We’ve been lamenting the state of social media discussions for years. We talk about civility and chastise people for jumping to react before all the facts are in, and then we turn around and jump to react before all the facts are in on the next news item that comes up just because that one happens to support our existing views.
We attack people who post opinions we don’t like, and we bristle when someone dares challenge our own opinions. We type, “I have the right to my opinion!”
Sure, we have the right, but what’s the point?
We don’t have to immediately respond to the latest news story just because it seems like everyone else is responding. Unless we have some sort of unique expertise or relevant personal experience or insight that could help others better understand what’s happening, honestly, nobody really needs our opinion.
We might want people to need our opinion, but that doesn’t make it true.
Who are you? Who am I?
If we don’t have something of value to add to the conversation, why clog up the pipes even more?
Part of the problem over the past few years is that most people feel like their views are just as valuable as everyone else’s. That’s not true. Sure, we’re entitled to our own views, but that doesn’t make our views inherently valuable to others.
I have opinions about cars, but I don’t actually know much about cars. My opinions are based on which car is purple or feels like I’m driving a space ship when I sit in it. My opinions about cars aren’t as valuable to someone else as the opinions of a person who is an expert on cars.
Our opinions are based on our limited knowledge of the topic (and everyone has limited knowledge, to one degree or another), our personal experiences (whether we believe they influence us or not, they do), our morals and religious beliefs, our political affiliations or lack of, our own self-interest, and whatever interest we may or may not have in others.
If the U.S. government announced it had made some deal to eliminate all student loan debt, I would have an opinion about that based on my years working in finance and the information I know about student loan debt (knowledge), my experience paying off my own student loan debt (personal experience), my belief that it is unjust to charge so much for higher education which prices out less privileged people (morals and religious beliefs), who is involved in the program (political affiliation), excitement about clearing my debt (self-interest), and my hope that clearing these debts would provide the step up so many people need to be successful (interest in others). Some of these contributing factors would come into play more than others (I wouldn’t personally care much which party accomplished it), but they are all parts of what would form my opinion.
Someone else, who had never had student loan debt or had never been to college, would be formed by their own personal experiences, along with the rest. They may or may not form a different opinion. The thing is, our different opinions are more a factor of us than of the facts.
When we take to Facebook to blast our opinion to everyone, we aren’t sharing information with them. We’re sharing us.
We’re telling people what knowledge we do or don’t have (and, yes, it’s pretty easy to spot people who are almost entirely ignorant on a topic). We’re telling them what we likely have or have not experienced in our lives. We’re telling them if we’re Republican or Democrat. We’re telling them which morals we hold to be more important than others and which religion we’re part of. We’re telling them what our self-interest is and to what level we’re interested in others.
What we usually aren’t sharing is necessary information.
Sometimes we may find ourselves in a position to offer value beyond our personal opinion. Personal experiences aren’t bad. They can be a source of wisdom. The thing is, we need to frame these experiences so we’re honest about what they are. They are not the be-all, end-all truth. They are personal experiences, which may or may not be relevant to the bigger discussion. And we have to keep in mind that for every personal experience we’ve had that supports our opinion, someone else has had a personal experience that supports the opposite. When it comes to getting at the root of an issue, it’s what the majority of people in that situation experience that will usually matter more than any one individual’s experience.
Going back to the fictional student loan forgiveness program, let’s say someone with massive student loan debt shared their personal experience of how student loan debt was preventing them from achieving their goal of opening a small business. That would be a value-added comment to make about the plan. It gives people who have never dealt with student loan debt some insight into what it’s like to deal with, and it shows some potential benefit not only to individuals but to our economy.
However, if that person just came out and posted, “DOWN WITH STUDENT LOAN DEBT!” it wouldn’t have the same level of value. Then we’re just back to shouting our opinions at one another without sharing any information that would actually be useful.
It’s OK to support or oppose something, but it’s more effective to remain silent unless you have something of value to add to the conversation. Most of us aren’t so important that people are hanging on our every post, wondering what we think about every single news item that comes out.
It’s tempting to read something online and jump in with our take on it before we’ve even taken ten minutes to think about it. That’s unwise for a few reasons. Besides adding fuel to the fires already burning out there, it’s important to remember the ignorant comments we make on the internet are there forever. They will come back to bite us.
What if social media had existed during the Civil Rights Movement? What if all the knee-jerk, ignorant and racist comments our grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ generation made were archived for us to read today?
Future generations will read what we’re posting right now, and they’ll judge us for it.
I’ve seen so many ignorant, racist, sexist, and homophobic comments over the past few years that are now archived for future generations to read. If my granddaughter looks me up one day, what do I want her to see? Someone who has an emotional reaction to a news story and spreads misinformation because I can’t be bothered to listen to people who know more than I do about it? Or do I want her to see a reasonable person who only speaks up when she has something to add to the conversation or when there is something truly horrific and unjust happening, and she knows this because she’s listening to people who know more than she does and not just people who happen to align with her?
We can allow fear to work on us and make knee-jerk statements about things we don’t fully understand, or we can take a step back and keep things in perspective. Not everything is a crisis, though some people profit an awful lot from making us think otherwise.
Sometimes we do more damage to the causes we care about by rashly speaking up when we should be listening and learning.
I know some people are reading this and getting outraged. “But how can I be silent when X is going on?!”
Easy. You keep your mouth shut and your fingers to yourself.
First of all, is X going on? Really? Are you sure? Or do you just believe it’s happening because you read an article on the internet or a post made by someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about? Or do you believe it’s happening because it’s what you always feared would happen, so you just accept any narrative that tells you it’s true?
There are some awful things happening in the world that deserve attention. It’s true there are a few topics worth making a lot of noise over, but what good is your emotionally charged status update really doing? I’ve only seen a handful of people mobilize for good through social media, and I admire those people. Most of the time, it’s just people spouting off out of fear.
There’s a difference between: “I want to make you all aware of this problem and explain to you why it’s a problem…” and “I’m against evil. Look how against evil I am. Did you all know I oppose evil? I totally do. If you disagree with me on this topic I clearly don’t know enough about, you’re evil. Nuance is for evil-doers.”
I get it. We want people to know where we stand. If people really knew anything about you, they’d probably already know where you stand on these issues. Most of the time, all “taking a stand” does is get you some back-patting from people who already agree with you and arguments from people who will never agree with you. Besides, it’s not much of a “stand” if you’ve got nothing to lose from broadcasting your views. If you really want to take a stand, come out and say something you believe in that’s unpopular in your circle.
There’s a difference between opening up a post for discussion and shout-preaching from the rooftop. Discussion is great. Preaching for all your friends who agree with you to hear is unnecessary.
“…a time to be silent and a time to speak…” –Ecclesiastes 3:7
We’ve been speaking and it’s not working out so well. Maybe it’s time to try being silent sometimes.