A few weeks ago, I attended a party that was hosted by the extended family of a couple of dear friends of mine. In terms of blood or relationships, I was pretty much the farthest separated from anyone in attendance, but the group was kind and welcoming and I was mostly able to put aside my social anxiety and enjoy myself.
As invariably happens at family gatherings, a few attendees began trying to bring the conversation around to politics, specifically the Affordable Care Act and no one really engaged with them. Even I know better than to talk politics in a house I’ve been in on fewer than a half-dozen occasions. When one individual started talking about how she had just received an email explaining how Obama was looking to get rid of Medicare, I politely excused myself from the room to go play with the five-year-old children also in attendance. I considered it self-care—also, the children let me play store manager as they pretend-grocery shopped. How awesome is that?
Even a couple of years ago, the argument that party guest was drawing me into, inadvertently or otherwise, would have proven irresistible to my frothing, debate-obsessed nature. It would have been a verbal bloodbath of clashing facts (with some sides a little more evidence-based than others). It also would have been very uncomfortable for my friends and their generous family, who welcomed me into their home as if they had known me for years. My pride was not worth it, and I knew that in this face-to-face moment.
It is almost absolutely certain that within the next day or two, however, I embroiled myself in a Facebook or Twitter rage-debate on a similar or completely unrelated political issue. I don’t even need to look it up because that’s how common those moments can be for me.
The dynamics are different when the issue is taken up in an online forum though, and at least for someone like me, that can make the difference.
A lot of time and bandwidth has been expended on detailing the dangers involved with the wrong kind of social media engagement. It sadly borders on cliché to state that any woman or trans person or any of a great number of people of color face the gamut of harassment and outright threats when they put themselves out there in the social media sphere. I still remember the first time my fiancée told me about being called the C-word on Twitter, and all that I could offer was a flat-noted “I’m so sorry” chorus.
My main activism cause over the past few years has been reproductive justice (over at www.abortionchat.org), and I and my colleagues (all of whom are cis-women and get it far worse than I do) have been so regularly stalked and menaced with suggestions of rape and murder that blocking and reporting has become a reflex. When I started out, I had a troll-feeding habit—it amused me to engage with our harassers. I’d call them by childish nicknames (“Billy” for one named “William” in his profile, for example), use my old catechism lessons to argue Bible with them, and generally enjoy myself. It took being taken aside and shown that the individuals with whom I was playing the dozens were also sending monstrously graphic threats of violence to my peers to convince me not to engage.
When I’m doing my activism work, I make a point to only engage in conversations in which I am met with respect. Sadly, this does not always make for a lot of dialogue with those whose opinions we might stand to change, but it keeps us safer, more mentally sound, and able to keep doing good in the world.
I refuse to mute or block people I know in real life just because I disagree with them. To some degree, I feel that it keeps me honest. If I only listen to other progressives, other folks who share my own beliefs and ideals, I could get lost wandering in an ivory tower. Some might argue that this requires a certain level of cognitive dissonance as it means that every day, I accept the opinions (and cat photos) of people who implicitly call me a murderer for supporting abortion or the Palestinian State. I accept that criticism.
If it is immoral for me to remain compassionate when someone opposes my beliefs, then I will take that immorality as a by-product of my valuing the people in my life over rigidity in my principles. And besides, I don’t need to do it quietly.
As in my personal life, I have elected to choose my online battles carefully. In the wake of the last Planned Parenthood “scandal” in which a fake video was released that incorrectly suggested that the women’s health organization was selling fetal tissue for profit, a lot of my more conservative Facebook friends took to spewing some words, with which I will politely say I disagreed. I developed a handful of personal rules of engagement on the issue (feel free to use them for yourself if you’d like, but they are largely rooted in my own experience):
- If the post is about how fetuses are living babies or human beings, don’t engage. That’s an argument that will never go anywhere in a Facebook thread. Same goes for religious justifications. I’m an atheist and get my ethics out of a few different books.
- If the post is by a family member, don’t engage. I don’t need my mother calling me about arguing with such-and-such relation, and in fairness, they’re probably thinking about how they wiped my ass as a baby and aren’t going to take me seriously no matter how many degrees I have or articles I publish.
- If the post is by a woman or cis-woman, proceed with caution if at all—I am a cis-man and therefore my privilege is worth considering if not checking entirely.
- No personal attacks. Ever. No matter how tempting (good rule in general for debates).
- When in doubt—any doubt—don’t engage. Personal relations are worth more than ego every time.
These rules do mean that I let a good deal of vile stuff go by without comment. I’m at peace with that. The reason that I debate online is not to change other peoples’ minds. It is firstly to know those minds, and secondly to know my own better.
It is one thing for me to read a thousand articles on a thousand websites about how one in three women have an abortion at least once in their lifetime. It is another entirely to write that down with citations and watch a person I know in real life to be an amazing parent or writer or tipper-at-restaurants to say that he is comfortable with saying that the prevalence of an action has no bearing to him on that action’s morality—to see words from his fingertips spell out that one-third of all women are murderers. I will treasure having had that online exchange because it taught me that numbers alone will not win my battles (a valuable lesson for anyone involved in public discourse).
When asked by new activists or by my friends about engaging in these online debates, I always advocate above all else that if arguing with people online will strain one’s personal wellbeing, that if the sheer volume of detractors and their comfort with aggression and cognitive dissonance through the distance that the screen and the keyboard provides, will keep them awake at night that they are better off leaving the argument be. It is not worth it.
If however, they are inclined as I am to engage in these interactions, then simply proceed with caution. It is never a question of thick skin, nor is it morally imperative to address every injustice in every space, especially ones in the forums we use to just keep up with our friends and acquaintances. Always, it is a question of what can be learned without destroying ourselves.
[Feature Image: A person, wearing a black sweater, stares at an Apple laptop.]