How Do We Interact on the Cyber-Commons?

How Do We Interact on the Cyber-Commons? February 9, 2015

I bet I’m not the only one whose Facebook page is lighting up right now with people arguing about vacccines, President Obama’s comments about Christian extremism, and other current events. Though there’s always something, and my Minnesota location could bias me—I think it’s partly just February. Our media comes out of the East Coast, where the weather has been bad enough this year to make Minnesotans smile in gratitude about our own, which is saying something. I have to wonder if weather-related grumpiness of news teams isn’t hitting us, along with everything else.

Whatever it is, people do appear to be having at it with great heat. Often, in the midst of emotional or divisive conversations, Friends write to me privately and ask how I manage to be polite to this person or that person with this opinion or that opinion. Invariably my answer is the same—I’m genuinely curious. I’m curious about where opinions come from, about why we make the particular meaning about things that we do. I cultivate curiosity as my response to comments when I feel judgment rushing in. (Side note: I apologize to my Quaker friends for using the capitalized Friends to make clear that I’m talking about Facebook Friends. Somehow putting quotes around “friends” seemed too insulting, so this is how I opted to be clear.)

I want my Facebook wall to be a place of learning, for me and for others. Certainly, I have strong biases about what I post, but there’s much to be learned about why others see it differently. There’s also much to be learned by asking people where they got their information and providing sources if what they say has been well-disputed. Then, I can learn whether what they hold is an opinion or a conviction, and I must say that I back away when I hit hard core convictions: then it’s really hard to have a conversation. People have provided links on many occasions which have caused me to change my opinions, but pretty much no one has ever changed my convictions.

“As a Christian, I’m offended by Obama’s remarks,” said one Friend yesterday, and I was genuinely curious. “Why specifically are you offended as a Christian? Do you disagree with the facts of what President Obama said about Christianity? Other Christians were not offended…” She repeated, over and over, as other friends, Christian and non-Christian, commented with scripture and their own opinions, only, “I repeat, I am offended as a Christian.” There’s really nowhere to go with that one. OK. Got it. Nothing more to be said. You’re offended, and you link that offense with being Christian, even as other Christians tell you exactly why they are not offended! I’d like to learn more about how that works for you, but to you it is so obvious that I must be anti-Christian for even wanting to know.

Many of my Friends de-Friend others because of their political opinions and their biases. I’ve certainly been de-Friended by a number of folks, but for me social media is a great place to engage, so I stick in there with the Friends with whom I disagree, even painfully disagree. Facebook allows me time to engage with them repeatedly; people show multi-faceted parts of themselves so that even as I disagree with or object to comments made, I can still genuinely click ‘like’ and swoon over how cute their dog or new niece is. We go far beyond bumper stickers and t-shirts in stating what we believe and care about. Where else are we going to have the conversations that we so desperately need to have if we’re to move forward as one nation?

Sometimes, I admit, I’m embarrassed, offended, morally outraged, or disappointed by comments written on my wall, and wonder if I’m making it an ‘unsafe’ place by allowing them. But, in this day and age, what the hell is safety? So I quickly and clearly state my disagreement or objection. I’m not talking about trolls here; I’m not talking about bullying or conscious meanness—I’m just talking about posts that appear to me undeniably racist, or sexist, or Islamophobic, or otherwise hurtful. I just need to be on the record so that others know that I am in dialogue, not in support, of such comments, and feel that my wall is a relatively open space for people who hold the identities under attack. But the people I see de-Friending others are not, primarily, doing it because of comments targeted at them personally, or a group they belong to. They are saying things more like, “I just couldn’t bear to see how hateful this Friend about x was so I de-Friended them…” White people de-Friending other white people about racism. Straight people de-Friending straight people about homophobia. For my money, I’d rather they had the difficult conversations in an ongoing way and tried to use their influence with their Friend or family member to loosen biases.

I guess for me the question is how we want to use the Facebook Commons. I think of my page as a public space: I’ve chosen to accept Friend requests from many people I don’t personally know. I’m in closed groups where we would not tolerate many of the comments I am referencing, and that’s where I might speak more bluntly, judgmentally, or with more emotion. Certainly I understand people who hold an identity which is under attack saying that they don’t want to see particular comments on their page. But where we hold privilege, I’m for using that privilege to promote and prolong conversation. Like it or not, Facebook is now a significant deplacer of the corner diner, the water cooler, the bridge club, the hair salon, the barber shop, the potluck supper—whatever your image is for where ‘the people’ engage in the personal conversations that shape culture. I know that people use it in a variety of ways and you may only want to watch cat videos or talk to people whose opinions you share, but, for me, it’s a resource too precious to waste by cutting engaged people out of the conversation, regardless of the perspectives they bring.

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