By November of 2015, I could already feel how tense the next year was going to be politically. My Facebook feed was turning into a war zone. I found myself getting more frustrated with those who just wouldn’t be reasonable. More than fatigued, I was growing hostile towards those whose views I found inferior to my own. I was starting to feel dismissive of them as people, not just their views. So, to work through my frustration, I made a series of very snarky, cynical memes, exploiting the logical flaws I felt I saw in their arguments.
As I was ready to post some of my witty, snarky memes the thought came to me, “How will this help anything?” I wrestled with the idea for some time and then just refrained from posting. It caused me deep reflection on my views of social media. Clearly this means of communication was not going away. What then was its purpose? What was my role in social media? How did I want to be seen by others? What was the purpose of what I shared? After some time, I developed the following ideas: (here is the entire elevatethedebate post)
“I refuse to use a powerful tool like social media only to display the happy moments of my life. I further refuse to avoid anything that might engender thought, controversy or elevated discussion. If social media is the new gathering place of the 21st-century, let’s gather! Let’s talk about the things that are important to our world. Let’s talk about them as if we were face-to-face. Surely we can disagree without being disagreeable.”
In addition, I came up with my own rules for social media use:
- Talk about ideas not individuals.
- Seek for and build on common ground.
- Avoid sarcasm and personal attacks.
- Don’t try to only persuade someone to think like you do; instead do what you can to understand why they think the way they do.
- Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, nobody is entitled to their own facts. Use trusted, refereed sources.
- Be open to changing your opinion on issues.
- Above all, be kind post/reply as if you were face-to-face. Filter it before you post it!
Here is what I hoped would happen: that myself and others would not only change the tone of what we produced on social media but also work to understand each other. For me that has happened. I am not perfect but I have tried to be respectful and understanding. In the process I’ve learned a lot, not just about others but about myself. I find that if I honestly try to learn why people feel the way they do, I am more inclined to see them as people not as foes. Even when I disagree with their views, if I understand them, I am strengthened myself. I have furthered my resolve that most people are good people. I have for years understood that issues were complex and resolutions to complex problems are challenging. I now have greater understanding that the reasons people think and feel the way they do is also complex. I still hold strong opinions but I am trying to convey them with less moral or intellectual certitude, one that places me on a perceived elevated plane from those who don’t see things the way I do–even when I think someone is wrong. There is no virtue or value in communication that shows bitterness or perceived superiority.
Make no mistake, I think some views have and do cause real harm. I am not so naïve as to believe listening to each other will erase the evils of the world. However, even when dealing with fanaticism, we can take an approach that de-escalates conflict. Like David Brooks observes:“The temptation is simply to blast the neo-Nazis, the alt-right, the Trumpkins and the rest for being bigoted, vicious and hate-filled. And some of that is necessary. The boundaries of common decency have to be defined. But throughout history the wiser minds have understood that anger and moral posturing are not a good antidote to rage and fanaticism. Competing vitriols only build on each other. In fact, the most powerful answer to fanaticism is modesty. Modesty is an epistemology directly opposed to the conspiracy mongering mind-set. It means having the courage to understand that the world is too complicated to fit into one political belief system. It means understanding there are no easy answers or malevolent conspiracies that can explain the big political questions or the existential problems. Progress is not made by crushing some swarm of malevolent foes; it’s made by finding balance between competing truths — between freedom and security, diversity and solidarity. There’s always going to be counter-evidence and mystery. There is no final arrangement that will end conflict, just endless searching and adjustment. Modesty means having the courage to rest in anxiety and not try to quickly escape it. Modesty means being tough enough to endure the pain of uncertainty and coming to appreciate that pain. Uncertainty and anxiety throw you off the smug island of certainty and force you into the free waters of creativity and learning. As Kierkegaard put it, ‘The more original a human being is, the deeper is his anxiety’.”
Understanding why people feel the way they do and view the world the way they do helps us make more sense of the world we all live in together. There is much more of listening to do. Social media can be a place to talk to each other not just at each other. More than a digitized echo chamber of self-affirmation, it can be a powerful tool to bring diverse ideas together. A virtual community committed to a more perfect union. Let’s change the world one post at time!
Like Yale Law professor Stephen L.Carter says in his book civility. “If, on the other hand, you fight your natural fight instinct, your natural tendency to use the rhetoric of silencing, and instead regard this person as one who is, in his twisted way, bringing you gifts, then you’ll defeat a dark passion and replace it with a better passion. You’ll teach the world something about you by the way you listen. You may even learn something; a person doesn’t have to be right to teach you some of the ways you are wrong.”
This process has helped me see more broadly the challenges we face from tribalism. It has helped challenge some of my own prejudices and assumptions. It has made me reflect more and react less, which in turn has made my views broader, more sophisticated and easier to articulate to others. Giving up snark and sarcasm has not been easy but it has been helpful.