I’m not writing this to the trolls, who auto-share memes and fake news from their favorite sarcastic voices or share opinions in real life and on social media out of hatred or mean-spiritedness.
This post is for the ones trying to fend off the people I described above. For the ones who have (often painful) personal experience with a question everyone is discussing in the abstract. For the ones who are angry for a good reason about something that’s happening in the world and with those who are approaching that issue in a way they think is wrong.
To you, I say: be careful.
Here’s why. Over the past year, I’ve seen many statements, especially on Facebook, that contain lines like “if you have the audacity/stupidity/cruelty to believe [this usually-overgeneralized-and-extreme-version of an argument], then you don’t get to join the conversation.” Sometimes in those actual words or words like it.
“You don’t have the right to speak if you think…”
“I don’t want to hear anyone say….”
“Don’t you dare respond that….”
“You can just go ahead and unfriend me if you’re going to protest that….”
And the list goes on.
I think I know where this is coming from, because I’ve felt it too. We set up these challenges, not because we’re afraid of being proved wrong, but because we’re tired of interacting with views that offend us. We’re emotionally exhausted by the fact that anyone on Facebook can take a few seconds to dash off something racist or sexist or just plain stupid, that they are leeching off our platform to get attention their misguided view doesn’t deserve.
But we keep using social media because we still want to be heard. We want affirmation of what we believe. We want to be the loudest voice, and we want all of the comments to help others understand the truth or just tell us that we described the truth in a powerful way.
This isn’t about hate speech vs. free speech in public dialogue, just about how we conduct personal conversations and debates, especially when we announce which perspectives are acceptable and unacceptable on a particular issue. I can believe, sometimes, that it’s a well-meant desire, that we hope that this time, maybe, we can warn away the people who type before thinking or who dispense clichés or who just want to start a fight.
But there are consequences to silencing voices that disagree with us.* I’ve been thinking about them lately, and here are a few I see:
One: We start hearing only those like us.
By letting those who are different know they aren’t welcome, we pick teams and create our own ideological echo chambers. Among other things, this slowly chips away at our ability to feel empathy—to understand why people feel the way they do, even if we don’t agree. When we lose the ability to listen, even to the outrageously misinformed, we lose a lot of our humanity with that.
Two: We miss the chance to become smarter and stronger.
How are you going to get better at well-reasoned arguments if you’re only posting unchallenged monologues? Let me bring in my 19th century frenemy John Stuart Mill describing why he considered it “evil” to silence other views: “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
Couldn’t our culture use a clearer perception of the truth? I know I sure could, and I don’t think it can happen if we chase away everyone whose opinions differ from ours.
Three: It forces us to make calls on who’s “in” and who’s “out.”
Klan members and Nazis might seem like easy targets, but after that…who gets to stay in the club? Whose disagreement is too extreme to earn a spot at the debate table? If you’re pro-environment, do you exclude the people who think proposed solutions to global warming aren’t worth the cost, or just those who deny that global warming is happening at all? If you’re pro-life, do you exclude people who believe that abortion is an issue of women’s rights, or just the people who deny that the fetus is actually a life?
There are voices that you may want to counter strongly, particularly if some crazies associate themselves with a group you’re a part of. (For Christians, I’d put Westboro Baptist and prosperity gospel preachers in this category.) But the fact that those voices can still be heard and engaged with makes for better debates with the best chance for getting at the truth. We can’t come to right conclusions if we have a mile-long list of biases and perspectives we are not willing to even consider.
And don’t forget: you can feel free to ignore or respond with polite dismissal to crazy opinions, which especially on social media, I would highly, highly recommend.
Me all the time.
Four: It gives an unhealthy weight to emotion in our decision making.
Before I go on, let me say this: if you’re a survivor of sexual abuse or a teacher who goes through shooter drills or a person who has experienced countless acts of racism, then you have a credible and emotionally impactful perspective on current issues. Your opinion is supported by experience. You can feel what other people are just talking about.
But I do think it’s a mistake to let even important, valid emotions take certain solutions off the table before they’ve been fully discussed. If you’re going to accept or reject a policy or opinion, acknowledge your feelings about the issue. Use them to add to your passion in explaining the best solution as you see it. But don’t let them replace careful research and analysis of responses to a problem. (I’m an ENFP on the Myers-Briggs test, so I believe feelings are too often discounted as a weakness in debates instead of being leveraged as a strength…but I’ve also seen them used badly in logical arguments.)
To sum up: I’d rather see more people countering or ignoring stupid arguments on Facebook than telling those who hold them to shut up before they’ve even spoken, because I want to see all of us be a little braver, a little more humble, and a little more in love with the clear and lively truth than we are in being cheered by a crowd of those who already agree with us.
*Stuffy Devil’s Advocate Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: Let me think of the most extreme example I can think of: say you’re in a conversation about genocide with a Holocaust denier. She repeatedly cites false statistics and rejects all of your actual photographs and primary sources and war crimes court transcripts. You feel like you’ve reached the point where you cannot have any kind of productive discussion, and you certainly wouldn’t want to invite your Jewish friend to join in, because this view is not an opinion about how to interpret facts, but a deliberate distortion of facts, and also deeply offensive.
I’m totally fine with saying, “Look, we aren’t just using different logical arguments; we’re referencing a different set of facts. Because of that, there’s no way this conversation can move on in a way that is helpful to either of us.” (Basically, the nice way of saying, “One of us has to be misinformed or delusional, and if we keep talking about this, I may be tempted to drop-kick you all the way to Auschwitz.”)
To me, that’s very different than saying, “If you disagree with me about how to approach gun control/whether “safe spaces” are necessary/what to do with immigration, you are not welcome to express that” which is what I’m talking about here.