If social media has taught me anything, it’s that having an opinion is a risky enterprise; at its best it’s likely to reveal new sides of people you thought you knew, and at its worst, attract vitriolic trolls. Social media has, for all of its good, made the public sphere so much more public, and instantaneously so. No more quiet quips on your Myspace page. And definitely no bad jokes on twitter —you could lose friends, your job, or even be harassed. And forget trying to make an impassioned plea for anything meaningful at the Oscars without a storm of backlash.
Worse, simply having an opinion is no longer just a matter of speaking your mind or standing up for your integrity—it’s all but guaranteed to generate argument. I know; for most of my life I walked down the middle of hot topics, both because I often could see both sides, and because I grew up with the message to avoid conflict at all costs. I lived my life in the gray area of never taking a firm stand in a public way.
Of course, before the Internet (that’s right, I was alive “back then” as my 6 year old can barely imagine) my main form of long-distance communication was writing letters—to pen-pals from camp, to my intellectual Opa, to any friend with working eyes and an address. Full of the righteous passion of youth, sometimes these letters contained sentiments that provoked strong feelings in the letter recipient; after all, we were often discussing nothing less than the Big Questions, like would we ever see a woman become President, and who had Kev been clanking teeth with? If I was rash, rude, or zealous, my handwriting arching up in big, dramatic loops, it might take as little as a week and up to a month before I heard back from my friend with a counter-argument or expression of hurt.
The Internet definitely made me bolder—first with a blog, then with a Facebook page, which is when I began to notice the knee-jerk reaction of “I have an opposing opinion.” Beyond the bound-to-be-heated subjects such as race and gender, equality and sexual assault, the most shockingly heated thread early on in my Facebook tenure, was over breastfeeding. As a woman raised in Marin County, California, a bastion of natural parenting and chakra-positive holistic health modalities, I came from the gung-ho school of breastfeeding. One day, I shared a link in my shiny new Facebook feed to an article that suggested breastfeeding was a superior method to bottle feeding. Within minutes, a contingent of my Facebook friends began to attack one another and several friends even emailed me to say they were hurt by responses on my thread. It was the first time in my then-short social media foray that I realized I could not always predict people’s responses and that what seemed like a benign topic could turn hot fast.
As I’ve increased friends and presence on Facebook and Twitter, and begun publishing articles in a variety of online publications, where we discuss everything from the merits and perils of home schooling to food choices, I’ve learned that no topic is truly safe from a potential flame war. And of course, vitriol begets more of itself. I have deleted more than a few threads when the participants simply couldn’t behave, and apologized for the outpourings of other acquaintances.
I find this behavior troubling for a number of reasons, but perhaps especially because I attended a liberal arts program at Sonoma State University, known as The Hutchins School. The tiny program was modeled after University of Chicago’s “Great Books” program—where instead of textbooks we read interdisciplinary literature—fiction and non-fiction—and engaged in Socratic dialogue method around a seminar table. Socratic dialogue is a question-driven form of discussion inwhich students are encouraged to think independently, not to follow a set of proscribed outcomes. Or, as Christopher Phillips writes in Socrates Café, “…even the most universally recognized and used concept, when subjected to Socratic scrutiny, might reveal not only that there is not universal agreement, after all, on the meaning of any given concept, but that every single person has a somewhat different take on each and every concept under the sun.”
We were guided to treat differing opinions on a subject as not only inevitable, but good, so long as we explored the subject from different angles, and asked questions. Don’t get me wrong: we argued, we took umbrage with each other’s ideas at times and offered counter points-of-view, but we did so respectfully, and more importantly, when one person talked, the rest of us listened. I remember a particularly heated conversation about the existentialist ideas provoked by Camus’ The Stranger, for instance—existentialism was freeing to some of us who were still grappling with the influence of our households and childhoods, while others thought its protagonist, Meurseult, was nothing more than a solipsistic misanthrope. I learned more about religion by discussing our various interpretations of scriptures than if a professor had stood lecturing to me. We never came to blows or lost respect for one another. Our professors were there as allies, not leaders, to point out the nuances we were too young to see, and keep us from running off the rails into name calling or heated argument.
Socratic dialogue cracked open my world, my way of thinking, and empowered me as a person and a young woman. I remember these discussions with great fondness and see their influence in me to this day. Socratic dialogue taught me the need to look at both sides of a story—to, in fact, presume there are always other viewpoints, and that facts are often skewed to manipulate an outcome. I learned that some people will always talk louder and more pointedly than others, but also that, when held accountable for their actions and words, people will, more often than not, rise to the occasion.
Perhaps that accountability of one’s peers is what’s missing in this ranting new online world. Why be careful, or considerate, or open-minded, when you can hide behind an anonymous avatar, or just hit delete?
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Photo, “Talk” by Matus Laslofi, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.