I love to debate. Seriously. Ask hubby, who will tell you that I can argue about anything. And, happily, winning isn’t the endgame for me, no matter what the topic. Show me where you’re coming from, and I will listen. I will ask good questions, and I might even – holy cannoli – change my mind and agree with you. I guess that’s why I am so sad to tell you the following fact, which is this: Facebook has murdered respectful discourse.
Perhaps I’m being a bit pessimistic. Discourse might still have a faint pulse. Let’s use my one of posts this week about the Chicago teachers’ strike as an example. Scroll through the comments, and you’ll see strong opinions for and against the strike by teachers, parents, and administrators. You’ll also notice one common thread: civility. Yes, we're arguing passionately about education and our children’s futures. But, for the most part, no one is taking a verbal poop on the page.
So please tell me, since I’m sure you’re noticing it too, why does Facebook bring out the quick-draw meanie in all of us?
Now you might think I’m being oversensitive and that I can’t tolerate opinions that are different from my own. Please allow me to respectfully disagree. I relish heated conversations. I enjoy being challenged, because I know what could come out of it. Take a look at the comment below from a friend responding to a video I posted on Facebook about Polish flight attendants who surprised their passengers with a condom demonstration in place of their usual safety spiel:
“Sorry, I just find that horribly disgusting. Didn't press play on the video. I have no idea if this was a joke, staged, or really happened. I'd hate to think some genius flight attendant may desire to ‘recreate’ the moment on a real flight with my kids on board. Or me, for that matter. The fact is, you are in an enclosed space on a plane. It's not like it's a TV commercial you could turn off or easily avert your eyes from.”
Direct and forceful, right? Well good for her. She got me thinking about the video from a different perspective and even forced me to do some research about whether the whole thing was real or just a joke. Then I was able to tell her that I thought the video was interesting and relevant because it shows how far Poland has come (no pun intended) since I lived there 15 years ago, when it seemed very closed-off and stuffy. Now that, my friends, is good stuff.
Unfortunately, that type of exchange is not the norm, not lately. Instead, I’m noticing how quickly we go from stating our opinions to unloading our digital feces onto a webpage that has someone else's name and picture at the top, a webpage that often has photos of children on it, as well as hundreds of curious eyes linked to it. We slap our knee-jerk reactions onto a page that we don’t even own, and in doing so we often shut down any chance for thoughtful dialogue.
Is it possible to make our communication on Facebook more civil? Possibly, if we ask ourselves these questions: Would I say these exact words, with this exact tone, to this person, into a microphone on stage in front of hundreds of strangers? Would I say this to the person if just the two of us were having dinner? What point am I trying to make by publishing a statement that can be construed as sarcastic, caustic, angry, or negative? And am I using statements that can be interpreted as simply putting another person down?
Why don't we try these statements instead: “I strongly disagree and here's why,” “I see it differently because,” and “I believe you're wrong because I...”
This is not ass kissing. You are not being obsequious. You are simply stating your point in a constructive way. Call me crazy, but comments such as, “You are going to start a blood libel," are not exactly going to take our exchange anywhere good.
Now, to show you how much I enjoy debate, I’ll even share a thought with you that negates just about everything I’ve stated so far. Instead of disagreeing more respectfully, maybe we shouldn’t be posting our opinions on Facebook at all.
Facebook has created a platform that allows us to immediately say whatever comes to mind, without nuance and without diplomacy. It shows how reactionary and loose lipped we can be and makes it way too easy for each of us to get on our high horse and argue with anyone who doesn't share our point of view.
And when we do post, it’s not in a vacuum. Often, we're actually responding to the last 10 updates we've seen in our newsfeed that have pissed us off, not just one that might be on one friend’s page. And although we may not want to admit it, Facebook is showing how sexist we are. I have no doubt that if I were a guy, the inflammatory comments I’ve seen on my page would have been toned down, sent to me privately, or not posted at all.
For better or worse, Facebook is here to stay. Experts say it has led to revolutions, helped topple dictatorships, and ushered in a new wave of transparency and communication that we’ve never seen before. Hopefully we’ll figure out how to use it in a way that brings out the best in each of us. In the meantime, perhaps there’s a way to hang a virtual sign on my wall that says “This is a poop-free page. Please keep it that way.”
~By Wendy Widom, Families in the Loop