22 January 2013

Are Talking Points More Valuable Than Your Friends?

I'm terribly close to quitting Facebook. I've had it with the political stuff. If you can't respect me, I'm going to delete you. I mean it!!!
This is a typical Facebook status update lately. What has been driving so many people to the point of either deleting friends or leaving the social media website entirely? Guns.

Certainly, ever since the godawful mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School our TV, radio, magazines and websites have been inundated with escalating hostility from the talking heads and inflamed citizens alike. We expect when we tune in to cable talk shows or log onto particular websites to encounter unmitigated rhetoric and to be demonized for dissenting with whatever the opposition viewpoint is. I think most of us expect to know one or two outspoken relatives and friends who will pitch a fit about such issues, but by and large the average person treats most of these kinds of discussions as white noise.

Except that now, that white noise has spilled over into our sanctuary. Where we once went to Facebook to sift through "I bet you don't love God enough to share this post" statuses to find kitten videos has now become the front line in the philosophical war over gun violence. There's a certain etiquette to Facebook that you don't attack someone that your friend knows if you don't know them, too. The prevailing, unwritten rule has been that you don't want to cause problems for your mutual friend. Even that, though, has become frequently suspended of late. Facebook users have been compelled lately to intervene and mediate disputes between their own acquaintances. More often, the plea has been for everyone to be respectful of their other friends, but at least twice lately I've personally seen a friend issue a warning to a specific party rather than a general call for mutual civility.

There is an old saying that "All politics is local." We're seeing that in a new context now that technology has made it possible for us to debate in real time with people across the world. That locality is not geographic (though it can be), but rather a philosophical nearness. That is, we're now exposed to rhetoric that targets our own values directly in a way that we didn't used to be.

I experienced this a few years ago during the initial debates over the Affordable Health Care Act ("Obamacare"). For a lot of people, that debate was white noise about laws and bill paying, etc. It existed in a sort of abstract way for most Americans, who are healthy. The more rabid opponents of Obamacare, though, didn't just complain about the President's proposals. They went after unhealthy Americans like myself, resenting us for having the selfish temerity to become unhealthy in the first place. Most famously, there was the CNN debate in 2010 in which Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul about a hypothetical uninsured patient and the crowd cheered at the prospect of letting that patient die rather than be treated. I took that very personally, because that was me. I was uninsured when I was sent to the emergency room with my first bowel obstruction in 2005. That was how I learned I had Crohn's disease.

That health care debate was very difficult for me, and for many of my Crohnies. The message to us from our own relatives and friends was, "It sucks that you have to live at the mercy of insurers and all that, but screw you. I care more about my political principles." It hurt. It hurt a lot. At best, it made me feel misunderstood but mostly it made me feel completely marginalized. I wasn't worth more than a talking point to people I'd known and cared about for years. Whether anyone making me feel that saw it that way or even realized it, of course, I can't say. I don't believe anyone ever intended to make me feel that way. It did strain several of my relationships, though I'm happy to say they've since been renewed and all is well.

As I watch this gun violence issue run roughshod over Facebook, I can't help but wonder how that process will play out for those who are experiencing now what I went through with Obamacare. Will they make peace later? Or will it haunt them that the people who have inundated their walls with infographics have chosen fealty to their talking points at the expense of their friendships?

To be clear: The choice is not between one's principles and one's friends. No reasonable person expects their friends to live in strict accordance with their own principles. The choice before us today, as it ever has been, is between respecting those friendships despite the disagreements and choosing one's talking (shouting) points over actual human beings. Do what you want, but remember that there is no scorekeeper at the end of all this who will give you a merit badge for not compromising.


  1. The unsubscribe button has been great for me. If I find someone's posts are consistently making me angry at them in a way that it might strain our friendship, I unsubscribe from them, at least for awhile. I'm a very "out of sight, out of mind" type of person and if I go awhile without seeing those kinds of posts from them, I forget how upset they made me before, and I can go back and resubscribe to them at a less volatile time in their political world, with hte friendship none the worse for wear.

    1. I'm definitely a fan of the customizable settings Facebook has integrated after the advent of Google+. Since you bring it up, though, how do you feel about discretely putting your friends in time-out? Suppose instead of simply posting a lot of content you disagree with, you had a friend who took a metaphorical swing at you, or one of your other friends? Would unsubscribing still be sufficient for you?

      You're particularly interesting to me in this discussion as both an introvert and as a fairly liberal Christian. I'm sure you've been "caught in the middle" of such debates often.

  2. It's funny, you become friends with somebody on facebook and you suddenly learn a whole lot more about them than you probably ever wanted or needed to. I have a friend who frequently posts photo's of her husband in their post coital marital bed (ew!) and another who falls for every facebook hoax that's ever been written (facepalm). Another, who I always thought of as a fairly grounded person turns out to be a UFO chaser and conspiracy theorist.

    My political views are frequently different to those around me and while I quite enjoy a well articulated political debate, most people just get angry and resort to name calling, so I tend to keep my thoughts to myself. For the most part though I expect that my friends will hold different views to mine and some of those view might be offensive. I hide that stuff from my timeline and adopt a "don't mention the war" approach.

    1. I have a friend who frequently posts photo's of her husband in their post coital marital bed (ew!)

      You win.

    2. oh no, nobody wins in that situation, least of all the poor bastard with the messy hair slightly unfocussed eyes who has to explain those gold coloured satin sheets to his work mates. *shudders*

    3. I have an active dislike for the color of gold or any attempted approximation thereof. I can't say whether it's because I think the color itself is unappealing (I do) or whether it's because I don't understand why gold itself is valuable (I don't).

      That said, satin sheets and having had sex with one's wife need no explanation or defense. In LOL speak, I'd be all "U JELLY?" about it.

  3. Extremely well written and argued, Travis. That's all I have to say.

    1. Thanks for reading, and for the kind words.

  4. You bring up a good point that has plagued social media and the internet since the days of the old dial in bulletin boards and later forums, now Facebook. I wrote a paper my freshman year of college about how communication was changing, becoming less personal because of the internet, that was in 1997. 15 years later, we continue to see the world shrink, as recent as 20 years ago it took around 30 minutes in some cases to make a connection for a transcontinental phone call from the time you initiated calling the operator. Today we can txt, email, Facebook, or Skype someone in a third world country typically in seconds.
    Things are said on Facebook, and other social media because some of the anonymity allotted by it emboldens individuals who might otherwise keep their opinions to themselves. You and I remain what I consider good friends in spite of often being political polar opposites. Yet I enjoy a good discussion with you because I respect you as both an individual and as someone who is informed on their own views and opinions. That perhaps hits the nail the proverbial nail on the head. Social media has opened the floodgates for the less informed to make their ignorance known. At the same time that boldness I talked about simply translates as that although someone may be a Facebook "friend" you may not ever see them again in your life face to face, simply meaning they'll never have to look you in the eye for that debate. It's an interesting issue, and also one that intrigues me about how future generations will interact. Regardless, I think your points are all well constructed here as always, and typically if a FB friend's political viewpoint or bashing of my own views agitates me I for one simply keep scrolling, it's no different than changing the TV station, maybe if more people learned that we'd all get along better.

    1. The nature of online discussion is exactly as you've characterized, and it's so ubiquitous that I wouldn't ordinarily have bothered to write a post about that at all since everyone who goes online has encountered a troll somewhere along the way.

      There are three things that make Facebook different:

      It's not anonymous. There's no hiding behind a screen name. Though people can, of course, create fake names, you have to approve a friend request. Unless your posts are entirely public, not everyone can even see them and many who can see them can't comment on them depending on your settings. That level of control insulates Facebook activity in a way, whereas the rest of the web is still a free-for-all.

      Secondly, those forums you cited are specialized in subject content. You have to go looking for them, knowing what kinds of topics will emerge. Facebook, however, is not organized thematically at all. Whereas you get to filter the people you interact with, the content is wide open. Your news feed becomes Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, where depending on who your friends are, you might see any kind of content on any given day.

      Lastly, there's that element of being caught between two of your friends who don't actually know one another except through you. This can occur anywhere, of course, though it's rare anywhere else online because our membership with other forums and sites is generally pretty compartmentalized. On Facebook, though, it's much likelier that your content will spur people who don't know each other to participate in discussion. Since they each know you, they're more apt to post as though addressing you with the familiarity they feel - which can often then antagonize someone else, especially if both parties feel like they've got to prove which side of the issue you're on because they're the one who "really" knows you. It's all rather childish, of course, but we've both seen it happen.

      As far as you and I specifically, I thank you for the kind words. I've certainly been known to step on a soap box over the years, but I also try to be mindful of a point I read in Ian Fleming's Casino Royale that I quote often:

      "Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles."

      I've been reminded at times when I lament how little feedback I generate on this blog that people are much likelier to comment when they feel antagonized and compelled to argue about things than when they agree with what you've said. I like to think that means that even when readers don't share my view they at least don't feel picked on to the point of being made defensive.