Friday, October 31, 2014
On Not Getting Along
I've often seen complaints like this online, as I think I've mentioned before: when someone's posted opinions encounter disagreement or criticism, they may protest that "this isn't the right place for debate." (One obnoxious variation is the old quip "Debating on the Internet is like competing in the Special Olympics -- even if you win, your [sic -- they always seem to write it that way] still retarded!") I've asked such people what is the right place for debate, but they never seem to have an answer for that, probably because they don't think there is a place for debate. Usually it's they who are in a place that has been designated for debate, and are trying to stop other people from having a discussion. They could just leave themselves, but that, of course, is unthinkable.
Facebook is a different case, I suppose. I recently defriended an old friend of thirty years' standing when she deleted some comments of mine under a political meme she'd posted. Facebook, she told me sternly, is not for "politics," it's "where friends and family come together." She was, she said, already embroiled enough in debates in other online fora. So why did she post a political meme on Facebook? She said she had the right to post whatever she liked on her page, and to delete any comments she objected to. True enough. So I deleted her, as I've unfriended another nasty, illiberal liberal friend as well as obnoxious right-wingers.
I've also received angry messages from people I don't know, because some mutual Facebook friend had commented on some post of theirs, so the comments and the post showed up in my news feed, and I felt like putting in my two cents' worth. Why are you posting on my page? they thundered. You don't even know me. If you don't like what I post, it's none of your business. If it turns up on my page, it's my business. If they don't want people to respond to what they post, they need to tweak their privacy settings so only their Facebook friends will be able to see it. This is actually much older than Facebook, of course, the idea that what someone posts publicly isn't public, and only those responses they like should even be posted. (In other words, If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all! That stricture doesn't apply to them, naturally. Usually I respond because they've posted something especially nasty and vicious. But that's different.)
I've been seeing a lot of complaints (the one cited here, for example, but it doesn't stand alone) that social media like Facebook are an echo chamber where people only talk to people they agree with, and that liberals don't have any conservative friends and have no dealings with people of different politics. (Conservatives like to claim that they have liberal friends, though it's hard to understand how they can do so if liberals won't be friends with conservatives. And those liberal friends only seem to function as sources of stupid beliefs that the conservative writers demolish with contemptuous ease. Admittedly, I use several of my liberal and conservative friends for that myself.) This meme, of course, demands that Facebook be such an echo chamber. (The earlier step in the transmission had the poster casting his stance as keeping toxic people out of his life; he seems pretty toxic to me.)
But then consider this article from The New Republic that another friend passed along. The writer declares that Fox News's racism is too harmful for liberals to ignore. He didn't, that I could see, show that any liberals had said explicitly that Fox should be ignored, not even Frank Rich, whom he quoted at some length. The quotations supported my own distrust of Rich, who not so long ago was quite the liberal icon. But they didn't really say much, nor did the writer of the article really say what liberals should do about Fox, except that "the ideas that Fox's [sic] peddles remain gross and dangerous, and as long as they are in circulation, they should be criticized, debunked and scorned." "Scorned" -- that'll learn 'em! I can't see that liberal criticism and debunking of Fox and other right-wing sources has done a lot of good, not least because liberals have their own blind spots that are harmful, gross and dangerous, and ostensibly liberal non-Fox media also mislead and misinform their audiences.
I know that trying to deal with people you disagree with isn't easy, or comfortable -- how well I know it! But what do people think it means to live in a more or less free, diverse society? We have to share our society, our country, our world with people we not only disagree with, but disapprove of. And there's so much talk about "conversations" we need to have about difficult subjects, such as race (via). But we can't have them if we insist on being comfortable, on not being challenged or criticized or disagreed with. I understand why people shy away from these discussions, but I think we need to have them, to get used to being disagreed with, to learn how to disagree with others, if we're going to have the kind of society that most people claim they want.
P.S. I should also address the final line, the "If you don't like me, don't talk to me" bit. Whether I like or dislike someone has little or nothing to do with whether I disagree with them. But unhappily, it's a normal human response to personalize disagreement. If I disagree with you, or criticize you, that means I hate you, right? Well, no. In many cases I've never met the people I talk to online, and that suits me, because what concerns me is the validity of what they're saying -- or the lack thereof. I've often suspected that some people get upset in online discussion because they're used to letting their personal charm or cuteness or sex appeal or physical menace speak for them, and none of these means diddly online. Since they've never learned to think critically and construct arguments, of course they freak out when they try to twinkle endearingly over the Intertoobz and it doesn't work. Since they don't know how to answer an opposing argument, they throw a tantrum and fall back on personal attacks, because in their minds it's all personal.
Which is why the injunction to distinguish between "being a racist" and "saying racist things," though it's perfectly rational, won't work over the long haul. Love me, love my racism. But I'm not a racist, nobody's a racist, the accusation of racism is the worst thing you can call anybody!