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26 August 2023

Bring back indifference

From Taylor Swift to Rishi Sunak’s wedge issues, we must fight social media’s attempts to make us love or hate everything.

By Marie Le Conte

One of the most futile but satisfying things I have ever done is to block Taylor Swift on Twitter. I could have muted her, or muted her name, but it didn’t feel like enough. The singer may have 94.1 million followers, but she had to know that she had at least one enemy.

It wasn’t even because of anything she’d done; I was just sick to the back teeth of everyone I knew loving her music, for reasons I couldn’t quite fathom. If left in a vacuum, I would have been entirely indifferent to Swift. The internet was what turned me into a hater.

I’ve been thinking about that process a lot recently, and about the act of not really caring about a person or an issue. The word “act” here is used on purpose: if you spend a lot of time on social media, apathy is no longer the default state of being. We’re expected to be ecstatic, crestfallen or apoplectic about everything we encounter.

Seeing something and deciding that it either doesn’t matter much or doesn’t warrant a strong reaction from you specifically is an active choice we now have to make. The algorithms and the trolls and the attention-seekers have one thing in common, and it is that they really want us to feel something, anything, all the time. They succeeded for a while because emotional rollercoasters are, by definition, exhilarating. Still, something they have in common with their physical counterpart is that you wouldn’t want to spend your whole life on them.

This may be why a lot of heavy social media users have been quietly taking a step back, or stepping away altogether. Out in the normal world, broad indifference isn’t seen as inherently dodgy or malevolent. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” is a wise quote, but it isn’t one that needs to apply to every issue of the day.

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The only problem, really, is that swathes of the political sphere have got stuck in the hellish feedback loop of social media, and cannot find a way out. “If something is happening, then we ought to be outraged” seems to be the motto of GB News and certain corners of the Spectator and Daily Telegraph.

[See also: Drake’s poetry collection isn’t literature]

Because Westminster often acts as yet another feedback loop, this view of the world has now made its way into No 10. As has been briefed time and time again over the past year, Sunak and his cabinet are intent on finding and hammering as many wedge issues as they can. From transgender rights to net zero, the government has been trying to divide and conquer by splitting the Labour vote.

If you were to look at nothing but the polling on these topics, it would seem like a reasonably good idea. It is true that there is no uniform view on the left and in the centre on, for example, what ought to happen to low traffic neighbourhoods. By taking a strong stance on it, the Conservatives should be able to peel off the voters who agree with them. It is, in theory, not a stupid thing to do, even if it leans towards the cynical side of things.

In practice, it fails to reckon with the elephant in the room, which is that most people do not care very much about most things. They have lives and jobs and families and bills to pay and social gatherings to organise, and all of that leaves little time to be incensed about whatever this or that columnist has deemed to be beyond the pale. That is, for the avoidance of doubt, not a bad thing.

As anyone who has spent years scrolling on Twitter until their thumb started cramping can tell you, it is impossible to care about everything without burning out. Then again, perhaps that is why our political class – this cripplingly online writer included – got so hooked on social media. They are, for the most part, people who feel they must have views on everything, so it was always bound to be a match made in heaven. As with intense romantic love, however, there is always a risk that you will end up cutting yourself off from the real world.

The only way to leave this intoxicating but unhelpful embrace is to remember that indifference is the sign of a healthy mind. It is wonderful to adore and loathe things but a shrug can sometimes be the healthiest thing there is. Not feeling strongly about an issue is wonderfully freeing, even if it doesn’t always come naturally.

Does that mean I will now unblock Taylor Swift? Only if she asks nicely. We can’t always practice what we preach.

[See also: Being single really is making you unhappy]

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