It’s that time of year again: the latest election cycle is running through the air and wire and screen, etc., ad nauseum. Something has changed, though. Where you once debated this candidate v. that candidate over the kitchen table with family and perhaps with friends, much of that discussion seems now to happen over social media. And through the magic of Facebook or Twitter of whatever, you can engage with huge numbers of people at once. You find that you have a philosophical ally in that old friend from some odd thing or another, and also that you have a political enemy much closer than you thought. It’s all a giant echo chamber and people are more than happy to sound off.
This certainly has its pleasures. It’s stimulating to receive such varied feedback instantly, and it’s so easy to go back and forth with several folks, detailing the finer points of a particular policy or political figure. But this social media debate stage also has its drawbacks. Just like their in-person counterparts, these online debates can become heated. This comes as no surprise: where we stand politically has everything to do with who we are and what we believe at our cores–how we see the world at a fundamental level. And indeed, it is the most polarizing issues that draw people in, that get them engaged. It is in these issues that people feel they have something at stake. So naturally, the debates can become less than civil, and people can get pretty damn worked up; feelings get hurt, friendships (however real or digital they are to begin with) are warped, and no one really changes their mind about anything. No winners are declared. In the best case, the major parties feel they come away having said their piece and not feeling too hurt. In the worst case, people cut their ties with people they’d otherwise remain connected to for whatever benefits that connection might bring.
Well it’s no wonder these things can get out of hand, right? We’re breaking one of the cardinal rules of polite conversation: don’t broach religion or politics. Generally, I think these rules are silly and keep people from having real conversations, but clearly there’s something to that “polite” descriptor. Your grandmother must have been onto something with that rule–it keeps the peace. But if social media has changed the way we talk about these things, and we’ve hit critical mass with political conversation, we need to come up with some new rules, new ways to maintain our relationships while disagreeing openly and passionately. It’s imperative that we come up with something if we value our friends enough to have befriended them in the first place.
I propose we cultivate a level of metacognition; we need to think about our thinking, and understand that the kind of debate we engage in online rarely leads anywhere, and that it’s OK if someone disagrees with us. In fact, we should be most interested in those areas where we find disagreement, and rejoice when we encounter intelligent opposition. Those are the points where we learn the most about ourselves, where we see our positions defamiliarized and made strange-looking from the outside. And while our politics may be built from our core beliefs about the world, and be inextricably connected with who we are, I think we must challenge ourselves to see beyond our political differences and look towards what we aim to accomplish–what we think is important.
For example, in a recent debate concerning gun control (in reference to the tragedy in Orlando), I took it upon myself to engage with several colleagues in what became a rather heated discussion. I argued that it was philosophically problematic to disarm civilians, and that it made little sense to blame the rifle for the evil of the man, and several colleagues urged for stricter gun laws, arguing that more restrictions were required and that the average person should not be permitted to own a semi-automatic rifle. I saw them as reactionary and arguing for an increase in state power and control; they seemed to see me as insensitive and primitive in my views. While we certainly were not happy with the other, there was a settling down where we seemed able to separate the person from their views, and realize that we want the same thing: fewer tragedies, fewer deaths by gun violence–but that we disagreed fundamentally on how to go about doing that.
Even when debates become heated, it’s crucial to continually try to take that step back and remember that for the most part, we all want the same things. We want peace; we want people to live happy, fulfilling lives; we want everyone to get a fair shake. When we realize that we so often want the same things, the rest of the debate becomes pragmatic: what’s the best way to get there?
And even when we disagree vehemently, we should strive to treat each other like rational human beings, not caricatures of our political or philosophical opposition. With a little more respect leveled across the board, especially on social media where such civility is not required, we might actually hear one another better, and be able to keep our friends–and value more those who see the world differently.