Saturday night, I made clear my shock and disgust at the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. I did this on Facebook. As expected, I got a lot of response. Some people disagreed with me. I found some of their arguments to be well-reasoned, although wrong in my view. Others I found to be maddening, provoking, taunting, backwards and scary. In my anger, I was tempted to unfriend or block people who expressed the latter type of opinion.
I didn’t. Well, I did block one guy for about two minutes, but then I unblocked him. And his post was probably the most repugnant I read.
I’m not going to argue the merits or deficiencies of my opinion that the Zimmerman case resulted in an enormous injustice. I don’t want to waste your time debating a point about which — well, let’s just say I can’t imagine a set of circumstances that would make me change my mind about this. If anyone has such a set, contact me. I will listen.
Besides, that’s not the point here. The question is, in the age of the biggest conversation pit/chalkboard/idea dodgeball game in history, a computer mammoth whose very name has become a noun, verb, and adjective as common in speech as “the,” what do we do about dissenters who are so horribly wrong that their position strains credulity? People with whom our disagreement is so deep that we might not want to even be in their presence?
Keep them in your feed, that’s what.
Facebook is a collection of walled villages. It’s like driving through Plano, Texas, or a thousand other American suburbs: acres and acres of gated communities, each with its own swinging electric fence opening only to the right password. You can very easily engineer your Facebook account so that everyone is just like you — thinks like you, dresses like you, speaks like you, on and on. And some people do, which is fine if that’s what they want.
But those who also want to use Facebook’s powerful forum for the free exchange of ideas should think long and hard about exclusion. How intellectually honest can your positions be if you effectively banished dissent? Disagreement is a kind of mental cross-examination; it makes us put up or shut up. We must use it to test our concepts, and if they fail, we must be adults and change our thinking. If they do not fail, we must have the courage of a well-constructed conviction.
Noble, right? Well, as we all know, it’s hard to feel noble when some dumbass essentially ignores the facts and opposes you in a nasty, callous way. It makes you mad. It makes you hair-trigger. It makes you block people.
Don’t. I’m not going to tell you to forgive them, because I am not qualified. I am still trying to figure out the magic of forgiveness. I see its wondrous effects, but I am not perfect at granting it. Instead, do whatever calms you down, even if this involves leaving the computer for awhile. Consider what the person is saying. Could any part of it be right? Is there even a toehold of common ground? Can it be used to build some sort of basis for fruitful agreement, or at worst, agreement to disagree?
Don’t be afraid to answer no to all of those questions. Only be afraid not to ask them.
This analysis has saved me from excluding people who make me examine myself and my positions, which is infinitely more useful than surrounding myself with a bunch of cyber-yes-people. I draw the line at personal attack (although it may take more than one) or savaging of family or friends; that’s a ticket out. Yes, I blocked some people during the 2012 presidential election. It wasn’t their ridiculous hate-Obama-no-matter-what persistence or their fucked-up-crazy U.N.-takeover swill that prompted me. They just got boring. That, and it became hard to listen to people I considered friends working so hard at…well, not listening.
Other than that, you have to really sin hard on my page to be blocked. And that’s the way it should be. A wise man — many wise people — have said that it’s hard to hate close-up. That’s a little more hopeful message than the old “keep friends close, enemies closer.” It recognizes that in most cases, despite virulent disagreement on one or even a bundle of issues, almost all of us can find something in common. That, and not exclusion, is what we need to build on.♦
© 2013 Adam Barr