It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a Facebook poster in possession of a large fortune of comments must be in want of another. However little known the feelings or views of such a poster may be on entering a conversational neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding posters, that whatever s/he posts is considered the rightful property of the rest of the neighborhood. (Adaptation from opening lines of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen).
Observation 1: When the ideological, damn straight, sing it sister wagons are circled in tight, your arrow of dissent more often than not cannot pierce into the comment circle, instead it will be flung back at you.
At large social gatherings there always are smaller groups of conversation. Some are more permeable and welcoming. Others solidify and bounce out those who weren’t there from the beginning or joining later, can’t catch its flavor. The same thing seems to happen on Facebook.
Someone posts something with a strong position on a particular topic; this can be political, religious/anti-religious, social or one of those “I can’t believe how stupid people are” posts. People begin commenting. The comments, with few exceptions, all seem to agree with one another. The agreements cultivate a rhetoric that leaches all the nutrients out of the soil; contrary gambits will not survive in this garden.
When people sing chorus after chorus lacking charity and full of snarky small mindedness, which we all do from time to time, your dissonance may be important to note, but they will not gladly bend their ears to you. Even if you hit the note dead on, it will sound flat since it doesn’t harmonize.
There are times to forge ahead and damn the conversational consequences. We all have to decide when to take a stand, when to censure, when and what to condemn. There are times to ruin people’s “fun.” But considering that few us handle this well in face to face conversations, it is not surprising that we make a hash out of it online.
Discerning when to comment and when not to comment can be tricky. You need to take time to pay attention to the larger conversational arch, which is made difficult by the rapidity of posts and the sheer number of people with whom we are “friends.” What sort of conversation is happening, why it is happening and what are the limits of that conservation? When we don’t pay attention to the nuances of a conversation, it easy to come across as a prig.
When, for example, a group of atheists indulging in a bitch fest about how fucked up religion is, and I do not know the majority of the participants, and I happen to know that some have damn good personal and intellectual reasons for their antipathy, I resist the urge to interject an “on the other hand.” Too often that “on the other hand” desire grows from my own anxieties. I hold a different viewpoint about religion, and my viewpoint is not represented in the atheist bitch fest. But a bitch fest of this sort isn’t about a well-rounded conversation. It isn’t an attempt to be fair or represent other points of view. Some of what they post is true; some is bullshit. Some of it is exaggeration, hyperbole. If you were to have a conversation with one of the posters, you would find that their position on the particular issue probably is more nuanced than the words strung together in a post.
My daddy and I often have good old get riled about the world sessions on his front porch. When we do, we aren’t trying to be nuanced. We are enjoying the energy. And no doubt, we end up saying things that are short sighted and unfair and, sometimes, small minded. But we do not live there. Front porch soap box sessions, real and virtual, are occasional indulgences, at least for some of us.
Now some closed circle conversations will, after a time, open their arms wide to welcome contrary positions. Other comment conversations start open and then somethings shifts, so the wagons circle up and shut out “dangerous” and “wild” ideas. Sometimes you won’t know and will post a comment just as the tenor of the thread is changing. It behooves us all to give one another the benefit of the doubt.
Observation 2: When people show their shitty selves to the world, our (over) reactions may mean that as more people look at that shit, that shit, hitting the fan, gets everywhere.
Someone makes a mean-spirited, short sighted and/or ugly comment in response to a post and its comments. Another responds, perhaps attacking, perhaps gently offering an different position. The attacker is unable or does not want to retrench, and s/he keep flinging shit. The person may be in wing-nut mode, which is when someone hijacks a conversation for their “more important/worthy” cause, issue or theory. Someone in wing-nut mode cannot bear contrary positions and will not believe s/he is off topic and/or out of line even when told directly.
Or s/he may want a fight.
I watched this happen in a comment thread about the job prospects for Ph.D’s and MFA’s and the ethics of telling graduate students just how bad it is. Someone posted a response that was damn close to a personal attack on another poster. His comment was mean and didn’t exactly make sense. The attacked person tried to reason with him. He didn’t want to be reasoned with and made progressively more inflammatory posts in response to her. From the outside, it was easy to see that he just wanted to fight. He was determined to cast her in the role of opponent/villain, so he could “best” her in verbal sparring. Nothing dissuaded him from feeling he had the duty to give her a talking to, to tell her like it is, to upset her apple cart (insert cliche here).
It can be so hard to not respond, but sometimes, it may be best to treat a mean/nasty/inflammatory/stupid post like a moment of Tourette’s, or like that awful thing crazy Great Uncle Joseph said in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner last year. The best response may be to become selectively deaf/blind.
One runs the danger of always choosing to be selectively deaf/blind in response to difficult, irksome, awful, mean, nasty and/or bigoted comments. I am not advocating that. To be a good conversationalist, to effectively participate politically, we have to work hard at discerning when to ignore and when to push back. Because we are imperfect, we will sometimes ignore that which we should comment on and sometimes comment on that which we should ignore.
And we will disagree about what the appropriate response is. I hold the unpopular opinion that shunning the person in Gainesville, FL who indulged in a publicity stunt involving threatening to and eventually burning a Koran would have been the best response. It netted him a ton of world wide recognition (his 50 person church has a damn Wikipedia entry now) and more than a little money from like minded folks. It chaps my ass that he made hand over fist because of all the attention.
It was a piece of bad, tasteless, hateful performance art at a very small venue in a mid-sized college town. It only became newsworthy because the press used his stunt to stir the pot. If said book burning was to happen at a large rally with thousands of people, or is it were to be done on the grounds of property owned by a Muslim organization or individual, then a response would have be warranted and necessary.
But in this case the world wide response rewarded his bigotry. So much focus on one ignorant dumb ass and his tiny congregation didn’t change their views. Their worldview solidified in response to the outcry, because those idgits felt persecuted (us against the world) and vindicated when extremists threatened to kill people in response.
Turning a cold shoulder, giving the cut, shutting someone out of the conversation, these are powerful forms of social control, ways to say that particular comments/behaviors are unacceptable. Withdrawing our attention can be a more effective deterrent than commentary.
Sometimes, we just have to ignore a comment made said because it isn’t worth the effort or would negatively affect someone else.
Recently, I posted good wishes on someone’s Facebook profile. We once were lovers for more than a few years and now are only acquaintances. This person and I had some intense difficulties at the end of our relationship. Both of us were at fault, where fault can be ascribed. There were things beyond our control, and we were young. Someone, who knows some part of this ancient history, commented on my well wishes, “wow, old age is making you more mellow.”
That comment stung. I have wished this ex-lover well many times since we have become Facebook friends. I wanted to reply, but it wasn’t on my profile. I wasn’t feeling witty, so I couldn’t come up with an elegant or funny reply. With few exceptions, anything I would have said either would have sounded defensive or stirred up an unnecessary fuss that most people did not need to be part of. There are times to let someone know that they have hurt my feelings; this wasn’t one of them. Being gracious sometimes means sucking up thoughtless comments, turning the conversations when I am equipped to do so and ignoring things better left unsaid when I cannot.
Observation 3: If no one mounts the high horse, everyone gets to ride the merry go round.
A good friend posted a picture of her armpit hair, which elicited a lot of responses. Several men couldn’t deal with it; said it was repulsive to men, etc and so forth. Some people lauded her picture and/or chimed in that they also loved or were proud women with armpit hair, etc and so forth. There was a lot of back and forth, and it was spirited. But somehow it never got mean even though a couple of the remarks were annoying, depending on your point of view.
Though not afraid to completely disagree with a comment, my friend softened her replies by nodding to her personal relationship with the other person. She acknowledged something she liked about that person almost every time she disagreed with them. Her tactic subtly influenced the tenor of the conversation. We might disagree with people, but her obvious love for that those people helped us avoid casting them in the role of villain.
People got a little riled, to most everyone’s enjoyment. No one made hostile personal attacks. It is not that this comment thread was perfect. Just that there was a spirit of fun behind the disagreements and an understanding that we do not have to come to a perfect accord with others to value them. Everyone seemed to agree that this thread was a piece of play.
Dissent is good for our brains. It is necessary in our social relations. It is a way that we play with one another. We get into the ring, ready to rumble, but in bouts like this, we pull our punches. The goal isn’t to knock someone out. The goal is to have a good time. And if someone plays too rough or takes it too seriously, it spoils the game. The trick is playing just rough enough. It is harder online to read the social cues that makes a “just rough enough” game possible, but it can be done.
Most Facebook threads are not games, but when they are, and we let ourselves play just rough enough, they can be delightful.