Many people have commented on my "grace" in responding to people who disagree with me and aren't very nice about it. Well, I wasn't always so gracious—there was a time when I could be pretty snarky. I corrected people's grammar (how funny is that? #karma),
I bombarded people with facts, I interspersed my comments with "oh please!" or "typical!" and although I didn't engage too much in name-calling, I did use a fair amount of sarcasm (still do at times), and a minor epithet every now and then.
I'm certain I didn't change a single person's mind with that type of engagement. But what I did do is exhaust myself, make people feel bad about themselves, and drive an even deeper wedge into our already polarized society.
Then I heard about a brilliant researcher named Dr. Andrew Hoffman, from the University of Michigan, who researches the culture wars. Just about everything I've
learned about online civil discourse, I learned from his book and his speeches (by the way, I've never met Dr. Hoffman, but I'd love to!). I'm attaching a link to a video of one of his speeches that I use in class. It's long, but worth the watch. He's funny, engaging, filled with wisdom, and he's honest. I strongly believe that regardless of your political persuasion, you will gain something from watching this video or reading his book.
Here is something to keep in mind when you are engaging with others who think very differently from you. Issues have a tendency to become polarizing when they relate to our way of life (or we perceive that they do). For the most part, we are a product of our culture (race and ethnicity, religion, region, gender, etc.). Also, we all have a tendency to cut some slack for those people we know and like; meaning if they falter, we'll likely blame circumstance or other people. And, we have a tendency to not cut any slack for those people we don't know or don't like.
The name of this dynamic isn't really important, but if you're curious and want to read more about this dynamic, it's called "Fundamental Attribution Error." We all do it...every one of us. If I support Obama and someone criticizes something he did, I will likely blame the situation, or Republicans, or fake news (propaganda), and not him.
If I don't like Trump and someone criticizes him, I will be more likely to blame him personally, without considering context (he's a terrible person, he's just not very bright). And of course it goes both ways (switch Obama and Trump in this scenario, and the same is true). This is why when someone we like is criticized we tend to rely on the
"Oh yeah, well what about ___!" argument. This tendency is the bedrock of hypocrisy, but the driving force, I believe, is really fundamental attribution error. What's the solution? Awareness.
Another challenge in remaining rational when we're debating tough issues is our tendency to seek out information that supports our personal biases, while rejecting information that doesn't. That's called "Confirmation Bias," and again, we all have a tendency to engage in this type of thinking.
One of the ways we avoid the discomfort we feel when people challenge our perspectives (our biases), is to avoid them, and instead surround ourselves with like-minded people; that way, no one disagrees with us, and we can continue to feel good about ourselves. The problem with this response is that we become very insulated in our thinking and we can easily slip into an "us vs. them" mentality, which is a hop, skip, and a jump away from dehumanizing others.
When we call people a "Libtard" or "Snowflake" or "tRump" or "Trumpster" we get an immediate jolt of adrenaline, which can make us feel powerful in a disempowering conversation. But...there's a price to that kind of communication, even in its more subtle forms. First, we don't achieve our goal of being heard; second, we don't change anyone's mind; third, we further the divide, rather than contributing productively to the discussion, finding common ground and discovering helpful solutions.
But most important, we take a very diverse population and we reduce it to a single collective identity. They are no longer individual people with full and complicated lives, with painful experiences, with incredible accomplishments and achievements. They are no longer moms and dads, nurses, police officers, or teachers. They are no longer people who have lost children, people battling cancer, or survivors of difficult childhoods. They are a faceless member of a mass population who are evil to their core.
I have felt this tug, and trust me, it's a black hole. It will suck you in if you're not careful, and there's a point at which resistance is futile (Trekkie reference, there). Do everything in your power to avoid slipping into that black hole.
"The Left" is not a monolithic group of God-haters, who despise the military and cops, and seek to destroy the American way of life. And "the Right" is not a monolithic group of white supremacists who hate all immigrants, women, people of color, Muslims and members of LGBTQ+ communities. But (and this is an important but) many politicians want us to think that. In this sense, we all need to become resisters.
Many politicians pander in fear. They control us by making us afraid.
They tell us that some group of people who we may never meet, whose lives have nothing to do with our own, are threatening us in some way: threatening our way of life, threatening our livelihood, threatening our children.
Sometimes this is true, but far more often, it's not.
When we're frightened and feel threatened, critical thinking tends to fly out the window and we have difficulty assessing true threats (kind of like how my smoke alarm goes off every time I take a shower). And who has time to chase down all the facts in the information coming at us at lightning speed? Most of us don't. So we rely on people we trust—our political leaders, our pastors, our wise friends, our media commentators.
Also, simple narratives are easy to believe, and complex ones are difficult. If a narrative is a simple one ("all Muslims are terrorists," "all Christians want to control us," "all immigrants are taking our jobs," "all Clinton supporters hate America," "all Trump supporters are racists"), we're more likely to sign on. That's why memes with simplistic narratives are so attractive, and spread like wild fires, although rarely are they useful in finding common ground.
Simple narratives are easy to adopt, but the truth is always complex. So, we all need to try harder to strive for complexity in our narratives and learn to live with dissonance.
And finally, let's all try to adopt a world view of abundance, rather than scarcity.
There's enough for all of us. Maybe it doesn't always feel like that, but I believe this to be true with every fiber of my being. A world view based on scarcity makes us easier to manipulate by those who wish to control us through fear.
I believe we're going to be okay in the long run, but in the meantime, let's all work harder at keeping compassion front and center toward all people, even those we don't understand and have difficulty relating to.
If someone disagrees with you, don't say anything online that you wouldn't say while looking directly into their eyes. And if someone is deeply ideologically committed (on either side of our current political divide), then keep in mind that maybe they're operating from a place of pain, and again, just let it go.
Remember, people's Facebook timelines are like their home. You can comment on their decorating, but you can't tear down their window treatments and drag their couch to the curb. So make your comment of dissent, and then leave their page, and rant on your own.
And finally (finally), as Dr. Hoffman says, people change through relationships, not by throwing facts (or insults) at them on social media.
Dr. Michelle Martin is a social worker, policy specialist and Assistant Professor at California State University, Fullerton in the Department of Social Work, where she teaches social welfare policy, and researches dynamics related to immigrants, political asylum-seekers, refugees and other displaced populations.