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Virtual dialogue in a divided world: a plan for healthy social media interaction

Art credit: Pawel Kuczynski (seriously genius. Check out his satirical artwork on social media - was hard to pick one from the dozens of great ones!)

Social media. Probably the greatest advancement the world has ever seen towards people keeping connected with friends and family and what’s going on in their lives. It’s really beautiful. Sadly, it’s also an art exhibit or museum or cesspool or haunted house (pick your metaphor) that puts some of the nastiest sides of human interaction on display for all to see. It’s really ugly.

The thing that prompted this article was a “discussion” in a comments thread. An individual posted something about white privilege, something very cynical and negative and accusatory. How it was just a scam to be intentionally divisive and make white people feel guilty for things they hadn’t done, etc. No matter which “side” of the issue you are on, I think my comment was pretty respectful:

The idea behind privilege is not that it is any one person or entity's fault, it is simply a representation of historical realities that have created inequities that we can and should address. This four minute video is one of the best, easiest introductions I've ever seen: Systemic Racism Explained. Please check it out. He's fair and respectful and gives clear explanations. White guilt is an unfortunate side effect of people misunderstanding white privilege. Rather than guilt, it should lead to action. Guilt for the sake of guilt does no good to anyone.

The individual came back at me with a pretty scathing comment that seemed to have nothing to do with my words or the video in question. I replied with one sentence, asking him if he had watched the video, and his comment was revealing:

Why? So I can be convinced of a falsehood? You can put all the spin on it you want but it doesn't change the fact this is being used to guilt whites and allow Blacks to glorify in their victim-hood - both of which are wrong.

Ignorance isn’t a sin, but willful ignorance is

Let’s ignore the discussion of systemic racism and white privilege - that’s not the purpose of this article at all. (I still highly recommend the video above, though.) Instead, let’s talk about the glaring problem in this conversation: the resolute commitment not to listen to the “other side”, even when the cost is only four minutes of your time. In fact, I suspect this man put more time writing his other responses to me than it would have taken to watch the video.

Personally, I feel I do not have a right to speak publicly about an issue unless I have at least tried to do something about my ignorance first - and this means listening to "both sides". It's unfortunate we live in a two-sided world, but that's where we're at and we have to find a way to work with/around it. Because the sides are so vehemently against each other, even admitting ignorance can feel like a betrayal. But let’s get something straight here, because it seems as though the whole world has gone crazy and forgotten some really basic facts.

Ignorance isn't a sin.

It just means we don't know something.

Is there anything inherently wrong with that? Nope.

Does it mean we're less of a person? Of course not.

Does it mean we should feel guilt or shame? Not at all.

Should anyone try to make ignorant people feel any of these things? Absolutely not!

But willful ignorance is a problem. A huge problem. If someone brings up an important issue and we refuse to listen by stuffing our fingers in our ears or digging the trenches and holding strong to a position that we're not well educated on, that's a problem. There is something inherently wrong with that. It’s bad enough in a private conversation, but it’s way more toxic when you’re making broad, sweeping statements about controversial topics in a public place.

It doesn't make you a hypocrite or a traitor to your "team" to admit you don't know something and then listen to what they have to say. When a controversial story comes up, go read what the liberal and conservative media are saying about it. When Trump says something that sounds insane, go see if Fox has a different opinion. When a Black Lives Matter person pisses you off, go read it from the perspective of CNN. (Then again, these two are extremes. It might be best to read from more moderate conservative/liberal sources.)

The bottom line is something so painfully obvious that it shouldn’t even need to be said: We - don't - have - to - agree to just listen. Choosing to educate yourself in response to your own (perfectly natural and not at all shameful) ignorance doesn't mean you have to accept everything you learn.

Open for discussion

When we post on social media, we are opening something up to public discussion. If we refuse to interact gracefully and respectfully, even with those who disagree, then we’re clearly using the wrong medium for whatever we’re trying to do. If we refuse to admit our ignorance when someone raises a point we haven’t considered or haven’t learned about, then we need to find another place to vent our thoughts. There are plenty of Facebook groups or Reddit subs for people who already agree on everything.

This goes for systemic racism. It goes for putting some of the crazy things the President says in context. It goes for foreign and domestic relations of pretty much every kind. I do this all the time. Just yesterday, something came up in my feed about Trump saying something that seemed totally outrageous and disrespectful (i.e. it was just a normal day in the US). I went to the original source and looked at it in context, and guess what? I don’t think it was being portrayed fairly. I think Trump was being skewered for a comment that really wasn’t as insulting as people were saying. It was clear that those who reposted it (and in some cases, it seemed like even the authors of the articles) hadn’t actually listened to the speech. I'm not a fan of Trump, but in this case, I only saw foul play.

We can lament how divided society is until we’re blue in the face, but as long as our definition of unity looks like everyone coming to our own side, then our words are pretty much useless. If our frustration with division doesn’t lead us to cross the dividing line and do something as simple as watching a four-minute video, then we clearly aren’t doing anything to help the problem.

Preaching what you practice

It’s only been relatively recently in my life that I got back into engaging in any sort of “political” or controversial discussions on Facebook. I used to be the king of it. You know, the guy who writes the really, really long comments and never backs down from an argument? Yeah, that was me. But I gave it up years ago.

As things have escalated in the US and around the world, I felt an internal conviction that remaining silent on certain topics is nothing more than complicity with broken systems. So I started speaking, but with one major goal: to always be respectful and fair, even when I’m discussing a controversial topic.

There are two reasons for this. First, we all (should) know that social media quickly becomes an echo chamber. It’s so divisive that everyone who agrees with you will like your post and only agree more; those who disagree will refuse to consider that there could be any truth in it, so they will either scroll by without giving it a second thought or comment trying to disprove you, usually in an aggressive way. The reason I chose to be fair and respectful is because there is no possible way to ever even hope to get someone on the “other side” to listen to what you have to say if you are just being extreme.

Second, I decided that really the best thing I can do is preach what I practice when it comes to social media. My message isn’t necessarily as much about the topics I’m sharing as it is about the way in which I approach them. To put it differently, my new mission statement is to preach the much needed message of healthy, respectful, and fair interactions online by practicing and modeling it.

Thankfully, it seems I'm succeeding, since this is the most common feedback I get, from both those who agree with me and those who don't. The only times I've been told I was argumentative, disrespectful, or a poor witness for Christ (yup, I actually heard that) was from people who seemed so vehemently set in their beliefs that the very idea of someone believing something else was offensive to them. But I'm not here to pat myself on the back. All I want to do is share some simple tips that we should all be practicing if there is any hope left for fair dialogue and bridging the divide.

Social media interaction for dummies (in ten easy steps!)

  1. Think before you post. Before you hit enter, reread what you wrote. Then read it again. Then after it goes live, read it a third time. Don’t be afraid to use the edit button… two, three, four times if you have to.

  2. Never post a knee jerk reply. If someone challenges and upsets you, don’t just type the first thing that comes to mind and hit enter. This is a discussion. Take some time to think and calm down, whether that means taking a few deep breaths for a minute or coming back to the post a few hours later.

  3. Say “we” instead of “you”. This is one I actually just learned this week. If you’re posting about something wrong with culture, it’s okay to say we. “If you do this, then it’s a problem,” sounds a lot more hostile than, “If we do this, then it’s a problem.” Even though “you” in English can be a general pronoun referring to “one” or “anyone”, like it is meant to be used in posts like this, it is much easier to receive a post written from a “we” perspective. I actually went back and edited significant portions of this article from you to we and I already think they sound more amicable.

  4. Listen to others. This should go without saying. Put yourself in their shoes. Look at things from their perspective. Play devil’s advocate with yourself. Go read the sources they post, or look up an article on the topic from a source with a bias on the “other side”. Or, for the love of God, just watch the four-minute video. Social media is far more effective as a listening platform than a speaking one. I've never seen a mind changed in a comments thread, but I know that reading other people's posts and opinions raises awareness, provides questions, and (should) prompt us to further our knowledge before we join in any discussion, online or otherwise.

  5. Don’t be afraid to admit you were wrong. This should also go without saying, but it needs to be said. It’s okay to not be right on everything. It’s okay to admit they made a good point and that you need to reconsider some things. Once again, if you’re looking to have a discussion, then what’s the point if you’re completely unwilling to change your thoughts?

  6. Remember, those other people are real people. Okay, I sound like a broken record here, but this really should go without saying. But when we start discussing with someone we don’t know in real life, it’s easy for them to become nothing more than a disembodied profile picture in our heads. The fact is that they are real people, and if we met them in “real life” then we'd probably have at least a decent, if not entirely pleasant, conversation.

  7. Type like you’re talking. Again, it’s a discussion. Don’t just blast words that you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to someone’s face. This rule alone would probably solve half the social media comment arguments; although there are still some people who would be just as rude in real life.

  8. Read what you just wrote. Okay, this is kind of like rule one, but it’s a followup to rule seven. If you type like you’re talking, put yourself in the shoes of other people when you read it. What will it sound like to them? Even if you’re picturing something as spoken with a kind tone in your mind, what would it sound like to read it with an aggressive tone? Could it come across the wrong way? Do you need to go use that edit button again?

  9. Give people the benefit of the doubt when you read what they wrote. This is the reverse side of rule eight. When you read a comment and it sounds aggressive or confrontational, put yourself in their shoes. Is there any way to read it that sounds more calm, respectful, or kind? Is it possible that they are trying to disagree with you peacefully, and that the disrespect you are “hearing” when you read it is actually meant to be playful? Maybe it’s a manifestation of some major frustration with what you wrote before, at which point you need to reread what you wrote with rules seven and eight in mind. Or maybe you're projecting hostility on to them because you are feeling very hostile about it. That's a tough pill to swallow, but we need to take it sometimes.

  10. Remember: most peoples’ minds will never be changed in a comment thread. If we make our number one goal to win arguments, we will be sadly disappointed. But if we make it about having respectful, humane discussion and actually listening to others, we will probably find ourselves growing as people and feeling more connected to those around us.

And isn’t that what social media was supposed to be about in the first place? (Go back to the first paragraph if you don't believe me.)

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Although I am no longer actively blogging, I am currently working on developing my career as an orchestral/cinematic composer under the stage name Between the Rains. You can find a selection of my music as well as my contact info for custom requests on my demo reel.

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