Berthold just put up a post about why he doesn’t blog about politics as much as he used to. I only started following his blog recently, so I never saw his posts in real-time. I have checked out a few in his archives and found his posts to be very thoughtful and well-written.
Berthold’s recent post bemoans the futility of trying to engage in political discussions and that he has found more rewarding interactions on his blog through posts about other things like writing, entertainment, and reviews. As he says:
If you can get people out of the political sphere, however, you’ll usually find a lot of room for communicating, making deals, and exchanging knowledge that is useful to everyone involved.
I had a recent experience that relates to this idea.
Over on the right-wing blog I have read religiously for years, I comment regularly. It’s not a very enjoyable experience. The few liberals who comment there are attacked pretty relentlessly. For instance, one liberal commentator who goes by the name of Jane regularly gets a response from one commenter referring to her as an ignorant slut.
At one point, I commented on some posts about the Middle East with a perspective that didn’t match the perspective of Israel and its propagandaists. One commenter branded me an anti-Semite and hammered at me relentlessly with that charge. When I pointed out my wife was Jewish, that I had raised my kids in the faith, and many of my friends were Jewish, he accused me of lying, of making up my Jewish family. From that point on, frequently when I have commented on posts completely unrelated to Israel, he has replied simply to repeat the charge and accuse me of lying in virtually every comment I made.
Much of the interaction there is some degree of that. Why do I continue? Well, I’m trying to stop, but the truth is I am drawn to political debates and crave the types of political discussions I had back in college and then on the first internet bulletin board I participated in back in the early 90’s. A range of people with different political views engaged in political discussions that could get heated, but ultimately were respectful. Did we solve any problems or change any minds? Not in the immediate, but here’s the thing that happens when you expose yourself to different views — yours begin to change as well.
And guess what? Change is good.
And guess what else? Challenging your own beliefs and opinions is good. Most people seem completely unwilling and incapable of believing that such a challenge will be good for them.
Among the commenters on that right-wing blog is another one with whom I got into it quite a bit in recent months. I’ll call him Joe. There were times when Joe and I almost came close to agreeing on a few things. He occasionally would acknowledge agreement with me on something and I would say the same about his comments every now and then. But more often than not we criticized each other in personal ways that didn’t leave much room for respect or consideration.
My contribution to that was this — for a long time, the blog used Facebook as its commenting platform. You had to have a Facebook profile to comment. All sorts of commenters created fake FB profiles in order to do so. One commenter, an old doctor, regularly attacked liberals who commented behind fake profiles. But never questioned the many conservative commenters who did the same. Hypocrisy is one of the things that drive me crazy in political debates and I would regularly criticize the old doctor for his and pointed to Joe as an example of a conservative commenter posting behind a fake FB profile.
Eventually, at some point when something between Joe and I got heated, I turned the fake profile issue on him and accused him of being a coward for not posting under his real name.
The thing is, I get why he might not want to. A couple of years ago, a couple of commenters clearly used Google to find out some details about who I am and made vague comments regarding their knowledge. Given what can appear to be a “no holds barred” nature of some of these “debates,” it concerned me.
Once I called Joe a coward, the wheels on the bus pretty much fell off. He and I only exchanged criticisms and attacks after that.
Fast forward a number of months … the blog changed its commenting platform so people can comment via Disqus, a platform that easily allows people to hide behind aliases. Very few commenters on the blog now post behind their real names, and the vitriol has gone up even more.
It’s helping me step further away from the blog. But an interesting thing happened on the way to stepping away. In one of my last comments there, Joe replied. In a much different way.
He indicated that the last time I referred to his posting under a fake name (a charge that, up to this point, he had denied), he had decided to look into who I was. My commenting nemesis found out that I’m a writer. He loves books and purchased The Marfa Lights, one of my collections of short stories. He wanted me to know he thought the story was great and he was enjoying the collection. Joe offered that, in the future, we should agree to treat each other more respectfully if we comment again on the right-wing blog.
It’s like Berthold suggests … it seems in our overheated political climate, we forget that the people we “debate” with aren’t human. This dehumanization is enhanced by social media in which people post behind fake names and believe the “privacy” of the internet gives them the ability to be as outrageous, unforgiving, and disrespectful as they realllly want to be. Far too many people believe that is the way to score points and that’s what it is really about — scoring points and getting the cheers from like-minded people. It is not about doing the hard work of getting to know those on the other side and finding common ground.
But, as Berthold also states … maybe if we get to know each other through other things. Books, movies, sports, cooking, whatever. Maybe, once some rapport is established we could go to that other thing. Maybe what we need to do is more humanizing of each other and not accept the fake narrative of others that is so prevalent on social media. (Or maybe not, I’ve lost a couple of friends in the last couple of years because of an inability to talk respectfully with each other about politics.)
The reality is that, for the most part, social media as it has broken down into tribal cliques, doesn’t really allow for actually getting to know people. It offers an easy path to disagreement and conflict. The path to understanding and friendship is much harder. It is the great misnaming of social media — it is the furthest thing from social.
Joe and I are beginning the first tentative steps of what I hope is humanizing each other. Why? Because he stepped away from the political war and found out something about me that he could relate to. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be able to talk about politics without spitting on each other.
I apologized to Joe for calling him a coward and I do it again here now. My apologies, Joe, for doing so. My hope is that you and I can find a way to engage in a respectful discussion about the issues of the day. Whether it is here, on the right-wing blog, or in some other venue. That we can Stand Up and do the right thing instead of the easy thing.