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Debates on Social Media? No Comment

This year, for the first time ever, our family decided to request a presidential candidate’s yard sign. After receiving the sign, I placed it off to the side of our front porch, telling myself we would display it in the front yard in a few days. A few days passed, and I did indeed move it– straight to the back of the garage, completely out of view. I was struggling with the idea of alienating neighbors, many of whom are close friends, knowing that they feel differently about the candidate choices than we do. In these contentious times, I also worried that random people driving past our house might find ways to express negativity toward us. Putting this sign in our yard was not just out of my comfort zone– it was out of my entire comfort universe. Ultimately, it was the comment of my college-bound son that inspired me to move it from its hiding place in the garage to the front yard. Upon seeing it behind the tool cabinet he told me: “It’s cool that you got the sign, but too bad that you’re going to keep it in the garage.” His comments stirred a reminder in me of the desperate need we have in this country to acknowledge our differences in a civil manner. Our young people are watching to see if we can rise above unproductive social media debates, name calling, and unfounded generalizations about other people. They need to know that when we form true relationships with others, we can treat them with respect despite our differences of opinion.

Many years ago, I joined the throngs of people creating Facebook accounts. I remember the early days of sending out one friend request after another, practically feeling the release of mood-elevating endorphins as I witnessed my friend list increase daily. It felt like instant popularity– never mind that the majority of my new “friends” were not part of my everyday life or even my every month life. I recall agonizing over the content of my first post before settling on a contemplation of life’s meaning while drinking a pumpkin spice latte and gazing at gorgeous autumn red and gold leaves. I sat back and watched the likes and comments roll in, feeling validated and connected.

Over time, the Facebook friend requests naturally waned, and I began to appreciate the everyday ability to scroll through other peoples’ postings for pictures and updates. This was especially true for keeping up with friends and relatives who lived farther away. It all seemed harmless enough, especially if I set boundaries around how much time I spent looking at other peoples’ lives rather than living my own. Recently, though, I’ve really struggled with following through on those limits, but not because I’m searching for pictures of cousin Jennifer’s adorable new bundle of joy. I’m fascinated by, and a little bit addicted to, arguments between those with differing political and societal viewpoints. Unfortunately, as we face the current complications of life and rifts among us, social media has become a venue where we battle against those who see things differently than we do.

Differences in opinion and spirited debate have existed since the beginning of time. We all form opinions based on our own natural tendencies, life experiences, and the influences of people we are closest to. Many times, once we establish our opinions, we seek out the information that validates them and filter out the information that does not. Eventually, our now continually reinforced and deeply personal opinions may cause automatically emotional responses when we read comments on social media debates: these are natural reactions. While we do not have a choice in our reaction, we do have a choice in the words we use to respond. Debates among people of differing opinions can be enlightening and thought-provoking but debating with strangers emboldens us to express ourselves in ways we would never consider with our own family and friends.

Intense feelings sometimes cause us to utilize destructive tactics such as name-calling. Unfortunately, any potentially valid points we may have made can become completely overshadowed when we personally attack someone because they disagree with us. Once we call someone a name, we have shut down the intellectual argument and transformed it into an emotional and personal one. As deeply as we may feel, our arguments lose all credibility when we pronounce judgment on someone else and assign them a hurtful name.

Social media also tempts us to make sweeping generalizations about other people. In the political realm, sweeping generalizations cause us to assume that everyone who votes a certain way has certain religious beliefs, embodies certain work ethics, chooses certain leisure activities, supports certain organizations—the list goes on and on. Social media thrives on viewing people as one dimension: it is a lot easier to separate ourselves from others if we focus only on their different political or societal viewpoints. In reality, we are so much more than who we vote for. I support candidate A, and I also go to church, love my dog, want my children to be able to grow up and achieve the American dream, and go through a temporary depression when my favorite baseball team doesn’t make the playoffs. You support candidate B, and you also go to church, love your dog, want your children to grow up and achieve the American dream, and go through a temporary depression when your favorite baseball team doesn’t make the playoffs. We have so much more that unites us than divides us, but we will never discover it if we make broad assumptions about each other on social media.

We woke up a few mornings ago to find that our presidential candidate yard sign has disappeared from our yard. I have no idea who took it or why, and I’ll probably never know. I do know that, as tempting as it was to post about it on social media, I’ve gotten more value out of discussing it with my neighbors instead, even if we may not agree on every aspect of politics. Because we have established relationships, we won’t dismiss each other with an unpleasant name or unfounded assumption—we know too much about each other by now. We’ve formed relationships over the years as we have driven each other’s kids to activities, shoveled each other’s driveways, cheered for sports teams together, and helped each other navigate toddler tantrums and aging parents and everything in-between. Social media simply doesn’t allow us to form the types of complex, meaningful relationships that motivate us to stay civil and find commonalities in the midst of passionate differences. Social media doesn’t encourage us to ask the type of questions which may help us learn more about others and understand why they feel the way they do. Social media is not inherently bad, but times like these call for us to look closely at how we decide to use it. We do not have control over the person who posts something that we disagree with; we do not have control over the person who engages in name calling or makes unfounded assumptions about others. We only have control over ourselves, and part of that control involves staying true to our commitment to healthy, direct communication.


4 thoughts on “Debates on Social Media? No Comment

  1. Very well stated Laura. I can identify with many of your feelings and statements. It does seem so many people believe that FB provides them with friendships, a platform to say whatever they want and a false sense of reality at times. What a sad assumption.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree Joan. We really need to distinguish between online and actual relationships and how we communicate!


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