2015 was America’s truth mirror. It was the year we had to face a host of sordid, ugly aspects of our culture, most of which had bubbled under the surface for decades. If you’re a fan of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, it was essentially the focus of each week’s main story: Here’s a terrible thing that’s been happening regularly for a long time, and most people have no idea.
Whether it was Black Lives Matter exposing power-mad murderous police, John Legend and Common talking mass incarceration on the Oscar stage, or Donald Trump making it abundantly clear that roughly half of Americans are virulently, openly racist, it seemed like everywhere you looked in 2015 you saw people pulling back the curtain on some shame we as a culture used to pretend didn’t exist.
This is, to my mind, a good thing. A very good thing. Sure, it’s disturbing and even depressing to see the ugliness in our society, and for a lot of people it’s shaken their faith in America and humanity. But I’m in the camp that says before we can solve a problem, we have to face it. These aren’t new problems. It’s not as if police haven’t been murdering black people in cold blood since police became a thing. What has changed is that the people suffering under such oppression now have camera phones and YouTube, and can prove to the world what they’ve been seeing forever.
People forget that the Internet is still pretty new, and evolving. As information exchange has become democratized, there are going to be cultural shifts. 2015 was the year we really started to see those shifts, and the backlash against them–although there were preludes in previous years. I would call them “cultural growing pains,” but that feels too dismissive when so many people are dying.
That said, there are negative repercussions as well. Democratic information sharing can power social change for good, sure, but it can also fuel violence and hatred. As ISIS has put the Internet to use recruiting and radicalizing terrorists, the US has seen a record number mass murders by domestic terrorists, radicalized by white supremacist web sites or deceptively-edited YouTube videos.
False information spread on the Internet has grown a movement that refuses to vaccinate their children against preventable disease, and a huge number of people who buy into other absurd medical pseudo-science. Online political discourse, rife with distorted facts and unsupported allegations, have made our political divisions wider than ever, and stripped many of our most politically-oriented citizens of their capacity for rational thought. In some, it’s taken away their empathy and humanity.
The question, I suppose, is what side of our nature wins out. In this sense I guess I’m an optimist. As cynical as I am about our society, I do believe humans are fundamentally good, provided they can overcome their baser instincts. Just as we must face the uglier aspects of our culture if we want to fix them, as individuals we must face our worst instincts–fear, hate, envy–if we want to overcome them.
Demagogues like Trump will play on those instincts to their advantage, and they’ll use the same technology to do it. So it’s entirely possible that while I’m trumpeting this as the best thing 2015 has brought us, it could also be our downfall as a society or even as a species.
But then, isn’t that true of every great human advance, from fire to language to atomic science? Everything that pushes us forward also ahs the power to destroy us, and the question is always how we’ll make use of what we’ve discovered.
So in 2015, even as ISIS and Trump are using the Internet to exploit us, I’m still going to say that the growth of social justice online–and particularly its ability to force us to look at the ugliest aspects of our culture, with the goal of eventually fixing them–is the best thing 2015 has brought us.
Where I’ll stand on the question in 2016 is, I guess, up to all of us to determine.
Photo from Flickr user The All Nite Images, used under Creative Commons license.