On Why I Argue With People on Facebook

People say that you'll never change someone's mind on Facebook.  That is - I am quite certain - utter bullshit.  It's impossible for someone to lament the degree to which people form their beliefs based on their social media diet in one breath and use a perceived inability to change someone's mind on social media to disengage from an argument in the next.  Or rather, it's only possible insofar as we concede that no one can ever be swayed from a belief at all.  It's bullshit and I'm fairly certain that it stems from the way that we think about arguing in the first place.

The first problem is with what we consider “changing someone's mind.”  Our standard is generally much too high.  It's true that I will probably never convince a rock-ribbed conservative voter to register as a Democrat.  It's very possible, however, that I can convince a conservative to consider tax rates in a different light or think differently about a particular policy or the consequences for a particular group.  I can perhaps appeal to his compassion or sense of morality.  Disengaging with or dismissing this person leaves him without any available alternative to what might be erroneous - or even immoral - ideas.  I tend to think that bringing a person from an extreme fringe position back into a moral place where they can contribute to a discussion, or even just pulling a sincere opponent three inches toward my position, is an astonishingly worthy use of my time.

It's also important to consider that the person you're convincing may not be the person with whom you argue.  Social media is analogous to a loud conversation in a crowded room.  People may not be able to hear.  They may not be listening even if they can hear.  But a few might be listening and those who are listening but have not yet chosen to interject, are likely those who have not yet formed their opinion.  They are those who are interested enough to be engaged but not so strongly opinionated that they are comfortable crossing swords.  They are the people who may be sympathetic to my position but have not yet found the words to say so.  Disengaging from an argument often leaves these people with representations of only the most extreme views, usually represented in totally dishonest ways.  Publicly dismantling a poorly founded or immoral idea and providing a rational and articulate alternative to anyone in the room who may be listening is profoundly important.

The way that we think about engaging with other people is also - like so many other things - often expressed as a series of choices between two poles.  I have been told that I am no longer the kind person I was once because I engaged to aggressively.  I have been told that I am a Nazi apologist because I probed too inquisitively.  I have spoken with people who disengage because they fear being shouted down by one side of an argument or another.  I've also spoken with people who disengage because they feel they can't separate themselves from their anger.  Anger, however, is frequently a completely reasonable response.  And therein lies an important point.

Because the forum is so public actually engaging with even a reprehensible idea can be productive.  The most pernicious ideologies are often cloaked in respectability and espoused by those who may not fully appreciate their implications, even when they identify with them on a gut level.  Dismantling that idea and exposing it for what it is not only benefits from asking real questions and exploring and truly engaging; it requires it.  It does not necessarily require sympathy, nor does it require emotional understanding.  It does not require delicate questions or swallowing indignation. But the act of dismantling an idea absolutely requires probing, sincere, and pointed questions.  It also may require anger.

Many of the questions that need answering most urgently and the ideologies that most require complete and utter obliteration challenge my sense of morality in fundamental ways.  No matter how deep I wade into the weeds, I try never to forget that.  I try never to forget when I'm angry.  Why I'm angry.  I never try to hide my anger.  Only direct it effectively and express it succinctly.  Hate is never productive, even when it is completely understandable, but the two are different.  Anger is an emotion provoked by injustice, by sympathy, by solidarity.  Hate is unconditional and abiding and violent.  Anger is a natural response to engaging with hate.

It's possible that I'm naive but I think engaging and dismantling ideas is perhaps the most important thing I can do.  The purpose is not to quell my anger or to come to a place of mutual understanding.  The point is to meet the idea head on.  To demonstrate its faults - and, when necessary, unmask its bigotry - for anyone who might be listening.   There are limits to its usefulness and there are those filled with such rank bigotry that they are not worth the time.  But most people - like most ideas - are not quite so simple.