On Social Networks, Politics and Civil Discourse

As Election Day looms here in America, I've noticed a lot more overtly political content being disseminated on my social networks of choice. Facebook friends are taking stands, and leaving comments on even the most seemingly non-political posts of their friends. I see more and more "partisan" tweets. 140 characters appears to be just the right length for overt jingoism.

I've recently noticed a few people complaining on Facebook about the level of political discourse they've observed in their social feeds. I see people talking about better filters for such discussion, or even just unfollowing those who post politically disagreeable content. I do not judge this impulse. I've had it myself. I have had Facebook "friends" hijack my own posts to further a political agenda. I've toyed, briefly, with "unfriending" them.

I won't, of course. I friended them for a reason. Those reasons haven't changed, and I have always been judicious about the people I follow and allow in to my various social networks. But I'll be honest: I thought about unfollowing a few. I thought about unfollowing some of them because of the level of their discourse, and how much I disagreed with their positions. But here's the thing: I knew the political views of these people when I followed them, or accepted their friend requests. What I didn't know was the extent to which they would proselytize those views.

But should that matter?

One thing I have noticed in my "real life" social interactions: there isn't a lot of political debate. Sure, there are lots of political discussions, but hardly debate. Yet my Facebook and Twitter feeds seethe with partisan views, "inflammatory" statements, and provocative opinions. 

It's clear to me why this is so: I've allowed myself to be "sorted" into more politically-homogenous real-life social groups. I don't beat myself up about this: we've all done it. We've gradually been doing it for over 50 years. After WWII ended in this country, we were generally united around one cause. Our grandparents settled into postwar America living in suburbs next to people with differing political views, but who were probably good neighbors. Gradually, people of differing political views started to move away from these postwar suburbs and into more homogenous environments (this has been well-documented in an important book called The Big Sort, which I highly recommend.) It became less necessary for us to get along, as we sorted ourselves into more like-minded neighborhoods.

I recently called North Carolina--a "red state"--home, but lived in a decidedly "blue" area. The day-to-day banter I would engage in was either pro-democrat, neutral, or laughably conservative. Gradually I began to see that my current understanding of conservative America was being shaped by extremes--whether it was Rush Limbaugh, or those friends and neighbors brave or foolish enough to broadcast their conservative beliefs in the midst of the very liberal enclave of Carrboro, NC, I wasn't getting a good representation of moderate politics in my day-to-day discourse. 

In short, I had a very jaundiced view of conservatives. What I lacked was the viewpoint of mainstream, everyday-and-decidedly-not-grandstanding conservatives: the sort of people who aren't going to take extreme positions, but who might just self-select themselves out of my neighborhood, over time, to re-aggregate with more like-minded individuals.

This kind of re-sorting is an everyday occurence. We apply different names to it, but the fact remains: as soon as we have the economic means to do so, Americans choose to live with like-minded Americans. You might call it "school system" or "culture" or whatever. But liberals eventually sort with liberals and conservatives eventually sort with conservatives as soon as they are economically equipped to do so.

As a result, the "real life" political debate--where a passionate conservative engages a passionate liberal over a beer at the local watering hole--it less common than it used to be. When I do business in France, I've become accustomed to the fact that the French love debate--they love to engage me and even argue about politics. It isn't nastiness. It's a desire to understand me--where I come from, and if I have some kind of integrity.

Such confrontiational debate is not how average Americans do business, and has probably contributed to some uninformed opinions about the "surly" French. But I always enjoy these debates with my French colleagues and clients. Once I figured out that they wanted me to take stands, even ones they disagreed with, it was in fact a liberating experience. They actually wanted to know who I am--and chose to do business with me anyway. Not because they agreed with me (they generally didn't), but because they saw me as someone who said what they meant and meant what they said.

Today I look at my Facebook feed and I see comments from my friends, real and virtual, that I might disagree with. Some of them are inflammatory, and certainly not an invitation to a reasoned debate. I get that. But our continual impulse to shut off those comments, to block those views and to filter out strong positions has a self-selecting effect that is not only ultimately harmful to us, it's an active discouragement to our more moderate friends, who might share positions we disagree with but do not share the vitriol with which those positions are often debated in "public" life.

In our real lives, we have to get along with people who are at sixes and sevens with us politically far less than we've ever had to. Which makes our tolerance of those people on social networks, which know no geographical bounds, far less than it ever used to be.

So here is where I eventually have ended up: If you post something on my Facebook page or my Twitter feed that I disagree with, I am not going to unfollow you. I am going to ask you why you hold that opinion. If your answer is reasoned, I'm going to engage you. If your answer is disrespectful, I will in fact unfollow or block you. But I won't unfollow you if you disagree with me--even if your position is strident. I will only unfollow you if you are disrespectful. 

Ultimately, what I want from my social networks is not more liberal or more conservative content. It's more civility.



2 responses
I come from a fairly conservative family, but not one attached to a particular party or personality. My dad reads the (liberal bastion!) NYT and the WSJ almost daily, and has read the New Yorker for over 40 years. Then again, he'll also read quite conservative books and magazines. There's a similar balance in the news he takes in via radio & TV (NPR *and* Fox, on occasion.)

He consumes all his data, and then decides what he thinks. That usually means he comes out at a different place than I do, but I nonetheless respect his balance of input, and his critical eye.

We've argued about our opinions and agreed to disagree many times, but ultimately, we can co-exist because we acknowledge that the other person is intelligent and thoughtful, and ultimately shares the same values of respect, concern, and care for others.

That's why I never assume someone with different views is stupid or thoughtless unless their views are plainly, patently so. Then it's not a matter of conservative or liberal, it's just that they suck. :)

Definitely would love more civility! It was high on my mind around the 4th of July when I posted a "Lamentation for Civil Discourse" on my blog: http://bit.ly/OBqlLj

I think I would get along well with the French as you describe them because I, too, enjoy a good debate. It just seems that we can no longer have them. The language so often used today is too polarizing, too hate-filled and just downright nasty. We've lost respect for those who stand for what they believe if it's different from what we believe ourselves.

And that's just sad. :-(