There is an old maxim: Never discuss religion or politics. Somewhere along the road we seem to have added the corollary “Except on Facebook”. I haven’t conducted an actual survey, but I would guess that as many as a quarter of all posts I go through in a day are commenting on one of the two, and sometimes both.
The problem is not so much that people are going against established wisdom. It’s that people are going against established wisdom in front of a studio audience. That’s because of the nature of Facebook in the first place. Most people want to have lots of contacts in any social media platform they engage in. No one wants to look like a nerd with no herd. As a result we end up with a friend list that can be divided into four groups:
Group 1 – Close friends: These are the people we would communicate with regularly anyway, regardless of what medium is available. They can get away with discussing politics or religion because they either a) hold similar beliefs as you, or b) put it in a way you are used to or can handle. They don’t offend you because if they did they wouldn’t have become your friends in the first place.
Group 2 – Social/Business/Workk contacts: You meet these people around town either having fun or networking. You want to keep them in your network for various reasons. There’s a reasonable chance you have some common interests, and you want to keep up some regular contact.
Group 3 – Old Friends/collegues: Whether it’s someone from your old high school or from college, you lost touch for awhile and Facebook helped you reconnect. Depending on how long it’s been you may find you don’t have nearly as much in common as you used to, but it’s still good to see what they’re up to from time to time.
Group 4 – Old or Random Acquaintances: These may people who share a common past with you (ie. high school or college), but you weren’t even friends then. Or it may be friends of friends who want to add you to their collection for whatever reason. It may be random people who just like to friend random people. If you have something in common with these people it’s purely coincidental.
So when we stop and think about it, there is only one group of people we would normally feel comfortable discussing controversial topics with (Group 1), and yet we usually throw everything out there as if everyone were part of our comfortable, close friends, seldom stopping to think who might be seeing it. Facebook and other social media sites make it easy for us to pretend we’re speaking to our monitors when we’re really in front of a large group of people over varying political and religious persuasions.
People who would never dream of marching around the office or grocery store spouting pro-life slogans or religious denunciations will gladly do so on Facebook–in front of many of those very same people. Not only is Facebook making us stupid, it’s making us insensitive.
I should know. I tried it recently. Tired of the continual bombardment of political messages over a particular issue, I posted my own sarcastic, in-your-face response–or as close as I come to it. I expected plenty of people would take issue and argue with me. No one did. Several agreed with me, and only one friend politely pointed out some information I might have missed.
I was surprised. I thought I was the only one biting my tongue when people start spouting off about things I disagree with. Evidently if you proclaim your position belligerently and loudly enough people will be intimidated. Oh, there are always some who will argue with anyone, anywhere, and anytime, but most of us can be shouted into silence, it seems.
That’s why Facebook is dangerous. It’s extremely easy to trumpet our controversial opinions–usually just click “Share”, and boom! Instant activism! The echo-chamber will offer its support, and we’ll feel good about taking a stand. But if we offended anyone (and we probably did) we’ll never know it. They’ll just sit silently and harbor a grudge. They probably won’t un-friend us, because that would be rude, but they’ll be thinking about it. Some may even do it, but they won’t tell us they did. We may never know the damage we’re doing, because no one wants to be so insensitive as to challenge us on it.
Facebook can be a lot of fun, but in an era when civility is on the decline and a dialogue is what we’d have if the other guy would just shut up and listen, the last thing we need is a platform that encourages us to become our worst selves. This country has no chance of ever solving its problems so long as we refuse to accord others the same respect we demand for ourselves. Social media makes it very easy to demand. But respect is increasingly harder to come by.