Get angry and stay engaged: Civil Discourse and Social Media Part 2

When I wrote Part 1 on Civil Discourse and Social Media it was just a few days after the election. I felt then and I still feel now that Facebook and other social media platforms can be tools for productive conversation and change. In Part 1 I described why I believe that to be the case, now I'll offer my suggestions for engaging online. 

In short, here are the four components I see as valuable to productive online discussion:
1) Feel the anger
2) Think more about them than you
3) Be in it for the long-game
4) Try not to take it personally and know when to move on

1) Feel the Anger
In high school my nickname was the "Nice Police." I literally have a shirt with that name on the back. My relentless empathy meant that I wasn't okay with people being mean to each other and I would say so, often. While I think my desire to see people be nice to each other was overall a positive thing, over time I somehow conflated kindness and compassion with a complete aversion to conflict and hard conversations. My own understanding of myself as a "nice" person made it very, very difficult for me to disagree or let myself be mad in public. 

Listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Another Round, I was struck by a conversation about anger. Tracy Clayton, one of the hosts, describes how her relationship with anger is changing, and how she is learning to appreciate the emotion. I can't do the conversation justice in summary form, so I highly recommend listening to it. When Tracy and her co-host, Heben, began talking about how often women and people of color are told to not be angry, it very much resonated with me. We are told to get over it or let it go-- to be the bigger person. Tracy talks about how she feels like there are redemptive properties to anger. That being angry can feel good. Appreciating your anger is a form of acknowledging that you are worthy of being angry. 

I put this forward as a first step in engaging in conversation, because while ignoring emotions can seem easier, you are doing yourself a disservice. The kinds of conversations I'm talking about deserve your emotion, require your emotion. 

Recognizing that I have the right to be angry and letting that anger sit with me has been a powerful force. Past-me might have felt that my anger was frivolous. That if I could just be nice and kind, I could make change. But I've come to believe that kindness and compassion and anger and sadness can actually all live together. This was/is a revelization for me. When I talk about showing love and compassion to those I disagree with, I'm not talking about being nice and ignoring hatful, racist, misogynistic or xenophobic things that are said. I can love someone because they are a human being with hopes and dreams and values and beliefs and because of that love want them to be better, to themselves and those around them. 

2) Think more about them than you
This is communications 101, but trying to put yourself in the shoes of the person you are speaking with will get you so much farther than keeping your own shoes on. This simple shift often gets lost in conversation generally and especially in online conversation. 

There is a great On Being podcast episode with David Brooks and EJ Dionne that was recorded before the election in which they discuss the role of religion and public theology during and post-election. There is an exchange about "Civil Rights Christianity" I found compelling. I've pulled out part of the transcript here:

DR. DIONNE: ...And there was a spirit in that form of Christianity that was, on the one hand, militant and demanding of justice. But on the other hand, the preaching of Martin Luther King was very much about conversion and redemption. And King actually believed you could convert adversaries. And we have very little of a sense that conversion is possible now in our political conversation. And conversion is a two-way street. People have to change themselves as they engage with each other.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. So by “conversion” you mean that willingness to be changed by each other.

DR. DIONNE: Yes. There’s the old religious formation, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” 


This speaks to my claim above that you can own your anger and enter into a conversation with compassion. And you can't be so focused on your own beliefs and values that you lose sight of the conversation. It is possible to hold on to your own values and beliefs, but recognize yours are not the only ones in play. 

Through Brain Pickings, I was introduced to David Bohm, a physicist who wrote about human communication. He wrote about the difference between discussion and dialogue:

"...consider a dialogue. In such a dialogue, when one person says something, the other person does not in general respond with exactly the same meaning as that seen by the first person. Rather, the meanings are only similar and not identical. Thus, when the second person replies, the first person sees a difference between what he meant to say and what the other person understood. On considering this difference, he may then be able to see something new, which is relevant both to his own views and to those of the other person.... Each has to be interested primarily in truth and coherence, so that he is ready to drop his old ideas and intentions, and be ready to go on to something different, when this is called for."

While differing in semantics, this is the type of conversation/conversation/dialogue I am trying to promote. It has little to do with being "right" or "winning" and everything to do with humility, truth, and connection.

I loved this quote by Elizabeth Alexander from the same Brain Pickings article:

“To bother to engage with problematic culture, and problematic people within that culture, is an act of love.” 

So much of this is key, in my mind, to saving our democracy and entering a new era of public discourse. We have to think about other people. We have to hold our anger with injustice at the same time that we see value and potential in the person or people who represent those injustices. I'm not saying it's easy, but I do think it is so, so important. 

In practice, for example, for me this means that when I'm conversing with Trump supporters I don't bring up Obama. I don't make comparisons to previous administrations if I believe the person I'm talking with is excited about the fact that Trump has broken from tradition. This also means that I don't make all of the points I want to make on an issue- I try to sort out which I think will be most productive to the conversation. I also try to learn from the responses I receive. I try to put the conversation itself first. 

3) Be in it for the long-game
As I mentioned in my last post, this isn't about winning. Authentic conversation does not have a winner and a loser. So when I hear people say that responding to racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc online is pointless I have to disagree. First, I have to believe that if someone, especially someone who isn't aggressively posting hateful things, is asked about what they said and why, they will be more likely to think about their beliefs and values next time or at least think about how what they say will be perceived. 

In his blog post, "What ever happened to all the old racist whites from those civil rights photos?" Johnny Silvercloud writes, 

"I highly doubt that the white faces in the first Civil Rights Era just automatically let go of their racist ideologies.  Those people only accepted the Civil Rights social change with contempt and learned how to BEHAVE when laws changed.  These old racist white supremacists, similar to insurgents after the collapse of the Iraqi Army in 2003, only laid low, kept their racist ideologies and waited."

The civil rights era laws didn't necessarily change beliefs, but they did change behavior. And one would think that not seeing those racist behaviors did have an impact on the beliefs of the next generation. So while making someone uncomfortable about posting anti-immigrant sentiments might not change those sentiments, if that discomfort can keep hateful speech off the internet to any degree, it seems like progress to me. It isn't the end game, but it feels like a start. 

Every time I respond to someone on Facebook, I also recognize that it isn't only that one person who is going to read what I've said. Other people are watching- possibly people whose views are less formed than the person who posted, or possibly people who are looking for help articulating their own feelings on the issue to their friends or community. There have been a few times when I've started to doubt that responding on Facebook was worth it and then I've gotten a message or comment from a friend letting me know that they appreciated what I said or that me commenting made them feel braver expressing their own views. If it moves us toward truth and justice, it's worth it, but it won't always have clear and immediate benefit. 

4) Try not to take it personally and know when to move on
This one is a lot easier for me to say than it is for me to live. If I'm honest, I do get physically upset when I'm trying to respond to a comment or post that I disagree with. I feel very invested in what I write and how it is responded to. But at some point I have to remember that whatever someone thinks of me or my comments is more about them than it is about me. And when the conversation no longer feels productive, I walk away. Sometimes I write the response or say it aloud to my husband, but I don't post it. I can own my anger, I can act, and then I can decide when it's better to take my attention elsewhere. This isn't about "getting over it." I can still be upset about the comments and decide that continuing to engage isn't how I want to spend my time. 

I do recognize that if you or people you share characteristics with are the target of hateful speech, "not taking it personally" doesn't always feel like a valid option. There are certainly valid reasons for being pissed/angry/hurt and not caring to enter into productive conversation. It's helpful to be clear about your intentions- if you are looking to tell someone they personally offended or hurt you it is a different context than trying to engage in discussion. Either way you get to own how much time and emotional energy you put into the interaction. 

All this said, I am still spending more time posting cute pictures of my children than I am entering into serious discussions on social media. There are many other ways to create community and pursue a more just world that I'd rather spend my time on. But I do think Facebook and other online spaces can be tools for the types of conversations that we don't engage in often enough. I do believe that it is worth our time to interrupt any normalization of racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc. I do have hope that practicing authentic listening and articulating our own beliefs with care and intention can have a very real impact. 

And I do want to hear what you think. Is Facebook a place for civil discourse? Why and how do you choose to engage or not?

Thanks for reading.