I am facebook friends with people with a very wide range of views: rabid right-wingers and loony lefties and everything in-between. Raving charismatics, fluffy liberals and hard-bitten atheists. Millie Tants, Chardonnay Socialists and Gary Lagers.
Our on-line followers represent to some extent the worlds we move in. And for many of us, these worlds vary greatly.
And we live in momentous times. The election of Donald Trump and the series of executive orders he has issued are genuinely unprecedented. For the record, I am strongly opposed to him and what he stands for. I believe its essential that people are engaged in what is happening in the world and that we raise our voice for what we believe. It is one of the reasons why I bother to write this blog.
But as my dad said to me when I was 16 after an argument I got into: ‘Son, sometimes its better to lose an argument and keep a friend’. (Note: I added the word ‘Son’ to give the quote more gravitas).
Seven ways to disagree better
So, whilst online disagreement is both inevitable and important, I think it is something that we can do better. So here is my top tips:
1. Recognise that disagreement is a good thing. Having a wide range of friends with different views (even just Facebook friends) is a good thing. Sure I get nervous when one of my hardcore ‘prayer-warrior’ type Evangelical friends gets into a tussle with a die-hard atheist – but at least they are in contact. One of the shocks from the Brexit vote for many was that too many people did not know anyone who disagreed with them.
2. Try and be as specific as possible about actual events. The most powerful thing I read this week about Trump’s travel ban was from a local friend who posted about the impact it had on a work colleague whose trip to the US was suddenly cancelled. It brought it home and made it real. Labels like ‘bigot’ and ‘fascist’ don’t actually help anyone to change their mind and statistics are rarely effective. But genuine stories about real people do move people.
3. Try not to pass on dodgy information. It is so tempting to share a funny meme with a fake quote or a graph that purports to show something shocking. I posted something this week which quickly proved to not be quite accurate. I have learnt my lesson – we need to spend a few more seconds to verify that something we share is reliable. We cannot combat post truth culture by sharing things that are not actually true.
4. Recognise when its time to bail out. Online debates which get aggressive are generally dysfunctional and pointless. Recently, two friends of mine got into a heated exchange about Trump with accusation and counter-accusation about whether one was calling the other ‘a Nazi’. Ironically both are deeply committed Christians who both do loads to help others. Neither is remotely a Nazi so it was a shame to see things descend like this. In debate, you have to know when its time to fish or cut bait – and its best to bail out before things get this pear-shaped (there was a lot of metaphors in that last sentence).
5. Unfollow but don’t de-friend. The fact that facebook have appropriated the word ‘friend’ means that we have to think carefully about how we manage the arguments we can get into. So if someone you know is winding you up, it is far better to ‘unfollow’ them so you don’t see their feed and so don’t get wound up anymore. I am sure lots of people have done this to me especially with all the blogs I post. Think carefully before ‘unfriending’ because it is a bit terminal.
6. Try and inject a bit of humour. Those perceived as liberal lefties like me will always be in danger of sounding a bit pious and we have to admit it is hard to be right-wing on social media. A bit of humour, self-depreciation and humility (not to mention the odd emoji) often oils the machinery of a healthy argument. ;]
7. Remember how inconsequential arguments on social media are. As I have experienced sometimes social media can change the world a bit but mainly it doesn’t. Online rows can easily take up a whole evening that could be spent far more productively. Talking, debating, protesting (and praying) in real, live situations will always more worthwhile.
Feel free to disagree – but please do it nicely!