A friend, whom we’ll call Andrea, posted a political graphic on Facebook yesterday with a rhetorical question. A friend of hers (“Debbie”) posted a comment mildly but politely disagreeing with her. Andrea and her husband both politely responded to explain their shared position. Debbie was highly offended and told her husband, who felt the need to jump in and fire back. A comment war ensued along with a few private messages between the ladies. When the dust settled, Debbie, her husband, and another of Andrea’s friends had unfriended Andrea on Facebook, and I’m not sure how much contact they will have in the future. Andrea and Debbie had been in a home group together previously and been fairly good friends until yesterday.
Three relationships were broken by one side’s inability to disagree with civility. What a waste.
Secrets Come Out
One of the blessings and curses of the Internet is its profound ability to connect us to others, particularly through social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogging. As many others have found, I both learn things about others and share things with others that would probably never occur without the Internet. In person, we’re not supposed to discuss the Forbidden Topics of religion and politics, but it seems to be more acceptable online. Without Facebook, I would have no idea that my friend Susanna is a libertarian, Amber is a tree-hugger, Geri and Michelle are staunch conservatives, or Brad is a universalist. Most of you probably wouldn’t know that I’m a pacifist left-leaning Democrat without reading my blog. Knowing people’s perspectives on various issues tends to draw you toward people you agree with and to put up walls between you and people you disagree with. That’s not necessarily good, but it’s human nature, and our polarized American culture seems to amplify that basic tendency.
For example, Patrick and I were acquaintances at Baylor and hadn’t been in touch for many years. But when I saw he was a Christian leftie like me, I suddenly felt a connection with him, perhaps because very few of my people fit that description and I was thrilled to find a kindred spirit. (It can be a bit lonely being a liberal Christian Democrat surrounded by conservative Republicans here in north Texas.) So reconnecting with him was a pleasant surprise and benefit of my Facebook account. But on the flip side, when I got a negative comment from an old friend who turned out to be a pretty critical conservative Republican, I couldn’t help but feel defensive and a bit hurt. I restrained myself from responding in anger, but from that point on, I looked at her differently. I hated to change my perspective on her based on something so inconsequential, but I couldn’t help it. She was now Other, one of Them. Blame me, blame MSNBC and Fox News, blame whomever you like, but things changed a bit between us. I didn’t like it. Perhaps when it comes to the Forbidden Topics, ignorance is bliss?
The Filter is Off
Since online interaction involves more distant clicking and typing rather than more intimate voice conversations, it also gives us the courage to say things to each other that we would never say out loud. It’s worst when people can comment anonymously. Check the comments section of any online video, blog, photo, or article for a quick lesson in how ugly people can be when they hide behind a screen name.
Even when using our own names, it’s scarily easy to turn off our filters and say whatever is on our mind without worrying about how other people will take it. That’s actually one reason I blog. I can say things here that I would never volunteer in person, things I really want to say but lack the courage, initiative, or opportunity to share face-to-face, such as “Hi, I’m Andy, and I believe in climate change and an old earth, question a literal hell, and voted for Obama! Nice to meet you!”
That freedom is tremendously liberating, but it can be dangerous as well. It’s so easy to type venom to someone and hit Send when the same words would catch in my throat if spoken aloud. I try not to say hurtful things online, especially to my friends. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cooked up a juicy response to someone, probably rehearsed a few times in my head or even out loud, and then chosen to cool down instead. Most of the time, the temporary satisfaction couldn’t possibly be worth the aftermath.
Do You Understand the Words That Are Coming Out of My Mouth?
Saying what we want online can also cause unintentional problems when people misunderstand what we’re saying. Text communication eliminates many important elements of our interactions that convey meaning, such as the tone of our voice, body language, and inflection. I suspect that part of the problem in the Andrea-Debbie situation was a misunderstanding. Debbie and her husband “heard” things from Andrea and her husband that offended them, even though no offense was intended. Andrea and her husband wanted to have a mature, logical discussion on a serious topic. Debbie and her husband felt attacked when faced with a differing opinion, picked up their ball, and went home.
Agreeing to Disagree
Unless we want to live without the Internet, or we only post the blandest possible status updates or pictures that have no possibility of offending anyone in any way, we must figure out a way to interact online with some degree of civility. Common courtesy isn’t just for face-to-face conversations. We must treat each other with respect whether the other person reciprocates or not. We must also think about how our text-based message comes across to other people, particularly when many different people are reading what we write and some are less familiar with our writing style and maybe don’t detect our sarcasm. Finally, we must find a way to disagree without being disagreeable, as Bernard Meltzer said so elegantly.
It’s tempting in our culture to label and demonize the other side. You’ve no doubt heard and maybe done this yourself. Obama is a socialist. Bush is an idiot. Climate change scientists are frauds. Social conservatives are fascists. Feminists who think birth control should be covered by insurance are sluts. Creationists are narrowminded fools. Journalists are liberals. A guy with a white-sounding name named Zimmerman who shoots a black teenager is a racist. Such labels are convenient, pervasive, and make for good soundbites, but they rarely lead to productive dialog and serve primarily to boost ratings and cultivate hatred. I struggle with this issue myself, but I’m trying to fight it. We all must fight it if we’re going to get along.
Yes, being civil is hard, especially online when it’s so easy to be rude or mean. But I know it’s possible. I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised at how civil people have been with me here and on Facebook, even when they’ve disagreed with me on various issues. Many thanks to all of you for your kindness. I wish that our society overall could be as gracious with each other as you have been with me.
If you don’t like what someone has to say, either respond politely or ignore it. If you’re not mature enough to let people disagree with you without defriending them, spouting off in anger, or trying to bully them into submission, stay off the Internet. (please!)