How many times has this happened to you -- you stumble upon some internet brouhaha where people are saying folks voted for Trump because of economic anxiety (nope) or how antifas are just as bad as the Nazis they are fighting against (NOPE), and you wade on in, armed with facts and links and your mighty, towering intellect, determined to set these sadly misinformed people straight.
Ten hours later, you emerge from battle with an even lower opinion of humankind than you had when you started, thinking, Well FUCK, I have a pretty low opinion of humankind already, so how is that even possible?
Some folks set boundaries for themselves on how they engage -- they just don't take part in political discussions, or maybe they don't take part in discussions with people they don't know personally -- and I think this is wise. I have experimented with such rules for myself, and sometimes they've really helped me. Like, in the weeks following the election, I gave myself permission to not fight about politics online, because I was too raw and got into a whipped-up headspace way too quickly, and it wasn't good for my mental health.
But, for me anyway, I do believe there is some value in participating in online discussions about tough stuff. I have learned so much from many internet friends over the years, through talking with them about tricky issues. And those conversations weren't always easy or pleasant, but I appreciated them, because when other people call out my blind spots, I get a chance to LEARN and GROW and both of those are very important to me. (On Season One Episode 12 of my podcast, I discuss an instance where a friend called me in on some careless thoughts I shared if you're interested.)
I think there's also value in calling out blind spots where I see them, especially around race and gender and weight and all the various ways in which folks exclude the interests of other folks who are not like them. It's not that I expect to change anyone's mind by arguing with them -- it's more about the bystanders. Like, if I'm standing up against sexism, other women following the thread may appreciate it. Or if I'm calling out racist language, some folks on the thread might learn from what I'm saying, or I might learn from what they are saying.
So, yeah, I'm not gonna stop discussing hard topics on the internet any time soon. But, as a fiery and unapologetic feminist, I have to admit that sometimes I get into a zone where all the good reasons I outlined above are not what's motivating me at all. What's motivating me is the desire to slam some condescending dude's dick in a car door for public amusement.
And sure, that's fun sometimes ... but it's not really my goal in life. I don't really want to make all the men suffer (usually). I mostly want to help people SEE, and to be helped in turn to see my own blind spots. And when I get into fighty/flighty/lighting things on fire mode, well, not much of that happens.
So, how do I stay focused on my goal of education/being educated rather than retribution for condescension? I've come up with some strategies that help and maybe they will help you, too.
1) Discuss, but don't fight.
This is my cardinal rule. When my heart starts pounding and I feel myself being more invested in sick burns than the actual topic at hand, I step away (or at least I try to -- progress, not perfection). If someone calls black folks fighting for their rights "thugs," I will call it out. I call out false equivalency where I see it. I definitely call for more subtle expressions of thought beyond "Repubicans and Democrats are both bad!"
But if the other person come back at me with a wall of text about why thugs is not a racist term, or how liberals just want to be offended by everything, or how if we aren't tolerant and nice to Nazis then we are just as bad as they are, yadda yadda yadda, I disengage.
2) Offer information respectfully, then disengage.
If someone talks shit about how awful it is that some black folks are calling for reparations, assume that they just don't know any better and leave them a link to Ta-Nehisi Coates's brilliant work on the topic. If someone talks about how obese people are bleeding our healthcare system dry, offer them an alternate view and encourage them to read it. So many people pop off about shit they don't understand at all (including me!) -- if you have a wider perspective or more experience on the topic, share it! Then go back to #1.
3) Consider a two-response rule.
As discussed here, the first response is to make your point and the second response is to clarify any misunderstandings. If nothing productive is happening in the discussion at this point, it's not going to magically get awesome. After two responses, generally I have said my piece. I have stood up for the people I believe I need to stand up for. That's enough.
4) Pay attention to how you feel in your body.
If my shoulders start hunching up ... if I start feeling anxious ... if I start to feel addicted to checking a thread for responses ... it's time to walk away. There will be more jerkburgers to fight with tomorrow! Which leads me to my next rule ...
5) Remember that you can't hug every cat.
Do you remember this silly video from a few years ago, where a woman cries about how there are so many cats in the world that she can't hug and someone made it into a song? I know it was a joke ... but the phrase pops into my mind quite often when I get in that headspace where it feels like everyone I speak with is in denial about unconscious bias.
Because, you know, most people in general are in denial about unconscious bias. And if I speak up every time I see someone with this particular blind spot, I will have literally no time to do anything else. Ever. So, I hug some of the cats that come across my path, and let the others go. And I try to address these blind spots I see in other, less personalized ways, like in my writing, as opposed to cat-by-cat on Facebook.
6) Trolls get memes, or nothing at all.
Trolls are not worth fighting with, because half the time they are bots anyway. You can spot trolls easily by looking for terms like "snowflake," "liberal elites," "love it or leave it," etc. These folks will not be convinced by your eloquence, so just drop a meme on them and get on with your life. I mean, unless you are PMSing really hard and feel like stomping them. Moderation in all things, my loves!
7) Delete, ignore, and block liberally and with glee.
In some of my online hangouts there are some seriously wack dudes -- red-pill-taking, total misogynist dickwads. Some people try to make them see sense, and I bless them on their journey, but that gets a big old nope from me. I feel quite happy to use the features that technology gives me to remove these vile expressions from my life.
What are your personal guidelines for engagement online? Have you ever gotten anywhere interesting in an internet debate? Do let me know in the comments.