It’s a belief found in almost every religion and ethic in the world — in Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, even Zoroastrianism: the Golden Rule. “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Matt. 7:12 [NIV]) Or maybe, “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” (Confucius, Analects XV.24)
Simple as it sounds, we leave it behind the instant politics enters the conversation. Whether we’re scrolling through our feed and see a sarcastic meme or we’re engaged in a discussion, kindness and generosity are often the last things on our minds. It becomes far more important to stick it to the other guy or shut up our opponents than to extend them anything like kindness. It brings a deliciously satisfying emotion with it, too, putting an opponent in his place with our quick wits.
In that moment, we forget what it feels like to be on the other side of such comments. Or we justify our meanness by remembering all the mean things they — or “their set” — have said about us and we gloat and persist.
We forget that a mean spirit never won anyone over.
Why do we argue about politics anyway? Is it just so we can feel smug? I don’t think so. I imagine for some people its pure sport, but I think most of us want to convince people that we’re right. Especially in a democracy, where what people believe affects the whole country. We know how important it is for truth to win the day and we want to speak up.
That’s why it’s critical that we demand empathy from ourselves.
Consider the last time someone in a political situation said something mean or hateful to or about you. Maybe it’s a politician making a snide remark, or a friend posting a mean-spirited image, or a family member calling you a cruel name. We all have a story. Pick the one that hurts the most and sit with it a minute.
Did you feel more inclined in that moment to listen to their opinions, or less? Were you more open to their views after that, or less? What about now? Maybe time has changed your view, but it’s likely in spite of those comments, not because of them. Even if you managed to keep your head, and not respond in kind, the hurt is still there and is still likely to hinder you engaging reasonably with the other side.
Knowing this, why do we continue to welcome hatefulness into our conversations and posts? Are our friends really such hopeless cases that it’s worth driving them away further? Are our family members really so despicable that it’s worth ruining any chance we have of convincing them? Unlikely. No, we do it because of the sick pleasure we get from letting our worst selves speak.
But take the long view. In the moment it’s pleasant, but what does it yield tomorrow, next year, or ten years from now? Only more division and incivility. We need to call upon ourselves to genuinely take the high road.
I believe this is especially hard when engaging politically online. Putting aside how easy it is to thoughtlessly share a meme, political conversations online are full of temptation and lack the normal social barriers to confrontation.
First, text-based conversations — of any kind — lack the body-language cues that help diffuse tense situations. We’ve all encountered this problem in our personal relationships, and while online language has morphed in recent history to make tone more apparent, text messaging, email, and Twitter exchanges still lack the personal touch essential to effective communication. They also lack the visual and auditory clues that tell us when to back off, when things are getting out of hand, or when we’ve reached a point of commonality. We may still be able to discern these things in the written word, but it has to be much more explicit.
Similarly, I find it is much easier to say something hurtful online than it is in person. The virtual distance between us online takes the immediate repercussions out of verbal cruelty. How many of us would repeat the words of a snippy meme in conversation with a politically-opposed friend? I imagine we would be careful about it, if we did it at all because we know that words hurt. But we say them online because the internet is infinitely less personal.
Additionally, context plays almost no role in online discussions. Anyone can read your tweets, and while Facebook does have some limits, our friend circles are larger than the discussions we’re having. We may direct our conversation to one individual, or a few, but every one of our friends (and our friends friends!) can read every word. And there’s no telling how many people can read a political discussion in the comments on a public Facebook post! One of the primary rules of persuasion is “know your audience” and that is truly impossible when your audience is the world.
Finally, social media debates lack the nuance of an in-person conversation. In part because of the lack of social cues to know when it’s time to change the subject, with the further difficulty that no one can politely excuse themselves and go get something to drink or beg off because “it’s getting late.” The internet is always there. It’s getting late now, but Twitter will still be there in the morning, ready for the wittiest comeback in your now-refreshed mind. In person conversations have a natural ebb and flow that online conversations have yet to imitate. There’s more room for nuance, more opportunity for clarification, more freedom to circle back and around, and more attention paid in the moment to the actual conversation with everyone involved in the same room. There is, I think, a far better chance of finding common ground and building the rapport essential to a unified future in an in person conversation than one online.
That’s not to say we should abandon online conversations wholesale. Only to advise caution. But whether we choose to engage in-person or online, the rules we hold ourselves to should be the same. Speak with kindness, listen attentively before choosing to respond, never lash out in anger, even if what you have to say would be so clever. Keep the long view of conversations and remember our ultimate aim is to convince and win-over, not belittle and obliterate.
In short: speak to others as you would have them speak to you. It won’t solve all our problems or end our real disagreements, but it will ease the path to unity.