While I remain convinced that the internet ruins almost everything it touches eventually, in no case is this more true than the subject of politics. I was reflecting on this the other day while puttering around in the back yard while our new beagle was rolling in the grass. I live in the suburbs and I have neighbors directly on either side of me with another family in the lot behind my house. I also have a couple of neighbors directly across the street from me who I know quite well. It occurred to me on that afternoon that I spend far too much of my day either agreeing with, debating with or being screamed at by people on the subject of politics. That takes place in the virtual world. But in my real life, while such subjects do come up on occasion, I never have engagements like that. And after some reflection on the subject as I was dragging out some grass seed to fill in the mysterious holes in my lawn which keep appearing every year, I believe I came up with an explanation for this.
There’s just something about the suburbs which puts a damper on ideological craziness and keeps the kettle from boiling over too quickly.
There are things you only know if you live in the suburbs, and more specifically if you have neighbors. If you live in the city in an apartment building, your neighbors represent a very different paradigm of human interaction. You run into them only infrequently, passing each other in the halls, each of you on your way to or from your domicile. Brief greetings are exchanged, pleasantries passed among people who are still essentially strangers. If you have any awareness of their existence when you’re inside your own home it comes muffled through the walls. Whispers and shouts, intimate sounds, things you would never discuss in polite company.
If you live out in the country in a more bucolic setting your neighbors are frequently quite far away by comparison. You pass them on the road or they perhaps show up at the bar, the county fair, the shops in the local population center. Again, these interactions are fleeting.
If you live in the suburbs in a single-family home with a driveway and a yard (most particularly a backyard) things are different. That’s where the differences between your neighbors and the other people on your street come into play. The neighbors down the block are familiar to you. You don’t know quite as much about them but they are on the team. You see them regularly, but not all that regularly. And when you do it may still be, at least in some sense, in passing. But your neighbors on adjoining lots are different. These are the people who share not only a street front with you but also a side or back yard fence. When you walk out in the back of your home for chores or to fetch something or simply to grab a breath of fresh air they may be there on their own property doing similar things as you take each other unawares.
These are the people who you interact with in a way which causes many barriers to be thrown down and others to be erected. Barriers of privacy are limited because your domicile has walls but your property line generally does not. When you go out on your property away from the street you are secluded from most of the rest of the world, but not your neighbors. You are exposed. For that reason you put up other walls. You have walls of civility that prevent you from suddenly flying into an outrage lasting for hours over the least little thing they say. They can have starkly different views than you on any number of subjects and you’ll just find their opinions “interesting” rather than an immediate casus belli.
If you read my work regularly you might believe that you can glean some sense of my private life from it. Perhaps, at least in some ways, but you’d likely be shocked to find that most of us are not these political caricatures we play on the internet when talking to those we share a neighborhood with. My neighbors are an eclectic mix of old and young, gay and straight, Christians and Jews… it’s a mixed lot to be sure. I know that several of them are generally conservative while some others are fiercely liberal. And somehow we all get along, occasionally borrow each other’s lawn mower if ours goes on the fritz, stand in for pet sitting duty and keep an eye on each other’s homes when someone goes out of town. And I’ve never had a single one of them fire off a 140 character comment to my face informing me that I should be thrown into a tank full of sharks.
You simply can’t afford to be constantly in a battle with your neighbors based on the latest chyron scrolling across CNN’s screen. You’d go insane if you were. When you are on the Internet, you may be prepared to wage war against anyone who falls into some other perceived ideological camp. But not with your neighbor. All those differences get tamped down. If you decided to get in a fight like the ones you engage in on Twitter there would be repercussions. Hurt feelings would linger. And tomorrow you’d still have to look at them when you go to put the dog out in the morning.
Nobody wants that.