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Social media with civility—it’s possible



 

Here we are, months after the election, and people are still venting their political fury from both ends of the red/blue spectrum via Twitter, blogs, and, especially, Facebook. Social media feeds are crammed with angry memes, story links, videos, fake news, and fake news call-outs. This isn’t necessarily bad; the  increase in political engagement indicates that more than fifty-five percent of voting-age Americans will actually vote in the next election. But, in the meantime, the constant barrage of online fury is tough on those of us who enjoy a lively conversation and value civility.

 

Say, for instance, you post an undeniable fact: “President Donald Trump became the first president in modern history to have more than half of Americans disapprove of his job performance after only eight days in office, according to a recent Gallup poll.” You figure you’re safe; no editorializing, real news. Someone responds. And someone responds to that response. And with the escalating intensity of a runaway freight train, your friends are soon lobbing insults at one another. Verbal sniping, unsubstantiated statements, and counter-statements add up to superhighway road rage with everyone figuratively flipping the bird from inside cyberspace SUVs and Priuses.

 

It’s enough to make you long for the return of Tron Guy.

 

Now to be fair, this is more likely to happen if you have “friends” outside your political comfort zone like I do. The word “friend” is in quotes, because I only actually know about one-fifth of my Facebook friends personally. And the total number is down a few since the election. I have been unfriended by people I politically disagree with for politically disagreeing and by people with the same political views because I don’t toe the party line exactly as they do on every issue. I was even unfriended by someone because I didn’t unfriend another “friend” who insulted him. Some of the most cutting insults aimed at me have come from people I agree with. 

 

The safest position on any subject is not to take a position. But, some of us, quite frankly, suck at that. So, I have devised four simple rules for posting on my page. No longer are friends on either side of a debate allowed to comment if they don’t play by my rules. This is true no matter how much I like and respect someone. If they break these rules, they will be deleted.

 

My page, my rules

You are not obligated to comment on my page. Though I will try to be even-handed about the way I apply the rules, it’s my Facebook page, so I will apply them as I see fit. If you don’t like that, don’t comment. Use the angry face emoji. 

 

1. Be civil (attack the idea, not the person). Snarkiness and ad hominem attacks, no matter how clever or veiled, will be removed. You can attack an idea, but not the person expressing it. And you cannot attack a person by attacking a group he or she belongs to. You can’t for instance say, “Right wingers are all idiots.” 

 

2. No loaded questions. A loaded question is also called a “complex question fallacy” and it is a question (or statement) that has built-in assumptions that have not been defined or established. Here’s an example; “What’s wrong with putting America first?” Can you spot the assumptions? There are two. The first is that the person you are addressing objects to putting America first. The second is that Trump is actually putting America first. Neither has been established. Also, the phrase “putting America first” is an ambiguous slogan without a clear definition. You could rephrase this question by being specific. You might say, “Do you have a problem with tariffs on imports?” This can be answered. 

 

3. Back up statements of fact. Label opinions as opinions: if you start a sentence with “I think” or “I believe,” it’s an opinion. That’s fine, and the obvious response is “why?” However, if you express something as fact, back it up in a credible way. This can be tricky for both left and right wing opinioneers, who customarily spew slogans and memes. For instance, if you say, “Three million people voted illegally in the last election,” you will need to cite a source, or acknowledge that it’s an unsubstantiated belief. 

 

4. Stick to the topic at hand. This one is tricky. There is often natural topic-drift on Facebook. If one point logically follows the last one, drift is fine. But, don’t abruptly change the subject or pivot. I will delete it. So if someone says, “Trump’s immigration ban executive order was ill-advised and poorly administered,” don’t respond with “Well, what about all the dumb executive orders Obama issued?” What a past president did or didn’t do is irrelevant to the topic, which is this specific executive order. Also—and this will be difficult for some—do not argue a point by claiming your opponent is “privileged.” Being privileged is not the person’s fault—or relevant—because it does not in itself negate his or her argument. This also applies to saying someone is smug, arrogant, condescending, or elitist. Also, never say someone is “mansplaining” (“It reeks of gender essentialism,” says Liz Cookman of The Guardian). Any or all of these may be true, but saying so is just a pivot. 

 

So, there you go. Four rules. One caveat: I’ve learned from experience that when you argue a point and thoughtfully explain your reasoning,without rudeness, you automatically appear to be mansplaining, arrogant, or privileged. I may even be now. Just don’t post about it on my page.             

 

Artist, educator, activist, and writer Bruce Adams writes regularly for Spree.

 

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