[Fourth in a series on communication. Start at the top.]
Two of the corners of my life in which I am the least siloed — in which perspectives and opinions bump against each other most — are family and Facebook.
In most other ways, my family and Facebook are profoundly different. My extended family’s mix of perspectives is a received fact, and one for which I’m grateful, especially as a parent. By contrast, the diversity of my Facebook friends results from my own choices.
Another difference: Families don’t often talk openly about beliefs and opinions. As Stephen Prothero put it, they do religion like mad but rarely talk about religion. Facebook, on the other hand, is all about sharing opinions.
I’ll get to family later in the series. First Facebook.
For better and worse, I climb into Facebook friendhood with almost anyone who asks. My friends fall mostly into five groups: Family, K-12 friends, College friends, Post-college friends, and Readers of my books.
It’s interesting that those five groups are roughly arranged in both the order I entered them in life and increasing order of self-siloing. The older I get, the more they’ve reflected my own choices. My extended family is mostly different from me in religion and politics, though they vary in intensity. Most of my K-12 friends differ from me in religion and politics, though not as much as family. Friends met at Berkeley are about half secular and half religious, though almost all politically progressive, as are post-college friends. And readers of my books are naturally pretty secular and (as far as I can tell) mostly progressive politically.
See how the silo narrows as I go?
It’d be easy to cull this list down to a comfortable silo of 800 who would tend to nod at my every Facebook status and post and link. But I’ve been in enough of those situations to know it’s not good for me. It makes me lazy, gives me the queasy feeling I used to get as I stood in chuckling clutches at this or that atheist meeting, basking in the glow (at last, at last!) of people who saw the world as I did.
It’s helpful at first. Then it gets really old.
About seven years ago, my writing and my speeches to like-minded groups began centering on the need to spend a bit of our seemingly boundless other-critical energy on a peek in the mirror. An example was a post titled “Six things the religious (generally) do (much) better than secularists.” Some loved it — others were pissed. I considered that a good sign.
I continued in my talks to humanist groups around the country, noting that churches ironically do humanistic community better than we do, and that we can and should fix that. Then in my first announcement about Foundation Beyond Belief, I pointed to the fact that the average churchgoer gives away 2-3 times as much discretionary income as the average non-churchgoer — and was met again with both support and outrage. Never mind that I was making the larger point that it’s pretty clearly a structural problem, not a moral one — that churches have created a “culture of giving” by providing regular and easy opportunities to give. Still a bitter pill for some. And again, I thought that a fine thing.
So I guess I’m involved in a two-part communications project here. I want to hear and be heard more effectively outside of my silos, but I also want to stir up the complacency within my silos. And because of my promiscuous friending, Facebook is one of my main opportunities for adventures in silo resistance.
I’m not talking about deconverting anyone. I haven’t spent a bit of intentional energy on that in at least ten years. I saw that most people will think about worldview questions on their own schedule and under their own control or not at all, and that active attempts to force the issue usually drive them the other way. No need to “give” anyone reasons to believe or not believe. The reasons are scattered in plain sight all around our feet, just a thought away. At best, we can spur each other’s curiosity – How interesting, an ethical atheist. How fascinating, an intellectual evangelical – by dismantling preconceptions. And the best way to do that is by being out and normal.
(Funny thing — since I stopped trying to change people’s minds, I’ve received ten times as many emails from people whose minds I’ve changed.)
Facebook is one of the places I can be out and normal. It’s also possible to use Facebook to create a silo, of course, and many people do just that, consciously or not. Befriend a like mind here, defriend an unlike one there, and pretty soon we’ve built another echo chamber.
Unlike my more siloed corners, I know when I post something on Facebook that it will be seen by several of the most prominent atheists in the world AND my wife’s extended Baptist family, by Republican neighbors AND Democratic friends — by hundreds of people I love and respect, including many who see the world in a profoundly different way from me. Knowing that pushes me to take a little extra care to be accurate, to be fair, but also honest — to be myself, but also to improve myself. I’m not interested in pandering — instead, I try to say things of substance in such a way that I can be heard by multiple human audiences at once. (Which was good practice for writing this book.)
Next time I’ll describe a Facebook exchange that illustrates what I think I’ve learned about hearing and being heard.
[This series first appeared at The Meming of Life. Start at the beginning.]