Don’t Beat Up Your Friends

You may have noticed there is a lot of intensity, even aggression, on social media lately. Between the pandemic and the urgent demand for racial justice that has erupted since the murder of George Floyd, the ground is shifting beneath us and tensions are high. We may be shocked to see some of our friends or business associates spouting points of view that we find offensive. As we come upon noxious comments, it can be tempting to jump in and defend our beliefs by hurling juicy, sarcastic zingers. However, laying into each other comes at a cost.

It’s important to stand up for our values and principles, but we’re in trouble if we can’t maintain respect while doing it. Sociologist Jonathan Haidt has done research on political division and the moral imperatives that drive people on different sides of the issues. He wrote a book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt says the danger of our increased polarization is that it induces disgust, which “reduces the other to sub-human… makes us more likely not to just say ‘they’re wrong,’ but we say ‘they’re evil.’” This ramps up our fear and makes us feel more hostile. I wrote about his findings extensively here. With such acute polarization right now, it’s crucial to demonstrate respect and compassion any chance we get.

In this spirit, I’m doing a video dialogue with my friend Pete, who disagrees with me on many things. We’re going to talk about a loaded social issue with the help of a mediator, not to change each other’s minds but to understand each other better. If it goes well, we’ll share it everywhere.

The social media stratosphere can be a minefield of provocation, so maintaining respect will take resolve. I recently wrote a blog called White Privileged Like Me. It was a labor of love about my own awakening to systemic racism that took me weeks to process. Then I posted it on my Facebook page and all hell broke loose. A small minority of people were upset about my views and blasted angry comments to the point that everyone else eventually shut up. I learned something from wading into that quagmire: my Facebook page is my domain. I get to decide what content will be there and what kind of tone is acceptable. This means I need to moderate it and make the “house rules.” You get the same responsibility on your platforms.

So here are some of my new boundaries:

  • Respect. I’m only going to make respectful comments on my or anyone else’s platforms. On my page, you can disagree with me, but only respectful comments will be tolerated.
  • I won’t use sarcasm as a weapon. This is a hard one to forfeit because it can be fun. During a tense interaction, I can get some relief by slipping in a little dig that makes me giggle. But sarcasm isn’t helpful. I’ll stop using the laughing emoji when someone else delivers a sarcastic blow too. Giving this one up makes me 😦
  • No name calling. I won’t lump people into pejorative categories, or use loaded terms that diminish them, and I won’t tolerate others doing that on my platforms.
  • No personal attacks. I will delete comments if they are mean-spirited towards me or others (even if the person agrees with me). I will block people if they don’t cooperate with this standard.
  • No hyperbole. I won’t use or engage with hysterical claims and generalizations that shut down dialogue.
  • Discretion with re-sharing. I won’t share other people’s posts, memes, videos, etc. that violate the above. This one’s going to hurt because hilarious smack-downs are cathartic. But if you’re serious about respect, please think hard about the tone you communicate when you repost content. Maybe just share that sick burn with a few friends who will get a kick out of it, instead of making it your new profile pic.

I get that representing one’s values clearly, in the face of disagreement, without being disrespectful is a tight needle to thread. Maybe my guidelines above are unreasonable. Would you like to join me in trying them out anyway? The work of threading this needle might not feel as satisfying as gunslinging around, shooting from the hip as gut feelings dictate, but isn’t our common good worth the effort? Just one preliminary conversation with Pete has already shown me how much good can come from respecting rather than judging.

I have one more suggestion. This is something you can do to help make it less treacherous out there: Connect with a friend who sees current social problems differently than you do. Talk about anything but politics. Enjoy some simple time together to catch up, to have fun, to see their face and remember who they are. It’ll feel good and it really will help the rest of us too.