On Social Media Arguments in the Trump Era

What an interesting time to be alive.

We’ve just been through a rancorous election, and the election of a president whom more people voted against than for—some 8 million, to be exact.

We are divided. And cranky.

In the wake of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about social media, and how we engage with one another around disagreement–or don’t.

jackson-im-just-here-to-read-the-comments-72I have friends who are frustrated by the proliferation of fake news and “alternative facts,” and who see no utility in trying to talk to people who are convinced that their version of reality is correct. Whether it’s the size of Trump’s inaugural crowd, or the reality of climate change, there’s no convincing people, so why try? Our time can be used more productively in other ways.

And I have friends who believe we still need spaces where people who don’t see eye to eye can come together and hash things out. That deep down, many of us want the same things for ourselves. That we all have our bubbles, and we need to be disciplined in breaking out of them whenever possible.

As I think about where I stand, I know there are things on which I’m not willing to concede ground in order to keep the conversation going: the full personhood of LGBT persons, for example.

With that said, however, I fall more in the latter camp. I know that like the Apostle Paul, I see through a mirror dimly. My vision is imperfect. And I’m a big believer in polarity management, which means that traditional struggles such as left v. right can never be fully resolved. Rather, the two poles need to be managed so that they inform and complement one another in a healthy way. For that reason, I don’t root for the ultimate destruction of the GOP. Rather, I root for a sane, reasonable, fact-based conservative party to emerge out of the mess we’re currently in. I resonate with the words of Jack Shephard on LOST: “If we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.”

80bAnyway, I think about all of this as it relates to online interactions. I’m interested in engaging, and I try to enter conversations with people I disagree with from a place of good faith. The person may quickly show they’re not willing to engage in honest, thoughtful exchange, but I at least want to give them an initial chance. (And I’m sure I miss the mark on this myself sometimes–it’s soooo much easier to make assumptions and respond with snark than with authenticity.)

But many times we have to cut our losses and call it a day, either because the conversation isn’t going anywhere, or we just have other things we need to do. I’ve been trying to figure out how to do that gracefully.

Brian McLaren has suggested that one close with a simple “I see it differently.” If the person wants to pursue it, offer to have a face-to-face conversation. You’ve registered your opposition to the view being presented, but stewarded your time well enough not to get into a back-and-forth that is not going to go anywhere.

It’s a decent way of bowing out. But it has its limitations. For one thing, when someone presents a falsehood as truth, then doubles down on it, saying you “see it differently” implies that truth is in the eye of the beholder, and that there’s no way to know what’s right.

So lately I’ve been trying on this phrase:

“Thank you for helping me understand you better.”

I like it because we can understand one another without agreeing. I like it because it grounds the interaction in terms of relationship rather than rightness. I like it because, in situations in which I’ve used it, it has disarmed the person I was talking to–they felt heard. And I like it most of all because it’s a way of holding myself accountable to how I want to be online. Yes, I want to be a voice for the things I believe in, but ultimately, the only person I can ultimately change is myself, and if I’ve learned something, that’s a fruitful thing.

What do you think? How do you handle difficult conversations online?

9 thoughts on “On Social Media Arguments in the Trump Era

  1. Sarah Erickson

    I think it’s helpful to have a variety of possible responses – among them the ones you suggest. One I’ve used is a variation on the one you propose, “Thanks for helping me understand your take on things/the issue, ” Or “I appreciate hearing your viewpoint. ” Sometimes adding, “Conversations like this help me think through things differently.”

    And sometimes, as others have posted, we see something we disagree with and move on, b/c only so much time, energy, influence. Cannot talk with everyone about everything. Picking priorities and a strategy (this week/month/quarter I will focus on these issues….is where I find myself in the process of discernment.

  2. Roy

    As you know I’m one of those who believes wide open public conversation is a good thing, for all the reasons you mention. I find it important to offer a counter opinion when folks say things I completely disagree with and are completely false. I have a special affection for counter Christians who speak piously as though their interpretation of the Bible, or some theological/political opinion is the only one allowed with Christianity. And as you know, this often results in them walking away from the conversation because they don’t want to be confronted by a counter-factual opinion that undermines their notion of Christianity. I don’t mind staying in the room with someone that I disagree with, but it’s not so great when it comes to name calling.

  3. Jen

    I really want to understand other people’s perspectives. By both my nature and my profession, I know that people understand ideas differently and I am willing to take the time and energy to try to see their perspectives. That said, I have little tolerance for (a) anything that violates the proposition that all people are equal and deserve treatment as such and (b) anything that flies in direct violation of cold hard facts, like numbers and science and undoctored photographs. So your “Thank you for helping me understand you better.” serves me pretty well — it can demonstrate the fact that I have learned something from the conversation, but it can also have the sometimes necessary hidden meaning “You are cray-cray and out of touch with reality and I will refrain from debating with you in the future.”

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      LOL. Yes… If I’m perfectly honest, that subtext is also there for me, sometimes. Or maybe to put it more neutrally, “I’ve learned that our relationship would not benefit from this kind of conversation.”

      And yes about the cold hard facts. For example, I am open to many solutions to climate change, whether they come from the “right” or the “left*.” I can’t argue with whether it’s happening though–that’s not a fruitful conversation. I am a big believer in peer-reviewed science.

      *I think these categories are becoming less meaningful as time goes on. As I’ve said a lot the last few days, there is very little about Trump that is “CONSERVative.”

  4. Martha Spong

    I ask myself whether I am getting ready to comment (or respond (or respond again)) because I am looking for a fight, anywhere, in order to relieve some pressure. Most of the time this works. Most of the time.


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