|Sharing Political Opinions Online: How to Keep Your Sanity in Cyber Space
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Everyone knows the old saying: “Never discuss politics or religion at parties”—or anywhere else you want to get along. In a lot of ways, this advice makes sense. People are generally passionate about these topics, and they can lead to friction between even the best of friends. Who wants to antagonize family members, co-workers, or anyone else you have to deal with on a regular basis? Speaking for myself, I avoid this kind of face-to-face confrontation unless I really trust and love the person I’m speaking with and know we can get along even after a disagreement.
So what to say about discussing politics at the biggest, most freewheeling party in history? I mean, of course, the Internet. Depending what message boards and chat rooms you frequent, the Internet can be part cultural salon, part all-night rave, and part professional wrestling ring. Throw in the fact that many of the people you encounter are complete strangers, and you have a very combustible environment. If you’ve never gotten into at least one argument on the Internet, you probably haven’t been saying anything at all.
Just the other day, a friend of mine posted this status on facebook: “Note to self: You’re not a good debater, so don’t ever pipe up and give your opinion, because egotistical jerks will make you feel like an idiot and insist that if you’re not well-versed in all things philosophical, historical, and biographical, you’re not fit to have an opinion.”
Everyone commiserated with her—funny how we all knew exactly how she felt. One friend responded, “I have decided to quit putting anything political on. I made the mistake of getting involved in a really serious political issue a couple of years ago and lost friends over it.”
It’s a justifiable reaction I suppose, but I couldn’t help feeling a little unsettled. Why should bullies intimidate us away from participating in political debate? Why should social fear prevent us from sharing information we think can help people we care about?
Frankly, I don’t think it should. And in writing this article, I came up with a few ideas to help navigate the rough and tumble of e-debate. We can’t control the actions of others, so we shouldn’t expect to never again be ambushed by an online flame warrior. But I think these guidelines can shape our behavior to help us minimize arguments and make the best of situations where things go wrong.
• Before sharing any opinion online, ask yourself what your motivation is. What do you hope to accomplish? Are you framing your language in a way that will actually help you meet your goal, or are you just reacting? If you only want to blow off steam, consider the point below.
• Start a private, offline journal. Use that as an outlet for your heated emotions. Use it to explore new ideas—admit what you don’t know and record what you’ve researched. Write down your questions and answers about issues. Hammer out what it is you really believe.
• Remember the Golden Rule. A person’s God-given value isn’t determined by his or her opinions, so be kind even if someone is ticking you off. For me, many a good mood has been ruined by the thoughtless comments of an online stranger. I now think twice before shooting poisonous vibes cross-country to some unsuspecting soul.
• Never say anything online that you wouldn’t say in person. We may feel insulated sitting at our computers, like we do when we drive our cars downtown. But unlike those bad drivers who cut us off on the freeway, Internet commuters can hear everything we yell at them.
• Be willing to apologize, even to big jerks. Showing humility really does soften people’s hearts. And you don’t have to apologize for what you believe. Something as simple as, “I’m sorry for upsetting you—I didn’t mean to be offensive” can really change the spirit of a conversation. I tried this with an in-law’s sister (someone I never see but with whom I should keep peace). Even though we didn’t agree in the end, we also didn’t part in a spirit of rancor.
• Don’t start an argument on a friend’s blog or facebook page. Would you go to a party at someone’s house and pick a fight with another guest? Well, you might be tempted if the other guest is downright insulting. I know I’ve succumbed a few times. But resist the urge and do what you usually do when you meet a rude person: ignore him.
• Don’t feed the trolls (that would be those nasty bomb throwers who make inflammatory comments just to provoke you). Almost every online newspaper article nowadays sports a comment thread overrun by trolls. I know this, so I don’t even bother reading them. It’s impossible to have a reasonable conversation with a troll, so don’t even try.
• Don’t preach. You can be the most polite person in the universe and still be off-putting if you feel the need to deliver a sermon at every opportunity. Social networking sites are better used not to convert and convince, but to build relationships. Plus, you can’t effectively teach someone if you don’t care about him. People won’t listen to you if you haven’t demonstrated you have their best interests at heart.
• You are not a stupid nobody. Remember the words of the Apostle Paul to his friend Timothy: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” If you’re like me, you’ve always wanted the ability to spontaneously toss off snarky retorts to the pompous know-it-alls of the world. But again, if you’re like me, you’re easily flummoxed in an argument. It can take me hours to come up with the perfect response. But this is not a character flaw—God has given us sound minds, not necessarily verbal brilliance. Most of us need calm, slow deliberation to discover why we believe what we believe. I think such self-discovery is worth the time it takes.
The Internet, like life, is one big unpredictable mess. There is no way to guarantee we won’t get our feelings hurt or our pride stomped on, and we can’t force other people to respect us. But that’s no reason to give up expressing our opinions. Instead, we can use these challenges to improve our ability to communicate with others, build our self-confidence, and strengthen our understanding. And ultimately, these skills will improve our lives offline where it matters most.