It’s a pretty well-understood phenomenon that, behind a keyboard and with even a minor partition between yourself and whoever you’re talking to, you’re bound to be a little more free-wheeling with your opinions and commentary. We’re all susceptible to this, the little boost in ego brought on by the fact that we’re only typing these things, not actually shouting them from a street corner with a bunch of friends and acquaintances staring at us — even though that’s pretty much exactly what we’re doing. So it’s only natural that many people take to social media (the space that, though viewed by a relatively large number of people in your life at any given moment, is still supposed to be “yours”), to express some of their more controversial social and political opinions that they might not whip out at a dinner party unless egged on by several glasses of wine.
We all have opinions, and it’s not really anyone’s job to tell each other who is right and wrong. Just as much as I might look at someone who writes a status supporting Mitt Romney and roll my eyes so hard they start to hurt, someone else might look at a link I post about tenure reform in the teacher’s union and imagine me wearing a Margaret Thatcher costume and dancing on the grave of fair salaries. I get that human beings are not bound to agree on everything, especially politically, and that healthy debate is an essential part of the political process.
Yet by the same token, arguing politics or social issues on Facebook is similar to slamming your head repeatedly into a thumbtack-covered desk, only slightly harder on the brain. The forum is awkward, the parties likely uninformed, and it’s not like anyone’s going to suddenly concede out of nowhere and go, “Hey, you know what? I guess gay people aren’t so bad after all!” It’s an exercise in futility, and nine out of 10 times, not worth your effort. We’ve all learned our lesson before, posting something a bit more opinionated than your usual “adorable kittens doing adorable things” videos, only to find the link blowing up with the comments of people who are only too excited to show their aggressiveness/ignorance/maliciousness. Or we’ve stumbled onto another person’s foray into the world of political ideologies, only to somehow get locked into a back-and-forth with someone about campaign finance reform. It’s no fun. And most of the time, opinions are innocuous enough to leave alone.
Sure, you might be inclined to post a question under someone putting up an adoring video montage of Paul Ryan, something along the lines of, “Could you please explain to me, giving at least a few concrete examples, as to why you like this man?” But we don’t. It’s generally not going to end well, and makes you look like an enormous blowhard, walking around giving everyone on Facebook tips on how to be a good citizen. You might just make this person’s updates invisible on your feed, so you don’t even have the temptation anymore. But sometimes people say things that are so upsetting, or share opinions that make you feel downright dirty in associating with them personally. If someone writes something actively against gay rights, or anti-health care options for the poor, or blatantly racist, or hatefully pro-life, what do you do? Do you just let it be?
You could just defriend them, of course, but that seems almost like you’re slinking away from their hate and letting them win, or at least think that they’re right. Screaming at them or shaming them publicly is not an option — no matter how gratifying it may feel in the moment — because it does absolutely nothing to change their opinion. They only retreat further into it, convinced now more than ever that the opposition is crazy and that they are standing, martyr-like, against the winds of total political wrongness. You cannot browbeat someone into thinking that gay people have every bit the rights of straight people to be married, or that PoC are constantly othered in America because we operate, consciously or not, on the premise that we live in a white country. Whether these are opinions born out of ignorance and fear — bred from families who clutch onto God and xenophobia in a time where a good blue-collar living is evaporating and we have become a tech-dependent, global economy — or parroting the talking points of a favored right-wing politician or commentator, these ideologies are like warm blankets on a particularly chilly night. Ripping it off of them with cruel words is not the solution.
And if it were just some yahoo on a YouTube comment forum going off at the mouth about how an uninsured 30-something man deserves to die out in the street rather than be treated for his cancer, you would just move on. You would perhaps consider it an impetus to stay informed, to vote whenever the opportunity came, and to counteract this cruelty with compassion. But these are people we know in some form or another. These are people who have come into our lives on non-political grounds, and like an onion peeling through its layers of social graces, we have come to see the inner core that believes in social agendas that actively hurt people around them.
When I recently posted an article about the anti-Somali riots in Israel (never a good topic for Facebook interaction, I know, but the event was so disturbing as to warrant the risk that people would dislike me for having posted it), I was shocked at some of the response. It was never quite spoken, but the general tone of some of the response, especially the “surprise that I felt that way about Israel” — even though I hadn’t added much of anything in the way of commentary — implied that some of my friends and acquaintances now thought much less of me politically. One even went so far as to say that it was a very “anti-Semitic” thing to do to post things like that, in a private message intended to talk me down from some invisible ledge, I suppose. To them, I was the Facebook idiot going off at the mouth, and they were the calm voices of reason flying in to teach me the error of my ways.
So what do we do? When we see something that makes us so angry that we cannot stand to just let it slide, and feel compelled to at least — should we erase this person from our friends list — give them a reason why they have offended us, what is the course of action? Speaking personally, I have had my mind changed several times on political and social issues, and it has never been from hurling invective. While we might all occasionally succumb to the pressing desire to refer to a pro-lifer posting offensive propaganda as “a mouth-breathing, toothless yokel,” that’s not going to help anyone. Perhaps we should take it as an opportunity to get off of Facebook for a minute — to leave the platform that makes it all too easy to shout at each other and despise the opinions we hate to think we associate with in our real lives. Maybe it should be a time to send a thoughtful email, or have a real phone call, or grab a cup of coffee. If we consider these people close enough not to completely erase from our lives, and yet their opinions are offensive to the point of necessitating rebuttal, why not do it in a way that might actually be constructive? I think we all know that serious political conversations, when held in the relaxed context of two people sharing ideas and not proving yourself in some gladiator-esque public forum of snarky comments, are much more likely to result in understanding and maybe even a change of opinion.
Because people can change. We are all constantly evolving, becoming new and different people, and seeing that the person we might have been just a short time ago was so misguided in his or her ignorance. And we live in a time where people can so richly display their feelings on sensitive issues to the world, revealing ugly opinions that may, in a previous era, have gone completely unnoticed. This, I believe, is a positive thing. Yes, it can be upsetting to see people openly working against the rights of other humans, but at least we know it’s happening. At least it’s not just some secret that exists with in them, to be taken out only in its most dangerous form — at the voting booth.
Here, we have a chance to talk to them, to understand what exactly they’re thinking and why they feel that way, and perhaps even change their opinion. We can show them that we all know someone that these laws effect, or that places in the world who respect human rights the most have the highest quality of life. These conversations can go somewhere constructive, and maybe even result in real change to policy. Because yes, the people screaming about how much they love Chik-Fil-A on Facebook are idiots, but they’re idiots who get a vote, and idiots we have to live with. We can write them off completely and make fun of them while they elect people across the country who take away rights, or we can be compassionate where they might not be, and try to actually make a difference.