I logged into Facebook and saw a post by a friend (an actual friend who I have known for many years) where she mentioned an issue (I won't mention it here because it will likely divide us) that she and I are on the opposite side of. Originally, I thought she had her facts wrong and because I know her, I felt compelled to "set her straight". My knee-jerk reaction made me pause. Why get involved? How best to go about it?
After I took action, I put up an informal poll on my own Facebook page to see if I was alone in my reactions, and I received several responses. It was heartwarming to read how much thought and care people put into their comments. Here's a summary of their comments.
How well do I know the person?
If this is a Facebook acquaintance, someone I haven't met in real life, perhaps I'll let the post stand as is and keep scrolling, because I'm not invested in this person. If this person is someone I know, perhaps someone I'm related to, then I feel more compelled to present an opposing opinion, because I feel confident that I'll be met with respect. Most people commented that they would take the discussion offline at this point, which I agree with. Either privately messaging the person or, better still, chat via phone or in person. When we humans are online, we forget that there is another human on the other line and we run the risk of dehumanizing each other. I have a hard time believing that the horrible things people say anonymously in comment threads are things they would say to that same person face-to-face. This is because we see and feel how our words hurt the other person and because we have compassion.
How important is the issue to us?
I once took on a distant relative who posted some critical things about welfare recipients because I have been a welfare recipient in the past. I thought if this relative had a different face to relate to welfare, one that was closer to their own, it might evoke some feelings of empathy for those who receive welfare. Since this issue was close to my own experience, I felt compelled to discuss it, even though I didn't really know this relative in real life. The lesson I learned from this is that I cannot teach or shame someone into feeling empathy. Empathy only shows up through experience and relationship. The more empathy I have for a subject, the more important it is to me.
Is the timing right?
One good thing about commenting online is that I do have time to reflect... This is true for any of us who take on the challenge of living with awareness. I can type something and then realize it didn't come out at all like I wanted and remove the whole thing before anyone reads it. Timing is one of the four gates of speech, which have their roots in Sufism but are close to the Buddhist practice of non-harming even when speaking. The four gates are:
1. Is it true?
2. Is it beneficial (kind)?
3. Is it necessary?
4. Is it timely?
Occasionally, I'll get riled up by a post and fire off a comment, but I'll pause before I commit to posting and reflect on my own state of mind. What thoughts and emotions am I experiencing and what conditions and situations are guiding my words? If I'm not in a calm place where I can write words with respect, I'll delete the post. The timing may not be right for me or for the person I'm attempting to communicate with.
My guiding principle
There is a simpler way to look at all of this. If I imagine that each of these people are my friends, in real life, and that I've got a friendship with them that I cherish, my actions become clear. I know what it feels like when I'm discussing different opinions with a friend vs. someone who doesn't know and respect me. (We all know that, I hope. We just forget.) Friendliness in Sanskrit is maitri, and it is listed as one of the ways in which we can find tranquility in Yoga Sutra 1.33. From Nicolai Bachman's website:
So, how did I respond to my friend's post? Well, to be honest, my knee-jerk reaction was to hide her post, but I paused before doing that, because that's not being a friend and I wouldn't want her to do that with me. Instead, I did my own research and realized that I was the one who was wrong about the facts. What she had posted was completely accurate, even though my feelings about the facts differed from hers. I decided not to comment anything on her post. She knows how I feel about this subject and now I know how she feels. And we can disagree, respectfully, and still remain friends.
That desire to hide all posts that I disagree with stems from my own discomfort, and we are not taught to be okay with discomfort, especially here in the US. The lack of bipartisanship in our government is proof of how much we reject opinions outside of our own. The practice of hiding what makes us uncomfortable is dangerous to our individual and collective growth. We need to go back to being friends, to seeing the good in each of us, to giving and receiving different opinions with mutual respect. Online posts don't change people's opinions, but relationships do. I wish I had the time (and the energy) to go befriend every online troll I read - can you imagine how that might ripple outward and change things? (See an example here) But I will pause and listen to people's opinions that differ from mine a little more. I hope you'll do the same, in the name friendship.