How to Lose Friends & Alienate People — Facebook Edition

I’m supposed to be grading papers, but instead I’m blogging this. I use the term blogging very loosely, because a website that never gets read can’t really be accurately called a blog. But sometimes writing here helps me get my thoughts together and–as long as I back up regularly (!!!)–this might be a nifty adjunct to my nonexistent journal.

Anyway, I argue about politics on Facebook. This has had predictable (but mild) consequences until now: a few people blocked me, a few others quietly ignore anything I say that’s even faintly politically colored, etc. This Fall, however, in the leadup to the 2012 Presidential elections, it got ugly. I try not to post truly nasty things. I don’t post that Fox News watchers are idiots, or that Republicans are fascists or what-have-you… even though I occasionally get these kinds of sentiments from a few of my FB friends, directed at anyone deemed insufficiently conservative. In discussions, I try to be fair, but I also don’t tend to let things go by that make no sense. I try to make my focus more on the process and quality of thinking than on the endpoints of the issues themselves. This has lost me some friends–at least three, by current count.

The first is a woman I go to church with. She’s a very good person, the kind who would be called the “salt of the earth” by an older generation. She has more conservative political views on most issues than I do, but that’s OK. My conflicts with her have come when I’ve commented on her posts (the kind that repeat what I think are empirically-unsupportable Fox-News talking points), pointing out the lack of evidence for her assertions, or when she has commented on my posts and I’ve replied, with the same dynamic. Until a couple of weeks ago (the Saturday before the election, in fact), this seemed to work OK. We argued on FB, but not in real life. Then came Trunk or Treat at the local LDS church building, followed by a Fast and Testimony Meeting immediately prior to the 2012 Presidential election. She was a staunch Romney supporter, and she had a 4’x4′ sign bolted into the back of her truck. She drove that truck to Trunk or Treat, and I figured, hey, it’s not like she can easily remove it. But I saw one or two other people who had apparently taken the trouble to prop pro-Romney signs up beside the candy they were tailgating for the kids. That bothered me a bit, but it was not the end of the world. The following Saturday I posted on FB (very unwisely… one of those things I would take back, if I could go back in time) that I hoped we Mormons could keep our testimonies focused on Christ and leave political candidates out of it, the next day. I said something (either in the post or in a reply to someone’s comment) about being a little concerned, given that some members brought political signs to the Church-sponsored Trunk or Treat a few days earlier.

Well.

That started a bit of a $#!*storm, as my wife put it. The friend in question thought I was targeting her–the signs, apparently, were ones she had distributed to friends at the event, which was just a convenient meeting point for them–and she accused me of “naming” her publicly (the historical resonance was not lost on me). I started backpedaling, reassuring her that I did not mean to imply that she or the other sign people had done anything inappropriate; I was just hoping people could keep the politics toned down during the actual church meeting, and the signs had made me nervous about that particular possibility. Then another mutual friend chimed in to say that her signs had been bothering them, and she could jolly well park her Romney truck down the block when she visited, so as not to be too close to their home… while she was at it, she could just stop visiting their home entirely, from now on. Niiiice. The next day, at Church, nothing was as dramatic as I’d feared. Of course. And I tried to apologize to this lady, but she was piiiiiiiissed. After my apology, which she clearly did not want to hear, she told me that the friends who had asked her not to visit were actually in an abusive relationship, and her visits had been the wife’s only connection with the outside world. I have, since, given her a peace offering, but there is no sign she ever intends to say a civil word to me again. This hurts, because it feels like I’ve been ungrateful: she has done very kind things for my wife, my baby, and me, and now it feels like I’ve repaid her by being a jerk. That’s not, rationally, how I parse this situation–it was a misunderstanding on top of real differences in political opinions, and there is no way I could know that the argument would make a potentially (I have no idea how accurate this is) abusive situation could be impacted by the results–but it still feels that way.

Friend #2 is a guy I knew in high school. Let’s call him D. He was a dorky, partially-rejected (but not friendless) nerdish type, like I was, or at least that’s how I remember us. We weren’t really close, but we were friends. I didn’t hear from him for about 20 years. This year he resurfaced on Facebook, retired from the Air Force and with many tours in Afghanistan (and, I think, Iraq) behind him. A great guy, by all accounts, but one that believes things I think are kind of ridiculous, which is exactly the opinion he has of the things that I believe. We still have the occasional comment on FB, but there is little warmth in it (despite his regular injections of “LOL”).¬† We started arguing almost immediately, and it felt like he was surprised that a fellow Mormon could fail to hold his beliefs about all things neoconservative. I did what I always do: I pointed out when his logical leaps could not be supported, and when there was no evidence (or contradictory¬† or even counter-evidence) of some of his claims. I tried to highlight common ground as much as possible. But on Veterans Day we had a tiff that felt pretty bad, at least to me. In my (possibly self-righteous) mind, he used his status as a veteran to promote an extremely questionable geopolitical hypothesis: he posted that he had seen terrorists and suicide bombers killing American soldiers and civilians, and–if not for our armed forces in Afghanistan–they would be doing exactly the same thing on American soil. There were exlamation points. In a moment of haste (hm… common thread…) I replied, “prove it.”

Well, then one of his military buddies chimed in with the exact kind of swaggering thing you’d expect from a military man whose unit was threatened. It was something like, “That’s a real intelligent thing to say on Veterans Day.” I guess the urge to intimidate never really leaves some people. I recall having one or two comments more, but I backed out of that, quickly. And now he doesn’t say much of consequence, and neither do I. I ignore any post he makes with political content, and I assume he does, too.

I’ve tried to steer clear of political posts since then, except for the occasional post that I don’t think will be truly politically offensive to anyone, but this hasn’t really stopped the problems, as I recently found. I posted a link I found on bOING bOING a few days ago about how Monopoly was apparently invented by some socialist land reformers. It was a bit of trivia, but it had the word “socialist” in it. A vocal libertarian-type guy who is married to a high school friend of mine posted, in reply,

(Except that’s not the reason he’s accused of being a socialist. He’s accused of being a socialist for stuff like – oh, idunno – lamenting that the Founders placed constraints in the Constitution from redistribution of wealth, stuff like that)

Seriously, there was no other context, no reference to who “he” might be, except fway se that came later, covered a lot of his ideological landscape. My comments were as long as his, but I was trying to get him to articulate how Obama could be “socialist” if he did not fit the key criteria, quibbling with what I saw as abuses of logic or empty empirical claims along the way. In this process he expressed his libertarian principles, including a rejection of the government being involved in “wealth redistribution” between “classes,” a denial that libertarian-approved tax-funded services like roads or armies were a type of wealth redistribution, and an insistence that true wealth redistribution–but not the armies-and-infrastructure type–were violations of God’s law of individual agency. He repeated Fox News talking points, such as the idea that half of all Americans pay no taxes and repeated references to a He also, directly or indirectly, accused me of being a liberal, being an Obama supporter, and–because I am in favor of progressive taxation–supporting “extortion,” “thievery,” giveaways to the poor for political advantage, unlimited government power, arbitrary taxation, “government worship,” and an inability to have a rational conversation if I couldn’t agree with some of his points. He implied that my righteousness could be questioned for supporting a progressive tax, that I was afraid of his difficult questions, that I couldn’t see the obvious, that I couldn’t think straight, and a few other things. For my part, I accused him of using some questionable or invalid logic in arriving at his conclusions.

Well, he did apologize for most of the ad hominem attacks. As he kept building on his foundation of (so I think) exaggeration and indefensible assertions, I finally wrote a comment that was nothing but a detailing of his argument structure (as far as I could tell) and a brief catalog of the recurrence of one of his more frequent patterns, asserting that possessing some characteristics of a label justified the unqualified label (i.e., Obama shows some characteristics of socialist thought, therefore he is a socialist). His reply seemed a bit offended, and he told me he would no longer be participating in the conversation.

This little interaction had an interesting coda last night, after I thought it was over. T’s wife, my sometime high school friend, ideologically in agreement (as far as I can tell) with her husband, sent me a private FB message. It is of interest here that she and he have the same Facebook account, so she probably would have followed our whole debate. She said she had been kept awake at night by thoughts of the debate, and things that she might say in response to me, but that she just wanted it to stop. In fact, she essentially demanded that it stop. The interpersonal dynamics of this hit me immediately: nonparticipant in a debate started by a complete non-sequitur attack by her husband now demands that the guy who responded to that attack cease and desist… yeah. But she is a good person, I consider her my friend, and I don’t want to sour our relationship any more than it already has been.

One final note on this little debacle: I said very little to T about what I actually believe. He could infer some of it from my previous posts or my responses, and I did commit to a few things (like being in favor of progressive taxation and the government’s role in ameliorating poverty), but he seems largely to have made a lot of assumptions about my personal political beliefs. I think he sees me as some kind of unqualified supporter of Obama, liberalism, and Big Government because I took him to task for his sloppy support of the alternatives. I sort of watched in wonder at this process, sometimes.

So, what have I learned through all this? I’ll try to make a list, with little concern for careful categorization or order:

  • These arguments are not about learning anything, discovering knowledge, or even honing an understanding of one’s own ideology; they are about trying to convince someone else that they are wrong and you are right. I’ve been aware of this for a few years, and my response so far has been to engage people, as much as I can, on their thinking processes. If I find myself disagreeing with a position, I try to discuss (or, realistically, argue) about the support for that position. I think most people try to do this, but I’ve tried to really emphasize that angle; it softens the blow of having taken an untenable position, or finding out information you weren’t previously aware of, and I have hoped it would lead to more civil discussions. In a couple of cases I thought it had, but now those people don’t talk to me online anymore, so maybe I was wrong about that.
  • People get even more upset at questioning of their justification for their ideology than at questioning the ideology itself. I guess this makes sense. Questioning their justifications or support is really questioning their thinking processes. With certain types of questioning, there are opportunities to modify one’s position while saving some face (e.g., learning about information one was previously unaware of), but it seems rare for people to take advantage of that.
  • People feel betrayed when you don’t believe what they thought you did. I’ve caught some definite hints of this. I grew up in a very conservative environment, and unquestioningly parroted the party line until grad school, when my views started to change. Whether right, wrong, or somewhere else, my current moral, social, and political views are much more thought-out than they were when I was younger–and I would hope this is the case for most people. People I grew up with, however, or people who knew me way back when, might see the trappings of the ideology I used to share with them, and assume my trajectory has not carried me far from their ideological landscape. They see I’m Mormon, I still go to church, and that I grew up out West. I think they are sometimes shocked to find out that I once voted Democrat, and that I do not fully support most libertarian principles, much less neoconservative GOP ideas. I think they feel as if they’ve discovered a spy in their midst.
  • The urge to classify is strong. I get a lot of not-so-subtle “you’re either with us or against us” messages. I get confusion when I criticize the current President, whom I was assumed to unquestioningly support. I also get people simply ignoring or forgetting anything I say that doesn’t fit the narrative that I’m a stereotypical Godless Liberal. I get stereotyped a lot: I’ve seen facile assumptions that I’m in lockstep with all current American liberal policy positions, and that I must be totally opposed to anything conservative. I think the Left has done a better job at avoiding this kind of mindless categorization, but not a lot better. It’s a human tendency, and the American political system exaggerates it while doing little to ameliorate its effects.
  • This may be more about culture, identity, and group affiliation than anything else. This is maybe the most powerful insight I keep having (or thinking I’m having), and the saddest. One of the reasons some people have become angry with me in our debates is my habit of pointing out inconsistencies in their ideology: you claim to be a strict Constitutionalist, but you support the unconstitutional treatment of Bradley Manning; you claim to be in favor of peace, but you have no problem with Obama’s drone war or its civilian casualties, etc. I think this is frustrating on personal grounds (it makes people think I’m calling them hypocrites), but I do it to highlight unthinking affiliation to groups masked by protestations of ideology. Neither party in this country has a very internally consistent ideology (I’ve been making a list…) so I don’t think it makes sense to pretend otherwise. But people believe in their group labels, and they rearrange their thoughts and feelings to fit into their groups. I think the fear of losing (or downgrading) one’s group membership is probably stronger, for many people, than the fear of believing things that are not true, or that can’t be supported.

OK, I’m stopping now. This post has become way too long, anyway. Maybe someday I’ll come back and read this, and learn something from myself. Maybe I’ll realize how wrong I was about things back in the day, in 2012. I kind of hope so.