How, and why, to Facebook with Trump supporters (or liberals, or whoever you happen to distrust right now) like humans

No country is perfect, but progress is supposed to happen through a communal process of mutual education. In the American political realm, for instance, conservatives are supposed to get together with progressives and argue through differing approaches and ideas, learning from each other along the way, to create the most effective system of government possible based on the Constitution we have, making mutually agreed upon tweaks where it is deemed to be in the interest of humanity. This is meant to happen at the level of government, but also in our communities, as we work together to figure out the best representatives to send to office, and the best referendums to send to the ballot. In the end, we will never achieve perfection, but will continue to progress towards an increasingly just society that is more reflective of the principles outlined in the Constitution. In doing so we will set an example for the world and ultimately progress together towards world peace.

"Bwaaaaaaaaahahahahahahhahahahahahahahaha!!! Bwaaaaaaaaahahahahahahhahahahahahahahaha!!!", you might say, and you'd be right.

Roughly speaking, our government is a cluster of opposing forces hiding behind partisan walls and lobbing ideological grenades at each other, siphoning off money to the wealthy, and doing their best to prevent anything at all productive from happening, while our presidents use this situation as an excuse to attack our system of checks and balances by continually expanding executive power while secretly plotting to take over the Middle East.

And our citizenry is 300 million Brick Tamland's hiding behind computer screens launching curse words and bigoted memes at one another, angry and scared, alternately protesting in the street and stockpiling guns for the revolution.

No, for real, lets figure out how to work together (on Facebook)

Whatever your political persuasion, If you're reading, I'm betting you agree with me that Americans have a mess to clean up. I'm also betting you agree with me that, whether we like it or not, we're going to have to clean it up together as citizens across the political spectrum. If nothing else, the Trump election, and the recent protests, have woken most of us up to that.

And while I'm no political expert, and probably not the guy to give you a prescription for how to fix the Federal Government, as a psychiatric nurse, I do spend a lot of time talking to people who are angry and irrational. And as a former minister, I have spent a lot of time trying to help people work through values issues of right and wrong. And I spend way too much time on the internet, so I've figured out a few ways to apply the skills developed to communication on social media in a way that is, I think, helpful.   

We're all jerks and idiots sometimes, especially online, and especially when we're scared and angry. But it doesn't matter - we're in the midst of both a looming constitutional crisis, and an existing national crisis of trust. Even if we've screwed it up before, it's essential that We, the People, start the process of rebuilding trust, and working together to figure out the best way to clean up this mess. Not everyone will be on board - but you, principled readers, will lead the charge, and it will matter.

My assumption here is that the old truism that you can't change people's minds on Facebook is wrong, and that online conversations do matter. My proposed addendum is that most people instinctively suck at changing each others' minds on Facebook, but that we can learn to do better. And, that right now, social media can be an important tool for rebuilding trust with people, and communities, that we otherwise wouldn't be able to interact with.

Rules for engagement

1) Accept that these are your neighbors

Let's get right to the point: we all need to accept reality. YOU need to accept reality. In society, there will always be people with conservative impulses, and there will always be people with progressive impulses. And, yes, there will always be people who are attracted to authoritarian leadership or other forms of dangerous extremism. No matter how many times you repost this article (hint, hint), there will also always be a huge number of well-intentioned people who think differently from you, there will always be a large number of people who annoy you, or even actively harm you in unconscious ways, and there will always be a few people who are deeply, deeply dangerous. Most people are good. Some people are fine. A few Hitlers and Dahmers exist.

The good news is that through the magic of social media, we have direct access to all of those groups, which means that we all have the ability to speak to people who are dramatically different from us, and who who may live in a completely different part of the world. Some may be tempted to use this magic to proselytize for the religion they just made up, or to lob hate mail at people they don't know or like, but that's not what we're about, is it readers? 

No, the reason we're talking about online political conversation is not to save the world, to fix the neo-Nazis, or to destroy the libtards. It's to figure out how to rebuild trust with people who deserve it, to communicate something true, and to lay the groundwork so the process of building a functional society can happen. If this happens, the conservative movement will be more healthy and functional, the progressive movement will be more healthy and functional, and you will be more healthy and functional. And as a whole, we'll be better equipped to move towards the principles of equality, freedom and justice outlined in the Constitution, and to screen out leaders who use faults in our system, and the cracks in our social fabric, to benefit themselves or harm others.

2) Let's agree to talk to each other, not about each other 

You know what is nice? A meaningful, direct conversation with a friend, even when you don't agree with everything they say. You know what isn't? Overhearing someone you thought was a friend insult you when they thought you weren't listening. Somehow it's easy to forget that people can see everything you post on Facebook, but remember, if you post it, and it's insulting to someone you are friends with, it feels like the second.

My feeling is that most of what is happening on my Facebook feed is something like anxiety posting: you read something, it freaks you out, so you share it. That's what I do most days. That's fine, and not always harmful, but if you want to talk about politics in public online forums, remember that we're talking to each other about our deeply held beliefs whether we intend to be or not. I can't tell you how your particular friend group will react to any particular post, but I can say that a bunch of them will read it. Some people probably know how to be cruel to their friends productively, but I'm personally not one of them.

3) If it matters to you, speak assertively, but not aggressively. 

Communication with people you disagree with is sometimes, rightly, about working to change their mind. You are right to have deeply held moral beliefs, and to recognize that those beliefs are what make you human, and help you to live a good life. It is completely appropriate to want to defend those beliefs, and communicate about them, especially when they are challenged. And there's a fair chance that your beliefs are spot on, morally speaking.

There's also a fair chance that, for instance, a second grade math teacher is spot on in their understanding of the multiplication tables. But imagine if they led off their lessons by saying, "What the hell is wrong with you effing second graders!?! 14 x 12 = 168!! This stuff is simple and you should know it by now! You are irredeemably stupid!" Not many kids are going to be that interested in learning math. Lots will think about ways to hurt their teacher, and some might even pick up tiny pitchforks and chase them out of the school. They'll definitely tell everyone about how terrible their teacher is, and they'll be right. But that's Facebook.

Don't be terrible. When you communicate, especially when you believe you are 100% correct, communicate with a recognition that behind every profile pic or twitter handle is another human with dignity. Own your feelings. Give the benefit of the doubt. Don't assume you understand what another person thinks. And communicate with the intention of helping and persuading rather than the desire to kill, kill, kill. Don't feel like you have to compromise, just recognize that other people probably aren't going to compromise either, and that's okay. Make your points in a respectful way and move on. If they're good points, they'll resonate. If not, maybe listen and the other person will point out some good reasons why.

3) Prioritize speaking to people you like.

In that vein, if you can't stand someone, it's probably best to let someone else talk to them. There are a lot of trolls in the sea, so for your own sanity and effectiveness, it's best to let those who can cope with them fight that battle. It's way easier to have a respectful conversation with someone you disagree with who, deep down, you know is a good person. Or who you think is hilarious. Or who you have a meaningful shared history with. And it is harder for them to dismiss you as well. 

If you want to maintain your own hope and sanity, make this about making and keeping friendships and healthy community relationships. Recognize that activism - that is, communication about things that really matter - can hurt at the time, but can ultimately be a net positive for relationships despite the rumor that politics and religion just drive us apart. In the worst case scenario, it helps us understand each other more.

4) Don't expect people to change because of your awesome post

People's values change over time or after traumatic or otherwise major life events. That's it. It's not likely that your comment on their thread was either traumatic or major, so don't fault someone, or dismiss them, because they don't immediately gush about how right you were.

But also don't quit having important conversations because they don't 'work'. Because absent a major life event, the reason our values change is that we aggregate all of the meaningful bits of information that we pick up over time, and shape them into our worldview. An interesting point made by a person they like on Facebook falls into that category. People are in a freaking Facebook frenzy right now, and the whole country is in crisis. Lots of meaningful bits of information are getting out there. Change will happen over time - more quickly than normal, even.

5) Be honest

I'm going to be honest: I'm keeping the tone light here, but I think Democrats and Republicans and Independents and Libertarians and Greenies need to figure out how to communicate because I'm pretty sure that there is a freaking demagogue in the White House with the devil himself whispering evil thoughts about war and oppression in his ear, and I'm terrified that partisanship is going to prevent us from stopping genuinely dark things from going down in America.

Gives you context for this whole thing, huh? And a sense of where I'm coming from? If you're going to talk to someone, don't be a creep, don't have ulterior motives. Be honest about what you want, and what you think. Nobody likes devil's advocates,and nobody likes people who make friends to try to convert them. Talk to your friends who disagree with you, and be honest with them about why you're doing it.

6) Respect is easy, until you start getting attacked. Respect is more powerful when its given under attack.

(Disclaimer: if someone you don't like or don't trust is attacking you in a way that undermines your dignity, I personally think you are wholly justified in letting someone else deal with them, or even flaming them with an angry rant. See below on thoughts on how, when, and why to flame.)

It maybe isn't even worth stating that you should be respectful to people when you're talking to them about things you both care about. If you're reading this, you probably already know that.

But the rub is that, if you talk about politics, at some point, someone will call you a name, or attack you (or someone you care about) in a way that isn't fair, or is even cruel. It's just going to happen.

When that happens, you're going to get pissed off. It's going to happen. Plan for it.

Because when that happens (especially in a conversation with someone you know isn't just trolling), it represents an opportunity, because people generally only get angry enough to call names when something important is happening, and specifically when their values or sense of safety are being threatened. And if you recognize that something important is happening for them, these types of conflicts can be the crucible where trust is established - either with them, or with the other people who see your response.

Any response that will build trust starts with empathy. Try to figure out what the emotion behind the insult is, and why they might be feeling it. Recognize that while acting like a child and name calling on the internet isn't acceptable behavior, emotional responses are generally outside of the realm of human control, and are neither right nor wrong. And by responding to that emotion in a childish way, they've given you the moral authority in the situation. Show yourself worthy of the responsibility.

For example, if you're a liberal talking to your buddy about the Muslim refugee ban, and they say "I don't see why liberals are such pussies", you'd probably feel justified in telling them to eff off. They're being a jerk, and kind of a misogynist with the whole 'pussy' thing.

But take a deep breath: if you want a more productive response, you could recognize that you're better than that, to freak out in that moment. They're clearly pissed off about who knows what, so you should say something like, "Seriously, why are you mad about this? I'm just trying to say I don't think we should discriminate against people based on their religion. I feel like you're calling me a pussy for being a decent human being."

Maybe that's going to move the conversation forward, maybe not, but definitely you'll do your part to maintain trust and communicate your motivations. If other people read your response, you're going to sound like the level-headed, mature one.

The flip side of this is that, when you get angry about something someone says (especially if it wasn't intended as an insult), and feel like verbally punching them in the face, recognize that they are hitting on something important to you. If you have the emotional bandwidth, resist the impulse to call them a libtard or a redneck. If you can, try to find something you agree with, or at least understand, in their statement, and tell them that. Ask them questions about the rest. Try to figure out why they think the way they do. Sometimes maybe you'll figure out they're just a troll trying to piss you off, and that itself is helpful, because you can ignore them. Other times you'll learn something that changes your mind about something important. (This is actually how, recently, I came across the true fact that the US hugely subsidizes European military defenses - an issue I care about but wasn't really aware of.) And at worst, you'll gain a better understanding of how the other side thinks, so even if you continue to think their ideas are terrible, you'll have a better perspective on where they're coming from.

If you mess up, that's okay - people are actually pretty forgiving, as long as you're trying.

7) The art of constructive flaming

Beyond behaving yourself generally, the publicity of social media is an important argument in favor of ethical 'flaming' - calling someone's views out loudly and publicly, even if they weren't necessarily talking to you - and even if you aren't necessarily talking to them.

My basic point on this is that, if your goal in 'flaming' is to destroy someone, shame them, or make them look awful, it probably won't communicate what you want, and definitely won't build trust with the people who agree with them. That kind of flaming, I guess, might be appropriate when you're talking to actual neo-Nazis or sociopaths of other sorts who are being genuinely horrible and don't have the potential to empathize, but it isn't really helpful when you're dealing with 99.5% of humans.  
Flaming, rather, should be about communicating your emotions and/or views clearly when someone is probably good willed, but is being a jerk, and doesn't seem to be listening. It should involve a clear statement of your point, a clear statement of what they did that made you want to flame them, and maybe a clear request for them to take some meaningful action. If you do that, and avoid being petty, name calling, or tearing them down, you will keep the moral high ground, and other people are going to notice. It can be an expression of emotional, righteous indignation that readers will be able to get behind if you do it right.

One of the best examples of this that I've come across was directed at me a few days ago on Facebook, actually, and still makes me cringe when I read it, because it was done correctly by an old friend, and a guy from high school I've always genuinely liked - Jimmy Gambrell for you PSHS Arrows. It smacked me in the face in a way that helped me remember that I was talking to actual human beings online, and because it came from an old friend, it helped humanize Trump voters, for me, in a way that reading articles hadn't. And it got a bunch of 'likes' from other people reading the thread, so it's clear that the sentiment resonated in a way that is important to pay attention to.

The context was a thread about the Women's March, where I (a progressive who has lived in Seattle for the last 11 years) was basically arguing with a bunch of friends from back home (conservatives in our small home town in Ohio, mainly) about the point of the March. Jimmy hadn't been directly involved to that point, but contributed an extended post that seemed to voice what a lot of people were thinking.

a) At the start of the post, he identified things that I had said in a previous post here that he found insulting. The important thing was that he didn't attack me personally, but pointed out that he was offended that I'd called Trump supporters racist in the past and that I'd said they'd thrown my friends in Seattle under the bus. He owned the fact that he was pissed, and pointed out that it was because of things that I'd said. He didn't call me names or do anything to dehumanize me. He set the emotional context honestly, but fairly.

b) After that he brought up an entirely valid question. I should point out that while a lot of progressives will immediately feel angry in hearing it, it is actually a completely reasonable thing to ask (that is not at all to say that there are no good answers):

"Trump hasn't been President for 2 days and you have already said you plan to resist him the whole time...My question is, how in the hell does that go towards the better good of our entire country and world?"

c) He then pointed out how the March looked to him:

"we saw nothing but hate filled vulgar individuals coming together and trashing our streets and spreading the message of resistance."

Again, a thing to note here: he didn't attack me directly so I didn't feel like this was just about me. As different as his interpretation of the March was from mine, he concisely summarized the way things looked to him, and tagged a few potentially legitimate critiques - hatred, vulgarity, and vandalism are in fact reasonable things to object to (even if I don't think that they are accurate portrayals of the March culture itself). Regardless of whether I agree with his interpretation, it taught me something about how this all feels and looks to him (and I would guess the people who 'liked' his post.)

d) Then, in an extended section contrasting how he feels Trump supporters are portrayed, and the type of person (and particularly father) he tries to be, he says:

"Is Donald perfect? Far from it. But guess what Tim, I am teaching my children, not Donald, to be respectful of everyones opinion. I am teaching them that the world does not revolve around them. I am teaching them that you should stand up for what you believe in, as long as it doesn't infringe on someone else's rights .I plan to teach them to love their family, friends, and everyone even though you may not get it in return... You see Tim that's what this uneducated, racist Trump supporter (liberal words not mine) believes."

This is important, because it reminded me, again, to relate to him like a human being. And, maybe even more importantly, that we have shared values - some of our most basic values in fact, are the same. And he tagged that he thinks that liberals think he's an uneducated racist - an important thing for me to understand about his interpretation of the current political climate.

e) His conclusion was confrontational, but not mean-spirited.  It had advice I actually took (scrolling through my Facebook page), and was gracious, in fact, coming from someone who was clearly angry at me.

"My advice to you would be to take a stroll through your facebook page and see if all of the messages you portray are for the better good of our entire country and world or are you falling victim to the tribal competition. Don't waste your energy on resistance. Rather use it to spread peace and love. Stand up for your Trump supporting friends and family back in Ohio because no matter how far left you become, we will always welcome you home with open arms because that's what we were taught to do and that's what we believe in."

His 'flame' didn't necessarily change any of my political philosophies, thoughts about the March or protesting in general, or thoughts about our president. But it did change the way I think about Jimmy personally, and defended the dignity of the people I was arguing with. Ultimately, we had a fair conversation following it, and I hope the episode also changed the way he thinks about me. In short, I feel like it triggered an exchange that helped us rebuild a little bit of trust. And it also changed the way I think about communicating online in what I think is a helpful way: I'm more likely to listen to his ideas in the future, and definitely more likely to trust that he's doing the best he can to try to be a good person. I'm likely to be a little less unconsciously smug towards people who live in small towns. And I'm more likely to think about the way that what I post will be read - regardless of who I think I'm talking to.

The Point

Whether or not you think our president is an authoritarian who is trying to turn us against each other for political reasons, I'm guessing as an American you have noticed that approximately 99% of us are doing our best to live good lives, but that we somehow distrust each other, and seem to spend our days actively attacking one another through our politics, words, or actions. Whatever the history that got us here, we've reached a crisis point that is different from anything we've seen.

There's no easy fix for this, and no one thing that will change it. But I for one am putting at least a little bit of my trust in Mark Zuckerberg, and his gracious willingness to help us talk to each other.
And if Zuckerberg's going to let us talk, we might as well do our part to make it productive. Learn how to talk to each other even, and be intentional in the ways that we do it. For real, it's the foundation of our democracy that's at stake.