Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Social Media and the Art of the Reasoned Debate

Is it my imagination or does everyone seem to be at cross purposes these days, lambasting one another for their tightly held ideals, political views, and opinions?  Has social media made it appropriate—if not convenient—to start political debates that go nowhere fast?

Count me out.

Put simply:  I read Facebook for the updates on what everyone had for dinner, cute kitten pictures, funny memes, and George Takei’s thoughts on life.  If you’re going to spew about this candidate or another—or God forbid, any of their spouses—please keep the vitriol to yourself, because I am just not interested.  Consider yourself not “unfriended but “hidden.”

I know for a fact that a few of my fellow Stiletto wearers feel the same way based on what they have posted on their own pages.  And one, in particular, agrees with me on this point:  you’re not going to change anyone’s mind, so just leave it alone.

I read a fascinating interview in O Magazine last night that really drove this point home for me.  Donna Brazile, a woman who has worked on dozens of Democratic political campaigns and who helmed Al Gore’s presidential campaign, and Mary Matalin, spouse of Clinton friend James Carville but a staunch conservative, are best friends.  Crazy, right?  Well, turns out that they do discuss politics and other charged topics but they both know that their hearts are in the right place and that their opinions stem from individual lives lived with sincerity.  They discuss topics but never try to change each other’s minds and if they are to be believed—and I have no reason not to believe them given the frankness of their answers—they do not go for each other’s jugular if they disagree.  They have dinner together, they travel together, they drink together, they even dance together, yet fall on completely opposite sides of every imaginable political issue.

Mature, right?

The one thing that struck me about the interview was that the women still had high standards when it came to good taste and manners.  They felt that discussing politics without bringing respect and politeness to the conversation was the height of rudeness, something their mothers would not condone.  Stirring the pot at a cocktail party, in their opinions (and mine), was just in bad taste.  Finding a proper forum—and having a discussion with the proper decorum—was what made a good debate.  Yelling, talking over someone, or spouting negativity in the name of supporting one’s ideals…not so much.  And this applied equally to face-to-face discussions and those that take place virtually.

I am a fan of social media.  It makes life for someone like me—an extrovert who works alone and at home—more enjoyable.  I love seeing what everyone has to say about what they’ve got going on in their lives.  What I don’t love is talk of politics of any ilk, particularly when it is filled with half-truths, disparaging comments and an assumption that if you’re on the other side of the debate, well, you must be just plain dumb.  (And this applies to both left-leaners and right-leaners.)  We all bring our own life experience to bear on our beliefs and that doesn’t make them right or wrong—just ours.

So, if I haven’t commented on Facebook your definition of socialism or redistribution, or given my opinion on how 5 trillion dollars can be cut from the federal budget, or discussed how I feel about birth control and who should pay for it, it just means that I’m staring at a cute photo of a kitten tucked into the warm cocoon that its mother has made for it.  Or that you’ve been “hidden.” Don't worry:  once the election is over, we'll all be friends again and you can unhide me, too.

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Good points, Mags.

    I especially hate it when we get together, in person, with family and friends we don't get to be together with all that often and someone starts one of these pointless fights (and, make no mistake, fights are what they are!). I usually make a polite plea for us to all focus on some good or fun things to talk about exactly because no one is changing minds in these discussions (and, really, even if they were, so what?) and they are wasteful of our precious time to visit and laugh and share.

    I think lots of it comes from anger and fear over what is going on around all of us and, even when it's so handy for good communicating and sharing, the social media tools do make us more personally isolated and distant--no one sits down with anyone anymore and TALKS, looks them in the eye--and people feel unheard and unrecognized and that is hard for them. We really NEED to be with one another and practice more regularly and more commonly what used to be called "the lively art of conversation"!

  2. My feelings exactly. On Facebook I've hidden lots of people. And there's one "friend" I really don't like anymore because of his meanness. I love Facebook, but through this election it hasn't always been fun.

  3. Sounds like we all agree. Marilyn, I've seen your posts on the topic and I agree with you whole-heartedly. I think going back to some simple etiquette that we all learned in kindergarten would go a long way toward keeping our discussions with each other civil. And Vicky, I feel your pain. Been there, sister. Maggie

  4. I have a friend who's a science fiction writer. We're opposites in so many ways, but we remain friends and get together for dinner every month or two. He's had to rebuke some of his friends for nasty things they've said to me in comment streams on his Facebook page, and I've actually "unfriended" one of mine (after several warnings) for mean attacks on my friend in comments streams on my page. I don't mind political discussions and talk on Facebook and engage in them myself, but my page is mine, and I won't allow someone to insult someone on it, even if the insulter agrees with me politically and the insulted doesn't.

    We are all much more than who we're going to vote for in the upcoming election, and it's a shame if we can't see that any longer. I know it feels as if the stakes are very high with this election, and it's very close. But that simply means that, if you're on one side or the other, about half of Americans disagree with you. Will you write off all those people as unworthy? They're fathers and mothers, old friends from high school and college, women you first went through motherhood with. Their experiences have led them to different political decisions, but that doesn't make them bad people. They're still the people you had all those other non-political connections with. I think it's important to remember that.

  5. Linda, your comment is better than my post! That's exactly right--1/2 of the American public disagrees with you at any given time but they represent people with whom we share common values and goals, most likely. There are very few people who want to see the poor marginalized more than they already are but how we overcome that is where the debate begins. Thanks, everyone, for your reasoned responses. They give me hope. Maggie

  6. I did a post on Monday about people ranting on controversial issues in social media and all my commenters agreed it's poor form, especially for writers who may be alienating half their potential audience.