Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Acrimony and Facebook

I'm not really the "go along to get along" type. I've always been someone that is passionately opinionated and, if I feel strongly, can be quite vocal about my views. As a teenager, my mom thought I should become an environmental lawyer due to both my strong convictions and my predilection for arguing. Still, I generally think there are certain rules that apply. You don't attack the person, nor do you attack whole groups of people/entire sets of beliefs. For example, suppose you oppose a certain practice (or practices) within the Catholic church. It's okay to critique these practices. It's not okay, however, to do a global trashing of Catholicism...and if you happen to be debating the subject with someone that is Catholic, you never, ever bash on them personally for believing what they do. This principle encompasses a wide range of things, from politics to differences in aesthetic judgment. Formulate a good but civil argument if you feel strongly about something. You can point out flaws in the argument, as long as it doesn't deteriorate into attacking the person. If you can't approach the person in the discussion with respect, that's a red flag that this is not a discussion you should be engaging in.

Still, I've noticed these basic rules of respectful engagement seem to be going out the window, particularly on Facebook. I guess it all started a couple of years ago. When Occupy Wall Street happened, it hit Facebook full force. People (for, against and somewhere in-between) were sharing news articles and photographs. Facebook had become political. This continued to build and seemed to really peak around the time of the election. News reports of mass unfriendings were all the rage. Everyone was talking politics on Facebook and people were dumping friends and relatives as a result.

People have always argued on the internet, but Facebook has been unique for two reasons (1)the boundaries between real life and the internet are more permeable than they have ever been and (2)American society* has entered a new era of intolerance. A decade ago, if a disagreement online got ugly, you had the advantage (in many cases) of the person being a user name and icon and little else. These days, though, the person insulting you may be someone you've known for years. They could be a co-worker. You could realize that the old college roommate thinks everyone with your spiritual beliefs(Christianity, Paganism, Atheism, etc) is morally and/or intellectually flawed. You can't not take it personally. There's no telling yourself that HotBabe39859394 is really probably a forty year old guy that works at 7-11 and lives in his mom's basement. This is someone that you've grabbed drinks with and talked about life with, and suddenly,they seem willing to trash this whole history because of a status update or shared link or blog post. Or you're ready to trash the whole history because you can't quite convince yourself that the insults they've heaped on you are based on this difference of opinion alone.

It may very well be the case that it really is just because of this one difference of opinion. If you follow the politics of the US, we have become very marginalized. Different viewpoints are no longer even tolerated. Whether those viewpoints are related to politics, art, music or spiritual beliefs doesn't matter. We've become very factionalized and the idea that you can value the person while respectfully disagreeing seems to have flown out the window. In a social situation, if it seems to be getting volatile, one might find a way to sidestep the discussion. On Facebook, though, others' opinions are up in your face pretty much constantly, both in terms of their posts and their responses to your posts. It has become a way for a factionalized culture to bring the conflict front and center.

I would never unfriend someone from Facebook because of their beliefs, although I would unfriend them if they persisted in disrespectful behavior. I'd let them know that they were crossing the line first and give them a chance to chill out, of course, but if they just ignored my concerns then I'd feel justified in removing them. To me, this only makes sense. If someone came over my house and started personally insulting me, spiritual beliefs or social skills they would be unlikely to be invited back. I see no reason why social media should be any different.

*My focus for this blog post is restricted to American society since that's my frame of reference. I'm not trying to overlook Facebook users from other countries, I just don't feel qualified to offer an analysis of social media in other cultures.