You will likely be relieved to learn that today’s column has very little to do with politics. Instead, this is a piece about people and the way we communicate. Specifically, I felt compelled to write about civility, respectful discourse, and common decency—three areas in which online social networks are woefully deficient.
Due to the overwhelming negativity that has permeated Facebook ever since the beginning of the 2016 election cycle, I have decided to step away from the ubiquitous social network. That which was intended to bring people together has lately done just the opposite. Facebook has become a weapon of divisiveness, a platform for cruelty, and a harbinger of hate.
I had hoped, with Election Day behind us, that Facebook would return to a happy, virtual world filled with pictures of smiling children and videos of hilarious house cats. Instead, the vitriol that defined the presidential campaign has continued to plague the online community.
Rather than congratulating the president-elect and his supporters, many people who voted for other candidates have launched personal attacks against friends, family members, and perfect strangers who voted for the winner. On the other hand, instead of graciously basking in the glow of victory while showing compassion for those who are fearful of what the next four years may bring, many who voted for the winning ticket callously tell acquaintances, loved ones, and others who are legitimately worried about the future to simply “get over it,” which is easier said than done for minority groups whose liberty and security may be at stake.
By hiding behind the screens of their computers, tablets, and smartphones people sometimes become emboldened, discourteous, and even verbally abusive. It is all-too-easy to fall into the trap of forgetting that those on the receiving end of online aggression are actual human beings. They are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. They feel. They hurt. They cry. And they remember.
I suspect that when it comes to posting hateful and intolerant material to the internet, even the worst offenders among us would change their tone should they be forced to share their thoughts face-to-face with those whom they seek to tear down. The old expression, “I dare you to say that to my face” predates the internet by generations, yet is still relevant today.
If I were in a position to give advice to an online insult-hurler, I would tell them this: The next time you are tempted to call a laid-off autoworker a “racist” just because she voted for a candidate you don’t approve of, (one who promised to create jobs), I would encourage you to look that person in the eye as you demean her for supporting a politician who gives her the hope that she may once again be able to provide for her family.
Given the chance to counsel a would-be online bully, I would say this: If a friend of yours posts a status update on their Facebook page that bluntly expresses their disapproval of the next president, take a moment to consider that future Supreme Court appointees might render your friend’s marriage to his husband null and void, giving him a pretty good reason to be upset about the result of the election. Rather than posting a comment on his page calling him a whiny, sore loser, why don’t you try meeting your friend for a cup of coffee, looking into his worried eyes, and showing a little compassion while he expresses his concerns.
Online social networks like Facebook seem to have eroded our ability to be civil to one another. The anonymity of the internet has contributed to a society in which we disrespect others without taking the time to try to understand them. As serious as the problem is, I believe the solution is quite simple. It’s time to reacquaint ourselves with offline, in-person communication.
It is much easier to empathize with someone when you can see the tears in their eyes or hear the hope in their voice. Let’s try listening to one another for a change. Let’s have some respectful, face-to-face discourse. Let’s make America decent and kind again. Let’s all take a break from the hostility that’s taken over Facebook. I promise; Mark Zuckerberg won’t even know we’re gone.