The following column is part of our Do Good Student Voices series.
In this series, students highlight topics they are passionate about and share what they are doing to ignite impact on campus and beyond. The series is a collection of students' stories, in their own voices, about their own experiences, inspirations, and actions for areas they care deeply about.
The following column was written by Kanika Mehra, Do Good Ambassador, who is passionate about bridging political divides through healthy discourse and discussion. She believes that doing good is about being a responsible digital citizen in the age of social media. For questions about the piece below, we encourage you to reach out to the author directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kanika is a sophomore studying English and Government and Politics and is part of the Media, Self, and Society Scholars program.
There are still a few things I recognize that show how I can resist that sense of helplessness and be better than the political climate we’ve inherited...how we can do the eponymous good. Among these recognitions is that the problem with division in this country isn’t that we disagree. It’s that we need to get much better at it.Kanika Mehra Class of 2023
During my sophomore year of high school, right before the 2016 election, I entered a C-SPAN documentary contest for a class assignment. The question our submission needed to answer was the following: “What is the most important issue for the next president to address?”
The answer felt obvious. At the time, statistics were being circulated about how America was more polarized than it had been since the civil war. President Obama was labeled as being the most divisive president in modern history. Congress, which no longer had any ideological overlap, was in constant gridlock and those who attempted to reach across the aisle were often politically exiled or threatened to be replaced. And in increments of 280 characters, discourse on social media devolved from anything nuanced, complex, or reasonable, into something toxic and unyielding.
It seemed clear to me that if the next president was going to make any progress in confronting this issue of divisiveness, they had to begin by addressing the rampant political polarization that, from Facebook comment sections to congressional hearings, had completely overtaken all of our mechanisms for debate, decision-making, and progress.
Apparently our group’s eleven minute video – with its choppy transitions, horrible audio mixing, and a voiceover that was clearly recorded in an empty storage closet five feet away from a busy classroom – held little political influence because of course, that’s not what happened.
Instead, the last four years saw these trends worsen and our divisions deepen, perhaps irrevocably, bringing with it a new era of dysfunction. Now, instead of positioning themselves around serious policy issues, millions of people hinge their identities around their unrelenting support for or against one person. And after a pandemic with a running death toll of 300,000 and an unprecedented election, I’ve become more disillusioned, and even polarized, than I would’ve ever expected. Like many others, I’m angrier, more cynical and less inclined to believe that overcoming our political chasm is a remote possibility. How do you even begin to reconcile people who live under the same roof but in different realities, with different sets of facts?
But there are still a few things I recognize that show how I, or any average 19-year-old, can resist that sense of helplessness and be better than the political climate we’ve inherited––how we can do the eponymous good. Among these recognitions is that the problem with division in this country isn’t that we disagree. It’s that we need to get much better at it.
Social media may not be a perfect representation of the political views people actually hold in real life, but it’s where the national conversation takes place. And on those platforms, our attention is a commodity. There are people that will spend billions in ads for just a few seconds of our time. Companies that will commit massive legal and ethical violations so that they can mine our data and create an algorithm captivating enough to keep us scrolling for a few more posts. And enough people flooding a hashtag can lead to cultural revolutions that translate into tangible policy and real financial consequences. What we choose to be aware of (even if it doesn't always feel like a choice) has currency. In fact, if you tried hard enough, you could probably match a dollar value to every like or retweet or page click. Conflict and urgency capture attention and drive engagement in a way that a measured conversation, one that is precise and nuanced and even boring, never seems to, breaking the way we process news.
Take, for example, the presidential debates last fall, the first of which could be generously labeled as a “hot mess inside a dumpster fire.” It would be the first time that the two most powerful political figures in the country would be facing each other since the worst crisis in modern American history began seven months prior. They had the resources, platform, and our attention in the way that an expertly-researched longform article or a three-hour long podcast discussion with a hundred monthly listeners doesn’t. We received a poorly moderated shouting match when we deserved a thoughtful, substantive conversation about the policy approaches at hand and their respective tradeoffs. I’m not saying that’s what I expected, but we shouldn’t be desensitized to the immense institutional failure that is the highest viewed and most accessible policy discussion of the year holding less substance than a high school debate match.
The pandemic has been devastating to the United States and whether it’s healthcare, housing, racial injustice, or homelessness, it’s exacerbated almost every issue we were already dealing with. We’ve got it bad right now. But we don’t have a pandemic on top of a cultural genocide, like what’s happening with the Uighur Muslims in China. Or a pandemic on top of a civil war and a famine, like in Syria, or what’s been labeled the world's worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen. None of these issues receive the attention the severity of their situations so clearly demand (or perhaps even as much attention received by the recent controversy over whether the incoming first lady should be able to use the title “Doctor” if she’s not a medical practitioner).
I don’t say that to undermine the very real struggles millions of people are facing here, or even because I think it’s realistic for every person living in fully developed countries like this one to be consumed by all of the issues of the world. I say that because that perspective, that understanding of our relative privilege, is an important reminder of our baseline responsibility to do a better job of litigating our own disagreements. To laser in on the crux of our issues, and to tune out the noise and reject anyone that tries to take advantage of it – whether it’s to generate page clicks or secure political office by throwing around partisan barbs rather than sincerely engaging with merited and thoughtful criticisms from the other side – at the expense of a more intellectually honest and substantial conversation.
Practically all of us, from the intensely divided to the apolitical, engage with social media on a daily basis. It’s a difficult habit to be deliberate about and an easy luxury to take for granted. But in an era where responsible digital citizenship isn’t rewarded enough, doing good means constantly working to separate the noise from what truly matters.