Social media. Probably the greatest advancement the world has ever seen towards people keeping connected with friends and family and what’s going on in their lives. It’s really beautiful. Sadly, it’s also an art exhibit or museum or cesspool or haunted house (pick your metaphor) that puts some of the nastiest sides of human interaction on display for all to see. It can be really ugly.
The thing that prompted this article was a “discussion” in a comments thread. An individual posted something very cynical, negative, and accusatory about the idea of white privilege. I replied respectfully and peacefully and asked him to watch a four minute video so we could discuss it further.
He quickly shot back at me with a long, scathing comment that seemed to have nothing to do with my words or the video I shared. I replied with one sentence, asking him if he had watched the video, and here was his reply:
Why? So I can be convinced of a falsehood? (followed by a whole paragraph of aggressively restating his point)
Let’s talk about the glaring problem in this conversation: the resolute commitment not to listen to the “other side,” even when the cost is only four minutes of your time. I think this guy put more time writing his responses than it would have taken to watch the video.
It’s unfortunate we live in a two-sided world, but that’s where we are. Because the sides are so vehemently against each other, even admitting ignorance can feel like a betrayal. But let’s get something straight here:
Ignorance isn’t a sin.
It just means we don’t know something.
Is there anything inherently wrong with that? Nope. Does it mean we’re less of a person? Of course not. Does it mean we should feel guilt or shame? Not at all. Should anyone try to make ignorant people feel any of these things? Absolutely not!
But willful ignorance is a problem. A huge problem. If someone brings up an important issue and we refuse to listen by stuffing our fingers in our ears or digging the trenches and holding strong to a position that we’re not well educated on, that’s a problem. There is something inherently wrong with that, especially when you’re making broad, sweeping statements about controversial topics in a public place.
It doesn’t make you a hypocrite or a traitor to your “team” to admit you don’t know something and then listen to what they have to say. When a controversial story comes up, go read what the liberal and conservative media are saying about it. The bottom line is something so painfully obvious that it shouldn’t even need to be said: We – don’t – have – to – agree to just listen. Choosing to educate ourselves in response to our own (perfectly natural and not at all shameful) ignorance doesn’t mean we have to accept everything we learn. And this goes for all “sides.” Every single one of us is ignorant about many things. And that’s okay, as long as we’re willing to try to change it.
We can lament how divided society is until we’re blue in the face, but as long as our definition of unity looks like everyone coming to our own side, then our words are pretty much useless. If our frustration with division doesn’t lead us to cross the dividing line and do something as simple as watching a four-minute video, then we clearly aren’t doing anything to help the problem.
Social media quickly becomes an echo chamber. It’s so divisive that everyone who agrees with you will like your post and only agree more; and those who disagree will refuse to consider that there could be any truth in it, so they will either scroll by without giving it a second thought or comment trying to disprove you, usually in an aggressive way. There is no possible way to ever even hope to get someone on the “other side” to listen to what you have to say if you are just being extreme.
I’ve decided that really the best thing I can do is preach what I practice when it comes to social media. My “sermon” isn’t necessarily as much about the topics I’m sharing as it is about the way in which I approach them. To put it differently, my new mission statement is to preach the much needed message of healthy, respectful, and fair interactions online by practicing and modeling it. To that end, I want to share some simple tips I’ve learned that we should all be practicing if there is any hope left for fair dialogue and bridging the divide.
1. Think before you post. Before you hit enter, reread what you wrote. Then read it again. Then after it goes live, read it a third time. Don’t be afraid to use the edit button… two, three, four times if you have to.
2. Never post a knee jerk reply. If someone challenges and upsets you, don’t just type the first thing that comes to mind and hit enter. This is a discussion. Take some time to think and calm down, whether that means taking a few deep breaths for a minute or coming back to the post a few hours later.
3. Say “we” instead of “you”. If you’re posting about something wrong with culture, it’s okay to say we. “If you do this, then it’s a problem,” sounds a lot more hostile than, “If we do this, then it’s a problem.” Even though “you” in English can be a general pronoun referring to “one” or “anyone”, it is much easier to receive a post written from a “we” perspective.
4. Listen to others. This should go without saying. Put yourself in their shoes. Look at things from their perspective. Play devil’s advocate with yourself. Go read the sources they post, or look up an article on the topic from a source with a bias on the “other side”. Or please, just watch the four-minute video.
5. Don’t be afraid to admit you were wrong. It’s okay to not be right on everything. It’s okay to admit they made a good point and that you need to reconsider some things. What’s the point of “discussion” if you’re completely unwilling to change your thoughts?
6. Remember, those other people are real people. When we start discussing with someone we don’t know in real life, it’s easy for them to become nothing more than a disembodied profile picture in our heads. The fact is that they are real people, and if we met them in “real life” then we’d probably have at least a decent, if not entirely pleasant, conversation.
7. Type like you’re talking. Don’t just blast words that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to someone’s face. This rule alone would probably solve half the social media comment arguments.
8. Read what you just wrote. This is kind of like rule one, but it’s a followup to rule seven. If you type like you’re talking, put yourself in the shoes of other people when you read it. What will it sound like to them? Even if you’re picturing something as spoken with a kind tone in your mind, what would it sound like to read it with an aggressive tone? Do you need to go use that edit button again?
9. Give people the benefit of the doubt when you read what they wrote. This is the reverse side of rule eight. When you read a comment and it sounds aggressive or confrontational, put yourself in their shoes. Is there any way to read it that sounds more calm, respectful, or kind? Is it possible that they are trying to disagree with you peacefully, and that the disrespect you are “hearing” when you read it is actually meant to be playful? Maybe it’s a manifestation of some major frustration with what you wrote before, at which point you need to reread what you wrote with rules seven and eight in mind. Or maybe you’re projecting hostility on to them because you are feeling very hostile about it. That’s a tough pill to swallow, but we need to take it sometimes.
10. Remember: most peoples’ minds will never be changed in a comment thread. If we make our number one goal to win arguments, we will be sadly disappointed. But if we make it about having respectful, humane discussion and actually listening to others, we will probably find ourselves growing as people and feeling more connected to those around us.
And isn’t that what social media was supposed to be about in the first place?
This piece first appeared at coreyfarr.com