WE’VE ALL DONE IT.
You’re winding down after dinner, checking through your Facebook feed for funny cat videos, and come across a link someone posted or liked but with which you disagree with. You can’t believe how someone you are friends with (or related to) could be so callous to post something so obviously wrong and hurtful, so you call them out. But before they can admit their error, another friend of theirs digs in deeper and calls you a moron for missing the point. But you didn’t miss the point, obviously this jerk is a troll or something, and you can’t just let his offensive comment go unchecked. Then they start using all caps and somehow don’t seem able to comprehend the very basic and reasonable arguments you are making, which is annoying at first but quickly becomes infuriating. And suddenly it is 2am and you are anxiously anticipating their next stupid comment so you can again remind them how stupid they are. What is their problem?
Two days later you are scrolling through birthday wishes and food pics just trying to avoid spoilers for that show you haven’t watched yet, when someone posts something you find vaguely interesting and funny. You think of another friend who might like to see it so you repost it to your wall with a quick note and move on to the next video. Later when you scroll back, you see that someone else has seen the post, but they didn’t get the joke and are totally overreacting to it. You tell them to chill out, I mean, did they even read the article? (Here you quickly go skim the article yourself to make sure it actually says what you think it said based off the headline.) But they continue to attack you, completely missing the point of what you were trying to share which is annoying at first but quickly becomes infuriating. You can’t believe someone is making such a big deal over what was, for you, a passing afterthought. What is their problem?
WHAT IS OUR PROBLEM?
Like a lot of people, I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook debates. I think it can be an opportunity to hear different viewpoints that I’m not otherwise exposed to in my daily life. It gives me a chance to talk with people from my past that I don’t (and perhaps wouldn’t) hang out with in my everyday life. And, better yet, it often forces me to think about what I’m trying to say. Rather than just repeating an argument I heard someone say, I have to be able to articulate the meaning of the argument. At the end, I better understand both what my opponent thinks, as well as what I think. Win/win, right?
Unfortunately, sometimes that isn’t how it works. Since we, as a society, haven’t quite figured out how to maintain our manners online, things often devolve into people talking (or shouting) at each other rather than with each other. Instead of crafting arguments, it seems many people are content to throw in a zinger they picked up somewhere, and then get offended when you don’t understand the substance that may (or may not) be behind it.
Yet despite that, in my highly anecdotal experience I find that most of the time, if I can engage the people I’m arguing with to articulate what they really mean, it seems that our viewpoints are often a lot closer than we would’ve thought. Any time you are talking politics or public policy, there is going to be a lot of room for disagreement. But I think, on most topics, the “right” and the “left” are a lot closer then either side seems to want to admit. Over and over I am reminded that most of the time, most people value similar end goals, and it is merely the tactics and philosophies we want to use to get there that cause the problems. So if we want nearly the same things, why does it sometimes seem like we are so divided and partisan?
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT
We, as a culture, are struggling to adapt to this new world of omnipresent social connection. We no longer rely on a father figure like Walter Cronkite to tell us what is going on. We can get news from anywhere, and we are increasingly looking to find our news from sources that we think/hope we can trust – which for many simply means that the source indulges and flatters our view of the world. The problem is that the world of media is also struggling to adapt to this new model of delivering news. Thus we are seeing huge variances in terms of quality and ideology. This new model is exciting and, in some ways, is exposing the problems we had with the old paternalistic model. But it is not without dangers of its own. We should all be wary of this.
The media, and the corporations that run them, are a business. And in a capitalistic model, those businesses want one thing: your money. As much of it as possible. Which is fine as such, as long as you keep that in mind when you are listening to their sales pitch.
I’m convinced that our current political state of extreme partisanship and division is an artificial and deliberate illusion, invented as a lazy shortcut to gain money, power and influence. Of course there are going to be debates and disagreements over politics and public policy, but I don’t think we are a country divided nearly as much as we are being led to believe. It’s just that polarization sells, and lots of people who want your money – companies, politicians, the media – are exploiting that fact to make a buck. An angry electorate are more likely to send money and to vote. An angry citizen is more likely to watch the news program that can provide a release – and a target – for that anger.
It is normal for all of us to think that we are the moderate in the room, that “most people” would of course agree with our rational opinions, and that those who disagree are simply crazy extremists. But it isn’t that simple. Labeling someone as ignorant or bigoted or crazy does not hinge on whether and to what degree they agree with you. And once we categorize people who disagree with us as crazy or as extremists, we generally stop listening to them. Heck, really listening to people who agree with us can be a challenge. Listening is a skill that requires practice. So, too, does outrage. But this world would be better if we developed our communication skills rather than indulgently and indiscriminately practicing our outrage.
WHAT WE CAN DO
• Stay calm. Maybe the person you are talking to is wrong. Maybe they are a troll. But if you get angry, you will only lose any opportunity to make your case. Is your goal to express your anger/irritation/frustration over my incredulous stupidity, or is it to convince me of why you are right? Those are two very different goals. Know what your goals are.
• Identify your middle ground. It is easier to listen to someone that agrees with you on some things than that is truly a polar opposite. We are being taught to ignore that middle ground and instead to only focus on the differences, using terminology that paints as wide a divide as possible. Politicians who stand for nothing themselves need an “other” to fight against instead. But while that approach my empower some lazy “leaders”, it will not improve communication or lead to quality results.
• Listen to what is being said. Not everyone is going to be good at articulating what they really mean, but that doesn’t mean you should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Then acknowledge that you hear their point of view. (That doesn’t mean you have to agree with it.) We all get frustrated and defensive when what we are saying is misunderstood or misconstrued. Don’t do that to others just to “make a point”. By showing you are listening to them, you are also giving them room to perhaps change their mind. No one likes to be publicly humiliated, and if you come on too strong and back them into a defensive crouch, you are missing the opportunity to get more people to agree with you. Again, is your goal to spread your wisdom far and wide, or is your goal just to mock and belittle and find a target to release the outrage your favorite “news” programs have been filling you with?
If you are getting an emotional high from watching the news, then you aren’t watching a news program, you are watching an entertainment program. Which is fine to do, but don’t forget the difference!
If you are dumbfounded at how anyone could ever possibly disagree with you, then you are probably looking at the issue through a very narrow, cherry-picked viewpoint. Pay attention to what others are saying instead of just focusing on the fact that they are disagreeing with you. And any authority figure who insists that they are right 100% of the time on 100% of the issues is clearly either a fool or a liar. It doesn’t mean everything they say is wrong, but clearly they are either a poor judge of character or substance, or are cynically trying to manipulate you. Neither of those qualities is going to make for a good leader. And once they start trying to convince you that anyone who disagrees with them must, obviously, be crazy or evil or a hater of puppies – take a step back. That isn’t an argument, that is an absence of one. Outrage has, sadly, proven to be an effective rallying cry, but it is a wholly ineffective tactic to getting anyone to agree with you. And isn’t that really what you want to have happen?
Good communication skills are vital to improving the conversations we are having with each other. And I’ll freely admit I myself am not perfect. Sometimes I get emotional. Sometimes I struggle to hear alternative points of view that don’t match up with my own life experiences. And heck, when it comes to Facebook, sometimes I’m just feeling mischievous. But each of us has the power to reclaim the high ground that our current set of politicians and media makers are trying to keep away from us. Don’t let them use you like that. When they give you information, support them. When they try and rile you up, smile and wave back amusedly, and be aware of their strategy to get into your wallet and influence your behavior. We don’t have to hate them, I understand why they use such an effective tactic. But I don’t have to blindly support them either. We are better than that. We are smarter than that. And we are the ones that are going to solve our problems, by punishing those who resort to cheap tactics simply to gain power, and by empowering those who listen, explain, and move the conversation forward.