Losing a Friend in Times of Polarization: an #engageMOOC Side Thought

We have probably all experienced either ourselves being defriended on Facebook over something, or seeing others cut off contact with each other due to disagreements. Losing friends like that is definitely difficult due to the evolving constraints of social media, but I am referring to a different kind of loss here.

I met my friend Jeff in college, but we connected better later due to spending a lot of time hanging out during the after-college years. My wife actually knew him before I did. We moved away and somewhat lost touch. However, we would reconnect and catch up as much as we could. When we all got on social media, Jeff and I would connect more often and discuss life as well as our favorite topics: music and/or religion. Our views evolved away from the evangelical bubble we had been stuck in during college. Or, to be more honest, none of us felt the need to try to pretend to fit in with a label that really didn’t fit in the first place.

Jeff was really more vocal about becoming a liberal. This cost him a lot of friends from our college days (but I also lost many of those friends as well). Jeff would get frustrated with the way he was treated and would shut down his social media accounts every so often. After a couple of months, he would pop back up with either a new account or new name and start asking me about music. Sometimes he found me, others I would go looking for him. This was his pattern for the last few years until it changed at the end of 2017. He shut everything down in early November and didn’t come back. So in January of 2018 I decided to do some digging to see where he had popped back up.

All I found was his obituary from mid-November.

What really enraged me about this was that I found out about it so much later. I was still connected with some of his friends from his hometown, but none of them bother to contact us and tell us. he had passed. Additionally, no one from our our college/post college circles seemed to even know he had passed away. We had all become so polarized that we had failed the basics of human decency: let people know when their friends have died.

Jeff had lived a hard life. He was a black child that was adopted by white parents in a small rural town in east Texas. Our mutual friends from that town would have known he passed away, because they all knew Jeff. Jeff often talked about not knowing anything about his birth culture growing up and only discovering it at Baylor University (and even then, he recognized it was a bit skewed there). After getting out on his own, he struggled with discovering he had mental disabilities. He changed his faith to agnostic and his political views to “true” liberal (what most people call neo-liberalism today). He explored different sexualities. All of this caused him to be ostracized by his friends, his old church family, and most people in his home town. My wife and I were the few that stuck with him, because we don’t have conservative views on any of those aspects of life.

But here was his obituary, ignoring all of that, and speaking of all of his activities at our old church. They used that time to describe him, but didn’t bother to tell any of us from that time of his life that he had passed away.

It was all about illusion. As a small town, they had to present the adopted son of a prominent bank manager as a “good Christian boy,” while making sure no one showed up to share any stories that might destroy that facade:

“I really haven’t talked to him since he went so radically liberal on Facebook.”

You see, his Facebook account was completely deleted after he passed away. He shut it down on November 6th. He died from a heart attack in his sleep on the 13th. His posts were deleted a few weeks later. I had thought it was him that deleted them right after Thanksgiving (I noticed his funny comments vanished one day in the “On This Day” section I am addicted to reading every day). Now I know it couldn’t have been him.

One of his Twitter accounts was also deleted. His other one? Still up. I don’t think they ever knew about it. If they did, it would probably be gone. If for anything, just to remove the profile picture he took of himself sticking his finger up his nose at conservatives. That was just Jeff’s sense of humor.

Of course, he was the one that was told he was polarizing others by speaking up for Black Lives Matters, progressive Christianity (and later agnosticism), and systemic injustices against those with mental disabilities. People cut him off for being “divisive.”

That is my biggest concern with the conversation of polarization today: what counts as the “norm” that people are “polarizing” away from? If people were being polarized over the size of the government, or socialism vs capitalism, or some other purely political issue… that is one thing. But when one person is fighting for equality for all, and the other is fighting against it because they think the status quo is just fine…. what can you do? Why is equality a pole to be polarized to, rather than the norm in the middle?

Sorry that I can’t fix that one Jeff. Also sorry that I never convinced you to like King’s X. You won me over on Rush, though – so you won that debate in the end. I guess I had hoped that some day we could actually record our parody of “Staying Alive” that mocks charismatic church culture. But maybe it is for the better that the world is forever spared from “Speaking in Tongues”: “Well, you can tell by the way I speak in tongues, I’m a Holy Ghost guy, no time for talk….”

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

Vygotsky vs Spivak: Sociocultural Theory and Subalterns in #EngageMOOC

To be honest, I am not sure if I am convinced if the world has become more polarized, or if we are just becoming more aware of how divided we already were. If you go back and look at ideas like sociocultural history, there certainly is ground work for the idea that we are all different. But one thing is sure: we need to improve where we are regardless of whether we just got here or have always been here all along and just didn’t know it.

My interest in sociocultural theory came about in an Advanced Instructional Design course, where we had to take some educational theory and argue 1) why it was an instructional design theory, and 2) why it counted as an advanced one. There are different flavors of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory out there, but the way that I look at it that will suffice for this post is that we all belong to various sociocultural groupings that are constantly changing and affecting who we are and how we learn. These groupings can be anything from physical characteristics to employment status to educational study topic to even where we are currently eating a meal. The first set of videos in EngageMOOC touch on many different ways to look at some important sociocultural groupings, for example.

Because we are all slightly different socioculturally, and who we are socioculurally is in constant flux, making something like education into an unchanging constant becomes counter-intuitive to who we are as the human race. But those unchanging constants are what most theories look to codify.

Was I successful in defending sociocultural theory as an advanced instructional design theory? You can read the paper to judge for yourself (“Sociocultural Theory as an Advanced Instructional Design Method: Examining the Application, Possibilities, and Limitations”), but our instructor also admitted to us that there really is no such thing as “advanced” instructional design theories. The Master’s Degree program had an “instructional design” course, so the Ph.D. program was given an “advanced ID course… just because.

Not too long after that, I became aware of the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and especially her most well-known work Can the Subaltern Speak?  (good one paragraph summary here, or full text here). The basic problem she was addressing was how many post-colonialists were trying to help the untouachables in India, but were speaking for them instead of having them speak for themselves. Additionally, there was also the assumption that all of these groups had one collective opinion on any topic, thus erasing individual differences.

What does this have to do with our current polarization? We seem to throw around solutions like “just listening to the other side” or “just respond in kindness”…. but to those of us that have tried those methods, we find they rarely work. I have responded with kindness. I have responded with heated debate. I have responded with seeking to understand. Sometimes good dialogue is the result, but most times they keep arguing.

However, I have taken note of what starts many fights online. There is usually a provocative thought about the opposite side thrown out by a person, typically containing vast misunderstandings and outright hyperbole about the “other.” This enrages those “others,” who jump in and start swinging. For example, you will rarely see a fight start over someone saying “I am pro-life because I want to see all babies born.” You more typically see enragement ensue after some statement like “I am pro-life, which is so much better than you evil liberals that just delight in killing babies like your leader Killary does in her secret pizza basement ceremonies!”

Obviously, those of the liberal viewpoint take offense at this. But do we ask why they would get offended? I mean beyond the obvious reason that these statements are not true, and cast them in the most evil light. They know people think that way about them already – so why is it different when they see a FB comment from an acquaintance saying so?

I would submit that they feel their ability to speak for themselves has been violated by being cast into the wrong sociocultural grouping, based on assumptions from someone that didn’t even bother to ask what they think in their own voice.

They didn’t let the subaltern speak for themselves.

Spivak spoke about how subalterns can be anyone that is in a position of less power and control in a given situation, and not just the untouchables of India. In education, our students are typically subalterns to the instructors. In online conflicts, those that propose some wild misunderstanding of the “other” tend to quickly jump into the seat of power in those encounters, setting those they unfairly characterize into subaltern roles because of the language they utilize to tear them down.

So, of course, part of the task is getting everyone to realize that we all have unique sociocultural characteristics, and therefore we need to be allowed to speak for ourselves rather than have our beliefs dictated to us. But on the other side, when someone has attempted to erase our own voice in a situation, we should try to realize that it is okay to feel upset by that. It is okay to get “butthurt,” no matter what someone says. It is okay to push back. It is okay to ignore it. It is okay to respond in kindness, and it is okay to be angry. We are all unique people. We can all react uniquely. There is no roadmap.

But I would also suggest that we all need to learn from how we react, to make sure we don’t turn around and make others feel the same way.

Too many times, it seems like our solutions to “fake news” involves finding ways to get rid of anger. That will never happen. Other methods seem to point fingers at every time people get things wrong online. That will never end, because the first time people stamped letters into clay tablets was the first time people misunderstood something and wrote about it. People misunderstand – we always have, we always will.

None of this is easy. There will be no finish lines to cross to say “we fixed fake news!” or “we finally unpolarized everything!” It’s a process. You and I can only be our own unique part in it all.

Matt Crosslin

Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.