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Whitney Phillips’s views on how the Internet is impacting us [“Dark Corners,” interview by Finn Cohen, November 2020] were inspiring and insightful — and terrifying. What I want to know is why she is “most worried about” educating four-year-olds about the dangers of social media. I have a four-year-old daughter, and I don’t want her to turn into a dummy or a self-loathing sociopath. Can Phillips say more?
As someone who sees political polarization as an even bigger problem than the Trump administration, I found Finn Cohen’s interview with Whitney Phillips disturbing. Implying that polarization and the “attention economy” are exclusively problems on the Right is counterproductive.
Virtually every example from Phillips blamed the Right, as if those on the Left are merely innocent victims of polarization: white supremacy, bigotry, neo-Nazis, etc. While “asymmetrical polarization” — the term Phillips uses to blame the Right — might have some truth at the governmental level, it doesn’t apply at the individual level.
Citizens on both sides are surrounded by like-minded people more than ever, especially on social media, where the Left is every bit as susceptible to misinformation, half-truths, and bias. The algorithms of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter work the same on both sides.
Do you applaud or condemn Robin DiAngelo for claiming all whites are racists in her book White Fragility? When someone calls Donald Trump an “orange piece of shit,” do you hear a dehumanizing attack, or do you feel righteous pleasure? Regarding the August 2020 civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, are you convinced Kyle Rittenhouse is a right-wing zealot who provoked an encounter with protesters to shoot and kill Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber in cold blood? Or are you convinced Rittenhouse is an upstanding citizen who, in the course of trying to protect businesses, encountered violent attackers and ended up killing two in self-defense? Media bubbles shape the way these examples are perceived, whichever side you are on.
Dialing down polarization requires that everyone deeply considers their own biases, but Phillips’s analysis will only embolden those who increasingly see themselves as heroes fighting a brainwashed “other.”
Finn Cohen’s interview with Whitney Phillips was needed and timely, but we on the Left can be just as blind. In The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, author Jonathan Haidt shows how deeply confirmation bias is ingrained in all our brains, not just the brains of those on the Right.
Phillips laments that “anything the ‘libs’ said was automatically going to be suspect, biased, evil.” This goes both ways. For many liberals, anything conservatives say will automatically be suspect. I know this because, as an increasingly centrist liberal, I get responses of betrayal and horror if I step even slightly away from the party line.
To Lauren Dito-Keith: I’m most worried about kids because they will inherit our mess — a mess that’s the result of our economic and network structures working exactly as they were intended to. If things proceed as they have so far, the online world will be even worse for young people by the time they’re adults. Our task is enormous: to break the cycle of information dysfunction, and to prepare young people to navigate that dysfunction right now. Most adults struggle to do that, so I worry about young people.
To John Spiri: Without a doubt there is bias and partisanship on the Left. But it is simply not the case that the mainstream center-left media ecosystem drives its audience to the same factually unmoored place as the far-right one. Look at the coverage of false claims of voter fraud. Are both sides making partisan claims? Of course. But are the claims equivalent in fact value? Absolutely not. That’s what makes the polarization asymmetric.
To Katya: What I was lamenting more than anything was how information — and in the case of COVID, information critical to public health — has been weaponized by the Far Right. Your point is well taken. There can be purity tests on the Left, too. But the specifics matter. Pushback against actions that don’t dehumanize anybody else is one thing; when those actions threaten others, however, that’s something else. It depends on who’s speaking, who’s pushing back, who has power, who doesn’t, and what’s at stake.
Occasionally I wonder if anyone at The Sun has a sense of humor. Then you publish something like Mark Gozonsky’s essay “How I Got to First Base” [November 2020]. I laughed all the way through it.
I love that The Sun reprinted the late Pat Schneider’s February 1997 essay, “If I Were God,” as the November 2020 Dog-Eared Page.
I loved her style of beginning so many sentences with what she loved. I loved seeing that Schneider arrived at a ripe old age before passing.
I love that, from now on, while listing what I’m grateful for as I fall asleep, I’ve decided to begin with “I love” instead.
Staci Kleinmaier’s photograph of a young girl walking away from a frustrated-looking adult [November 2020] is a classic. If ever a photo did not need a caption, this is it.
Two hours after I finished Vincent Mowrey’s “Sitting on My Mother” [October 2020], I read it again.
I was mesmerized. The rhythm of Mowrey’s writing reminded me of the everyday beauty, joy, and abundance of life — if we take the time to pay attention. Mercy! I’m on my way to the bookstore to buy several copies of The Sun so I can share his essay with others.
Until I read your Readers Write on “My Country” [October 2020], I hadn’t considered that “Where are you from?” could be a traumatic question, especially for those of Asian descent. I’m grateful to Amna Shaikh for taking the time to write about being born in Pakistan and seeking asylum in the U.S., and for educating readers like me in the process.
I read your September 2020 issue as I stretch out in the top bunk in my prison quad, surrounded by women ravaged by addiction and domestic violence. They see the cover and ask what the magazine is about. I hand it to them and say, “A lot, really. But you read it and tell me what it means to you.”
A heroin addict identifies with Melissa Febos’s essay “Les Calanques.” So does another inmate, also addicted to heroin. The woman beside me reads Rachel Louise Snyder’s description of the similarities between domestic abusers [“The Most Dangerous Place,” interview by Tracy Frisch and Finn Cohen] and knows viscerally who these men are. She, too, has cowered in a corner. And she wasn’t the only one.
The strength and courage of your contributors soothes hearts here. Worry lines dissipate, and shoulders ease. These women feel your magazine speaks to them. It gives me hope.
John Holman’s “White Folks” [September 2020] was a welcome lighter touch among The Sun’s usual short stories, which do not often make me smile. Despite some sadness, his entertaining and engaging story did make me smile. I really enjoyed it.
I read Elizabeth Miki Brina’s essay “Missing Ghosts” [September 2020] with a mixture of horror and recognition. Like Brina and her father, my mother and I were very close. She was always there for me, no matter what. We talked several times a day, and she resisted my attempts to separate from her as a young adult.
When I reached my thirties, I felt that having to constantly check in with my mom was keeping me from becoming my own person. In therapy and Codependents Anonymous meetings, I worked on no longer feeling responsible for her. When I moved away from home in 2006, I set a limit on the number of times we would talk each day.
My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009 and died two and a half years later. Though I returned home to see her throughout treatment and the last months of her life, I sometimes regret erecting those barriers. If I’d known we had only a few more years together, I wouldn’t have pushed back against her frequent need to talk.
Brina’s last line, about how she will miss calls from her father after he is gone, brought me to tears. I would give anything to hear from my mother now.