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.