poor old Veronica, I admit; and I have not the slightest evidence that social media played any part in the fissure between her and Seamus, which widened into a gulf. But that’s not really the point.
My point is that if we allow the absolute conviction that is the essence of social media to relegate the natural processes of discussion and evolution and changes of mind that are the hallmark of reasonable people to the garbage bin of relations, both between people and between peoples, then I think we are asking for what we might get.
I, for one, would sleep a lot more easily if the most powerful man in the world listened for a change, and kept his finger off the button, whether it’s a nuke or a smartphone. He knows he’s a genius; he knows his opponents are all germs, but it would be nice if he let us decide for ourselves. Because, if all the provocative posturing of his Twitter account finally meets a force that doesn’t blink, be it China, North Korea, Russia or Iran, then it will be us, not the great man in Trump Tower, who will be called upon to pick up the pieces.
Meanwhile, Veronica is putting her life back together again and she’s raising a healthy brood of chooks for starters. May they continue to rain eggs on her and little Connor.