Debate and exchange are necessary elements of a mature society. Every opinion — however ignorant, inflammatory or absurd — adds a layer of depth to the collective understanding. After a reasoned argument, even if one’s position is not changed, it should at least be reinforced or adjusted. The friction of debate is required to smooth the rough edges of assumption.
Facebook should be the ultimate tool for this exercise. Though it’s fashionable to declaim Facebook, especially as means of thoughtful exchange, it has all the features of an ideal platform for debate. It’s accessible. Every statement is recorded next to the name and picture of its creator. No one can be interrupted. Above all else, the people you’re communicating with are supposed to be your friends!
Yet even with the many safeguards benevolently bestowed upon us by the almighty Zuckerberg, our Facebook debates are a comic tragedy. Most end after a few statements with neither side engaging the other. The ones that last longer quickly degenerate into personal insults. People care very little as to how the words next to their picture reflect upon themselves and few are willing to consider alternative perspectives.
As someone who’s put some (probably too much) thought into this, I’ve developed a few strategies to harness the best of Facebook dialogue while avoiding the worst of it.
Own your words.
If you make a statement, you should be able to defend it. I know a woman who proudly describes herself as a “radical feminist.” I think this is a distinction that must be earned rather than assumed, but I digress. She boasts about her ideological purity and takes pride in letting all her friends on Facebook know where she stands. I see no problem in having strong opinions and letting them be known, but where she betrays democratic ideals is in her treatment of the opposition. “If someone disagrees with what I post, I just delete them.” This struck me as absurd and the height of insecurity in her positions. You don’t have to respond to taunts, but if you make a controversial statement and someone responds you should be able to counter. If you’re bold enough to say that the penis is the root of all evil (and you may be right), you’d better have the ovaries to back it up.
Stay on topic.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the Facebook debate is the wild tangents. I once read a thread that began with a statistic in favor of the Affordable Care Act. Someone replied that “Obamacare is socialist garbage,” to which the original poster responded with a defense of socialism. The conversation steered into whether Soviet communism was a fair example of socialism, and somehow, far down the line, ended with a bitter argument as to whether Islam is a religion of peace. All of these questions are worthy of discussion, but when crammed together they sound like incoherent ramblings. Worst of all, it seems that neither side learned anything. Don’t take the bait. If you talk about everything you’re not talking about anything.
A sure way of knowing you are getting the best of your opponent in a debate is when they start attacking you personally. I’ve been called both a “liberal bitch” and a “fascist dick” depending on whom I’m disagreeing with. The translation is usually the same: I don’t have a rational response; I hope this will at least piss you off. My advice is to concede all of their defamations but assert that it doesn’t detract from your point. As in: “I may be a drug-addled, unemployed, know-nothing liberal bitch but that doesn’t make American Sniper any less full of shit.”
Just because you fiercely oppose everything your adversary holds sacred doesn’t mean you can’t be cordial. Adopt a detached tone and recognize when your opponent makes a reasonable point. You can still crush them under the weight of your superior logic, it just makes the debate more civil if you’re polite. Respect people even if you must annihilate their ideas.
Salvage all the knowledge you can from the crazies.
Everyone has that friend who believes in Illuminati conspiracies, alien abductions, Jesus, or the plot of American Sniper. When it comes up on your feed you roll your eyes or cringe a little, but don’t be so dismissive. Even if their belief has no basis in reality, there is something to be learned in its psychology. From my experience, most people who spout psychobabble usually do so unopposed. Challenge them. Question their logic. Maybe your intervention will save them from insanity. Just try to heed my earlier advice and stay on topic; these people can drag you deep down the rabbit hole if you’re not careful.
Recognize that it may be you who is the asshole.
This may be the most difficult part of the strategy to implement, especially for me. I loath conceding even an inch of my point, even if it drags a conversation on far longer than it should, and I look like a stammering fool. I’ve set myself in indefensible positions yet remained intractable. The point is that we love to shit on Facebook and its many inhabitants for their lack of sense, decorum, and shame, but as members we have all been part of the problem. We can also be part of the solution. I hope you take a long, hard look in the selfie cam and decide how you can make Facebook a better place to share ideas.