My mind was totally changed by your FB status update! #saidnobodyever
I see the above sentiment, or sentiments like that, all the time. Two groups are arguing about something online, and inevitably, just when shit starts to get real, one side or the other decides to call it quits. Since neither side is ever going to change their mind, the discussion must be pointless.
This bums me out for a bazillion reasons, please allow me to list them for you.
1. A conversation is not a selfie. There are more reasons to talk to someone beyond "winning" or making someone think like you. It's incredibly narcissistic to believe that a conversation only has worth if the other person leaves with a matching brain. People have value beyond their ability to mirror your thoughts. More importantly, while a conversation may not result in a changed mind, it may result in one or both parties learning something new, and learning is never a waste of time.
2. People are not screens. It is really easy to say mean stuff to your computer screen. You can't see the screen's face react when you tell them their family, or their beliefs, or their choices aren't as valuable as yours. When you say mean things to a screen, and then run away because "we are never going to agree on this anyway," you forfeit the chance to see someone's soul, instead of the screen. Taking the opportunity to explain your beliefs (and really explain them, not just rely on soundbites from people who think like you) allows you to share more than just a meme or a link, it allows you to share your core values while simultaneously forcing you to recognize the humanity of the other person behind the screen. I like technology, and I like social media. I don't like how easy it is just to shout stuff onto our screens while creating an echo chamber that only repeats back what we want to hear. Take time to be vulnerable and be the type of person who allows others to show vulnerability back.
3. Empathy is not an inherent trait, empathy is a learned behavior we gain with practice. The internet is a great place to practice empathy. Here is a nice compliment someone gave me: "I thought about what you wrote today in church." The person who gave me this compliment doesn't agree with me on everything, and some of our disagreements about the LDS church are probably pretty fundamental. It would be very easy for this person to ignore the things I say online, unfriend me on social media, and go along their merry way never being bothered by what someone else thinks. But instead, this person listened to what I had to say, thought about it, and took the time to let me know that I mattered. This person has developed lots of empathy, and their example helped me gain more empathy too. Allowing people to own emotional real estate in your brain makes you a kinder, more thoughtful person. Feeling empathy doesn't mean you have to agree with someone, it means you allow their thoughts into your head so that you can practice feeling what they feel.
I think we've developed a culture where we believe empathy is a slippery slope to compromising our values. If we practice feeling what other people feel, we might accidentally start thinking what other people think, we might even start agreeing with the enemy. This mentality is bullshit. Emotional real estate in our mind is not like real estate in Manhattan. There is room enough for everyone. More importantly, learning to feel what other people feel helps us understand our own complex and contradictory emotions. We become more forgiving of others, and eventually more forgiving of ourselves. All of us need that.
The thing is, people are wrong when they say minds aren't changed by what they read online. Not because their opinions change, but because how they see the world changes. Whether you want to admit it or not, knowing there is someone out there that thinks you are entirely wrong about everything will change the way you think or behave. Maybe you will turn into a bigger asshole, and the interaction will only solidify your own self-righteousness. There is always slime at the bottom of the intellectual gene pool. Gives the rest of us something to evolve from.
But maybe, hopefully, allowing yourself to finish that conversation with someone different than you will help you see people as people, not selfies or screens or enemy combatants. Your mind is changed when you see differences as a source of worth, not a threat.
1. We don't have to finish conversations with people who threaten or bully us. That isn't walking away from a conversation, that is practicing good mental health. If someone is using a difference of opinion to hurt you or other people, and I apologize in advance for the implied swear, but there really is no other way to say this: FTS. You don't have time for that. Move on, block, delete, whatever. #byefelicia
Emotional safety is just as valuable as physical safety. If you wouldn't let someone come in your house and beat you up, you don't have to let someone come into your email inbox/FB wall/twitter/ghostsnapthing and emotionally berate you. I used to think I had some weird moral obligation to let anyone say anything to me online or in person because of free speech. I've learned that there is a difference between free speech and harassment, and people are not public spaces.
2. Racism, sexism, homophobia, all the isms and phobias are not your disease to cure. If the person you are talking to is so addled by one of these diseases, you aren't responsible for curing them, and you aren't a bad person for putting up an enormous NO VACANCY sign in your mental real estate brain. The thing is, everyone is biased and flawed and problematic in some way. A basically decent human being with an infection can be cured by interacting with and empathizing with other people. I know I benefit by people gently but firmly calling me on my bullshit and helping me be better. But I am a basically decent human being. Assholes are not, and it is okay if you mentally Old Yeller them.
Here's another metaphor about dead dogs:
Even Atticus shoots the rabid dog. We don't have to pretend a racist/sexist/homophobic/douchelord deserves the same air-time as Aunt Alexandra or even Mrs. Dubose.
3. The internet is not Vichy France, and you are not the only resistance worker left standing between the world and Hitler. It is okay if you take a break from things sometimes, and walk away from a perfectly healthy and reasonable discussion regarding a difference of opinion. It is okay to politely excuse yourself. The internet will still be there tomorrow, I promise.
4. I rarely if ever follow my own advice. I would be happier if I did, though.