Our Mad, Mad World

Remember when social media used to be fun, a place to share photos of your kids, family vacations, and gatherings with friends? There is still some of that, but mostly it has turned into a cesspool of anger, darkness, and hate. Because of social media, I almost didn’t visit my mother recently, and I made the difficult decision to defriend my oldest son on Facebook. Needless to say, all of this has left me feeling pretty low.

Of course the disagreements started with politics. Almost everything these days does. I have no issue with people who have political opinions and affiliations different than my own. I do, however, take issue with conspiracy theories, promoting racist propaganda, and flat-out rudeness and disrespect.

Until the death of George Floyd and the resulting protests, not once in my life did I hear my mother use racist words or see her behave in racist ways. Nor was she anywhere near inclined to discuss or even pay attention to politics. Growing up and until about four years ago, the only thing I knew about her politically was that she was a registered Democrat.

Then came retirement, a new set of friends after moving to a different state, a sudden interest in Fox News, a pandemic, and a lot of time on her hands. What started as benign political posts on Facebook progressed into anti-Democrat rhetoric and vague conspiracy theories. So her political affiliations were changing and she believed some crazy stuff, I reasoned. But when she started sharing far-right racist propaganda, I became alarmed.

At first I ignored it, sticking to our agreed-upon deal of not commenting on each other’s political posts. This was actually at her insistence, as I could not care less if someone with a contrary opinion comments on my posts, as long as they are civil about it. But when in one day she posted six race-inciting memes, I felt I had to address it.

I did so privately. She completely denied that her posts were racist, and challenged me to explain how they were. When I told her that if I had to educate her about why they were racist, there was no point, she said it was I that needed to be educated, and went on a hate-filled rants against Democrats, Black Lives Matters protesters, and more. I was so upset and alarmed by her anger and extremist language that I made an excuse as to why I couldn’t visit the next day, as planned, then sought to calm down with a walk and chat with a friend.

The chat with my friend was also alarming. She shared with me her own angst regarding her daughter, who is an open follower of a conspiracy theory group called QAnon. Followers believe that the United States is controlled by a deep state of satan worshipping pedaphiles, mostly Democrats and Hollywood personalities, and that Donald Trump was sent to save the world from them.  The daughter recently was fired from her job after a coworker alerted  the company about her verbally abusive, racist posts, which they deemed as not being in alignment with company values. She is suing the company.

The conversation with my friend raised alarms, though. Based on what she had told me, and my own online research after our conversation, I thought back to things my mother had said and posted, plus an odd private message she sent to me by mistake. The puzzle pieces began to fit together, and the realization that my mother, and some of her friends, are likely followers of this conspiracy group dawned. I texted her and told her what I suspected. She neither confirmed nor denied it.

A week later came the issue with my son. A couple months back, he challenged me to not post about politics for a day. I accepted the challenge and raised him a week. The week off was so refreshing, that to this day I have barely shared one political opinion, article, or meme on Facebook. Not that I’m not paying attention. I am. But it has felt good to focus on sharing mostly positive things, and I have been grateful to my son ever since for the challenge.

However, something really upset me recently related to politics, so I shared an article about it, hoping to inform others who might not be paying attention.  My son’s comments in response, not just to my post but to others’ comments, were so rude and disrespectful, got so personal, that I removed one of them, defriended him, and then texted to tell him why. He responded with even ruder and more disrespectful remarks. I can only hope, and this is a sad statement, that he was drunk that night.

This wasn’t the first time my son has been rude and disrespectful in his Facebook comments. Friends have pointed this out to me and one suggested last year that I block him. He is my son, so of course I didn’t want to go there, but I finally reached my breaking point. I will not tolerate verbal abuse or incivility, especially from my own children. Still, I cannot believe it has come to this.

I did end up visiting my mother, for one night instead of three as originally planned. We didn’t discuss our disagreement, and enjoyed time together on the beach, her patio, and with neighbors. But the residue was there between us, as it is for so many family members and friends during these divisive times, the most divisive that I have personally experienced.

My son and I haven’t communicated since our last texts, a little over a week ago. He lives in another state, an almost three-hour plane ride. I know this pandemic has been tough on him. His work hours were reduced, making it necessary for him to dip into savings, and when that ran out into his retirement account. He is feeling isolated and lonely, as he’s never been able to make the kind of close friends he had back home since moving. In retrospect, I could have just blocked him temporarily and let my anger cool down.

I long for civility, for a world in which we can agree to respectfully disagree. I fear we may never live in such a world again. The rhetoric and division over the past four years has stirred a pot. The sledge from the bottom has risen to the top. If only we could skim it off and throw it in the trash. Instead, some feed off it, while others view it with disgust.

I have never believed in extremes, not in health and exercise habits, financial practices, risk-taking, rules, organizations, politics, or anything.  Extremes concern me because they speak to fanaticism. This, in my view, is a dark and dangerous place to reside. This is what I told my mother, that I felt sad she was so focused on the anger, hate, and darkness on all sides.

Nowadays, it is easy to forget that there is still much light, love, and beauty in the world. But it does exist. I was reminded of this today when I was loading my groceries into the car. An old man pushing his cart nearby called out, “Look, a double rainbow.” I looked up, and there it was. It gave me hope, not just the rainbow, but that the old man noticed and thought to share it with me.