1) I examine my motivations. Why am I inclined to argue in the first place? Am I in a bad mood and just feel like spouting off? Am I feeling an overwhelming urge to show everyone How Right I Am On Everything? Or do I think I have something to say in this particular situation that can clarify a point? Do I feel like I have a chance to change someone’s mind? Do I feel honor-bound to argue a question on which I feel deeply?
Well, friends, we are deep into that most wonderful of seasons, aren’t we? Election season. And we know what that means: half of our Facebook friends are volunteering their political opinions to the world while the other half are signing off until mid-November.
I kid a little, of course. It’s not as clear as all that. While some people are vociferous in their political opinions, others are completely mum on the subject. Some are cranky, some (few this year, it seems) are inspired, some (many?) are despondent. Some people seem to be unable to handle the heat and so have decided to get out of the kitchen. Some argue their points well; others have little to show for their efforts but annoyed or offended friends and family.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s okay for someone to be annoyed with me because they don’t like my politics. What’s not okay is for someone to be annoyed or offended or hurt by the way I’ve discussed my political opinions with them.
So I try really hard, especially during election season, to make sure I argue my points well. Here are thirteen (what a lucky number!) ways I do that:
2) I aim to be convincing. The whole point of me entering into a Facebook discussion on politics should be to convince others of the rightness or wrongness of a particular position. If I don’t mean to do that, I should stay away. If I can’t conduct myself in a way that would be effective at that, I should stay away.
3) I only argue something I really care about. I once got into this Facebook argument on some obscure tax issue because I felt like I needed to represent my “side.” I quickly regretted it, not only because I knew too little about the issue to argue effectively, but also because I just didn’t care about the issue. I did not care. Why should I get into a tussle over something that doesn’t matter to me?
4) I try to relax. It’s hard to be convincing when you’re angry. And it’s no fun to be anxious. I prefer to think of my Facebook arguments as healthy, meaty exchanges over an intimate table in a fun little pub. Not only do I enjoy them more that way, but I hope the mental image helps me to value the people I’m arguing with.
5) I don’t say something on Facebook that I wouldn’t say in person. This is just basic decency. Online interactions are still human interactions.
6) I remember that on Facebook, I’m likely to be arguing with someone I love, or someone who is loved by someone I love. It’s easy to lose track of this online, but most of my interactions are with people I’m at least loosely connected to. That Really Wrong Guy isn’t just a faceless representative of all the Really Wrong Guys on the internet: he’s my friend’s cousin or my aunt’s colleague. They want me to be kind to him.
7) I am kind. As far as I’m concerned, this is just about the Number One tip for conducting yourself in all of life and of course it should apply online too: Be kind. Be kind, be kind, be kind.
8) But I’m also firm. I figure that if I believe something strongly enough to argue it, then I need to respect the strength of that belief. I shouldn’t waffle, I shouldn’t obscure; I should make simple and firm, clear but kind arguments.
9) I consider where the people I’m arguing with might be coming from. If I’m arguing abortion, I need to consider that the person I’m arguing with might have had an abortion. She might have had a miscarriage; she might have been raped. He might never have come to terms with the fact that his girlfriend aborted their baby. If I’m arguing the economy, I need to consider that the person I’m arguing with might have been laid off. She might have had to lay off others. He might have been looking for work for months. Most people are hurting in one way or another; I shouldn’t be callous to that.
10) I try to tailor my arguments to the person I’m arguing with. Maybe she’s a friend of mine and I know something about her life and personality. Maybe he’s unknown to me but he’s described some of his experiences in his comments. When I argue I try to find something that will resonate with that particular person; I don’t just pull out pre-fabbed talking points and slam them down between us.
11) Unless I know the person I’m arguing with to be a practicing Christian, I don’t use scripture or church teaching as support for my position. People of faith sometimes speak a different language from people who don’t believe in God, or who don’t frame their lives in terms of their faith. But that doesn’t mean we don’t possess common languages too: reason, shared experiences, common values. I use those to argue my points, not a religious language that will be ineffective and possibly off-putting.
12) I don’t pretend to understand something I don’t understand. This goes beyond the technicalities of tax policy. This goes to personal experiences too. Sometimes I scramble to answer every point with a counter-argument and then have to stop myself because I’ve realized I need to admit, “You’re right, I don’t understand what that’s like.” It’s okay to admit that. And it’s okay to have convictions about something you haven’t personally experienced. (i.e. It’s okay to think abortion is wrong without ever having experienced one.) It’s not okay, however, to tell people you understand their experiences when you haven’t gone through them yourself.
13) I walk away when I need to, but I try to check back in if the conversation needs to be resolved. This one is my biggest challenge of the bunch. I have four small children at home, so it’s pretty hard for me to get long stretches of time in which to carry out extended Facebook arguments. I may have a good twenty minutes to get going on one, but then somebody starts crying and somebody else has a poopy diaper and the baby needs another bottle… and I have to step away. I just have to. What I need to do next, when the flurry of home activity subsides, is check back in on that Facebook argument to resolve what needs to be resolved. I’m pretty terrible at this, but I try to do it because people deserve to know that I was listening to them.
At the end of the day, I think that’s what so much of this is about. We feel strongly about something, we want to engage on it, and we want to be respected. So that’s what I try to do. I think it’s important to talk about hard things with people. I think that’s the only way we get anywhere as a society. But if I’m going to do that, if I’m going to argue those hard things, then I need to argue them well.