In the last few days I’ve had conversations with people who view politics very differently than me. They respected my views and I theirs. In both conversations, my friends said something like this, “You are probably going to think I’m a really bad person” then they shared their opinion. They knew going into the conversation we probably viewed the issue differently but I was troubled by the disclaimer. Why would they think I would think less of them as a person? I don’t really think they worried I would–it just felt like they had to prep me in some way.
I worry that our politics have become so toxic that we have a growing anxiety that to disagree means we are adversaries not just people with different opinions. I don’t think this started with social media. In the past, we often didn’t talk politics with people if we knew they disagreed with us. We found ways to talk about other things. Social media has made that less possible. I know how you feel because I saw your post about it.
Honestly, most people don’t like confrontation. Who can blame them? Subsequently, many of us have curated what we post or who we engage with on social media. Some of us have a strict no politics rule. We only talk about things we think will not be controversial. Others simply get rid of their friends who don’t share their political opinions. I am sympathetic to both approaches. However, learning to understand 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. 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.
I had the opportunity to be interviewed on a friend’s podcast we discussed this very topic. We talked about the temptation to just give up on social media as a place where civil discourse could happen. However, we concluded, if we do that then the haters win! We can’t just consider social media as a place of either antagonism or total withdrawal from the important issues of our time. What if it were different? What if social media brought together a community of friends, family and colleagues working to create the best world possible. A place where you can express your opinion and ideas without it becoming a fight?
One thing that will help us is understanding how social media works. Social media is based on algorithms. It gives us what it thinks we want. Social media makes it even easier to reaffirm our opinions, not challenge them. Social media pushes us to opinion pieces because they get more likes and shares. Opinion pieces are fine but they lack depth in reporting and fail to give much needed background and opposing points of view. We need to get our news from trusted sources not just what shows up in our news feed.
Social media also has a tendency to isolate us from people who think differently than we do. Ironically, we have the opportunity to be friends with anyone around the globe, but what we like and share aligns us to those we have the most in common with. If you want a diverse opinion in your social media feed, you have to like and share things you do not agree with.
So what can we do? Here are four suggestions that have helped me:
First: start looking at myself, not others. I can’t blame you for what’s wrong with the government. I’ve spent the last two years carefully reflecting on my own political opinions, finding the flaws in my logic learning to avoid ether or thinking and trying to challenge my assumptions. What am I doing to contribute to tribalism? How can I stop doing those things?
Second: I have tried to stop preaching to the choir. The more I discuss the world with those who share my worldview, the more I begin to view the world as “us versus them.” I have completely stopped sharing simple memes and snappy one liners on social media that confirm my opinions. They do nothing to broaden my understanding of complex issues and alienate those who do not share my opinions.
Third: I’ve tried to understand where people are coming from. Whenever I find myself saying, “I can’t understand why anyone thinks that.” I tell myself, “That’s your problem, not their problem.” I don’t have to agree with someone to understand why they think the way they do. If I don’t understand why someone holds an opinion, that’s an indictment of me not them.
Fourth: I see the need to be more actively involved in the process. It’s not enough to be well-informed. Democracy requires individual action. I need to be involved in the political process: volunteer, donate write about issues and create space for meaningful dialogue. We can post specifically about issues and entertain opposing views.
Let me be clear, I do not think we should all come to a consensus on the issues of our time. I don’t think every political issue can be a win-win. I think having a diverse set of opinions is helpful to any vibrant democracy. We should have serious, substantive and frequent debates with those we disagree with the most. However, we should do it in a way that holds our common love of country and fellow man as sacrosanct.
We cannot change what others post. We cannot change other’s political opinions. We can, however, contribute to the conversation. We can do our part to build a community. We can do our part to have an honest, open dialogue about issues we may agree or disagree on.
We can resolve not to rant but to reason. To talk less and listen more–to build bridges not walls. We can engage in conversation with those we disagree with in a constructive manner. We can acknowledge the complexities of issues without being condescending. We can reject our own unwarranted certitude. We can learn and try to understand others perspectives instead of trying to persuade them to adopt our own.
We can reject sarcasm and embrace empathy. We can walk away from anger and embrace understanding. We can stop sharing over simplified, inflammatory content and instead pose our own thoughtful questions and ideas. Every person’s perspective has value and meaning to that person. We can admit when we are wrong. We can embrace conflict and shun contention. We can remain true to our ideals and be open to change. We can learn to not attack.
We can do our best to elevate the discussion. We can do our best to create space for diverse opinions and ideas.
What if we were each committed to elevating the discussion, to enhancing the public discourse, even if only in our little corner of the world? We can still be passionate about the things we believe in. We can share what we feel with humility. We can be open to learning new things, understanding new perspectives, gaining new insights and challenging old assumptions. There is no virtue or value in communication that shows bitterness or perceived superiority. There is much to be gained if we can reclaim social media as a space to have real meaningful conversations.
I believe our best days are ahead of us! I am an optimist! I know we can create a community of social media users who elevate the discussion in a way that brings a spirit of harmony, cooperation and resolve. We can leave competitiveness, ego-clutter and a desire to be right in exchange for a desire to learn, grow and help create the best democracy possible.
I am convinced that words have the power to impact our world for good. History shows us this. What if we learned to talk to each other and not at each other? What if we could have the kind of dialogue my friends and I just had in person online? What if we could learn to learn from each other instead of finding ways to avoid each other?