“I feel like we talk more about Islamophobia than we do about ISIS”
I was sitting in a large psychology lecture last fall, waiting for class to begin, when I overheard a student a few rows in front of me make the above remark to her friend.
Even as I was cringing and rolling my eyes, it occurred to me that, depending on who “we” was, this comment may have been an accurate representation of this person’s experience in discussions about ISIS, Islam, and Islamophobia. Just not an accurate representation of the larger national conversation.
For all of our talk about diversity, those of us who spend most of our time on college campuses sometimes have a really hard time remembering that other people’s experiences are probably different from ours. A “diverse” range of political opinions at BU (or even in Boston) doesn’t reflect the real range of opinions in America. It’s easy—frighteningly easy at times—to forget that our individual environments and social circles aren’t microcosms of society as a whole.
It’s why we didn’t believe Trump—now the President of the United States—would last. Who on earth would ever take him seriously? Plenty of people, as it turns out. Just nobody in our circle. It’s why we liberal college kids were flummoxed as to why Bernie didn’t beat Hillary out for the Democratic nomination when everyone we know voted for him in the primaries. It’s (at least part of) why people on both ends of the political spectrum tend to write off their positions as “just common sense.” Through social media, we have the options to curate our circles even further.
I grew up in a tiny town in rural south-central Pennsylvania—a place where the first day of deer season warrants a day off from school, where people fly confederate flags from their trucks (conveniently forgetting, I suppose, that they live twenty minutes north of the Mason-Dixon line), where the population is about 80% white and has decisively voted Republican in every presidential election since at least 1996. Needless to say, I grew up with a lot of people whose views on gun control, “political correctness,” racial injustice, and myriad other topics are–to put it mildly–very different than the opinions held by my friends from BU. Because I’m still friends with a lot of people from home on Facebook, my newsfeed tends to be a really bizarre mixed-bag of social and political beliefs, ranging from the ultra-radical to the hyper-conservative.
For me, the site actually serves as a glaring reminder that there’s a lot being said and done and believed outside of what I say and do and believe. But for most people, I’m told, that’s not the case. Facebook and Twitter feeds tend to become “echo chambers.” (For a cool demonstration of this effect, check out the Wall Street Journal’s interactive “Blue Feed, Red Feed” tool.) On top of the complicated algorithms churning out suggestions for content similar to what we already agree with, part of the appeal of social media is that we can seemingly make offensive or obnoxious people go away with just a couple of clicks. It’s a useful (and sometimes necessary) feature, but it’s also a deceiving one. Our difficulty seeing beyond our circles isn’t limited to polarized red-or-blue political views either. We tend to make similar assumptions about our individual experiences as well. We start to construct patterns where patterns might not exist. It feels natural to extrapolate this way, to assume that our experiences are indicative of larger social patterns. The formula of “X happened to me, which demonstrates Y about society” is the standard format for essays, blog posts, tweets. We hear, quite often, that the personal is political. But is it always? I was recently talking to a couple of acquaintances who expressed that lately they’ve been feeling “not queer enough” as cisgender lesbians. “Sometimes,” one of them said, “I feel like I’m being judged for not being, you know, a pansexual, demiromantic genderqueer person or something” “Like I tell people I’m gay,” the other added, “and they’re like ‘oh, that’s all?’” Both of these women are extremely active in a radical queer student association—a context within which it can sometimes be easy to feel out of place for not further defining your gender identity and sexual and romantic orientations. But both of these women also readily acknowledged that their experiences weren’t indicative of a widespread pattern in societal expectations of queerness. That while being cis and having a more “mainstream” queer identity might make them feel less legitimate in their own small circle, each of these things is still an immense source of privilege and perceived legitimacy in society as a whole. And all three of us understood that while this was an appropriate personal conversation about our identities as gay women, it wasn’t something that needed to be brought up outside of this private context because, in the big scheme of things, it isn’t broadly relevant.
We’re told that all of our feelings are legitimate, but we also struggle to separate those feelings from. Maybe some issues need to be examined and resolved on a personal level, rather than aired as evidence of a perceived injustice where one might not exist. Maybe we as college students don’t collectively have the maturity and life experience to recognize this, especially when our own experiences seem so intensely salient. Then again, I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in forty-somethings, so I don’t think youth is entirely to blame. Nobody’s saying that it’s necessarily easy to be the only white kid in school (or the person who doesn’t feel queer enough). And maybe that’s a very real individual struggle, and maybe it’s even a struggle reinforced by those in that white kid’s immediate circle. But it’s not a struggle backed up by years of sedimented institutional power. Some experiences are driven by systems, and some aren’t, and sometimes our feelings and experiences–however legitimate on a personal level–don’t generalize nearly as much as we’d like to think they do.