Tuesday, November 14, 2017

When You’re Unfriended in Real Life

The schools of the great sages of the Jewish people, Hillel and Shammai, were known to debate each other on just about every topic. The students of these two schools rarely agreed on anything; each strongly and passionately arguing the opposite position of the other, albeit always with respect for the other’s opinion.

In Judaism, we believe that each human is created in the divine image and, thus, we have the responsibility to treat one another with respect. However, many of us humans don’t act with godliness when participating in Facebook discussions involving political viewpoints.

The 2012 election was bad when it came to a lack of civility on Facebook, but the 2016 election a year ago was many times worse. I’m scared to think of what 2020 will bring us. Many close friends unfriended each other on the social network, relatives blocked relatives and, even worse, long-term relationships in real life were severed because of hurt feelings during political arguments. While the election might have been over on November 8, 2016, the heated arguments on Facebook have continued. In the past year, with a President known to send out many divisive tweets before most people have had their first cup of coffee, the Facebook battlefield has only intensified.

Many friendships have been damaged permanently because of politics on Facebook

If you have a Facebook account, you likely witnessed at least one unfortunate interaction in the past couple of years. It has been impossible to post anything about either presidential candidate without a couple of trolls coming in to paste the latest talking points from the most extremist online blogs they could find to bolster their position or refute everyone else’s opinion.

This has been true on both sides, from the extreme left and the extreme right. On social networks, especially Facebook, people have learned to hide behind their screens when they say these hateful things, but it affects all their relationships and not only their virtual relationships. In the run-up to the 2016 election, most political opinions on either candidate would be met with attacks in the comment section of that post. Many of the comments were not fact checked and some were outright myths that had already been debunked by Snopes.com, the fact-checking web site. In the past year, tempers have flared even more with friends attacking friends on Facebook over everything from the NFL's national anthem controversy and the Second Amendment to the Russian interference in the election and Trump's policies. No topic is off limits when it comes to firing shots in the comment section of Facebook and real friendships become the collateral damage.

I was recently tutoring a young woman for her bat mitzvah and we were studying the Tower of Babel story within her Torah portion. I explained that God was so angered that humans would try to build a tower to the sky that God punished them by confounding their languages so they couldn’t communicate with one another. Immediately, this wise 13-year-old girl said, “In my bat mitzvah speech, I want to talk about how we communicate with each other.” And she immediately hit the nail on the head by explaining the negative effects that occur from the way teens talk to each other in the 21st century. Rather than speaking face-to-face, today’s teens send coded text messages, Snapchat messages that disappear after several seconds, and comments under the photos they post on Instagram. The language they use is different from what any prior generation would recognize as English. One misinterpreted emoji or abbreviation can mean the end of a friendship.

On Facebook, it’s not only the teens who resort to insults and abusive language when someone offends them with their strongly held opinion. Earlier generations wouldn’t understand how your crazy liberal uncle can get into a heated debate with some girl you went to summer camp with a few decades ago.

When adults begin threatening to “unfollow” or “unfriend,” we quickly find ourselves feeling trapped and annoyed in a fourth-grade-esque insult circus. Cutting off contact with someone with opposing ideology will never further discussion, debate and democracy. Sadly, a lot of people on Facebook are close-minded, unwilling to listen to opposing opinions.

“As a former elected non-partisan who saw the necessity and advantage of working with both sides, I’ve been disappointed by how many friends haven’t been interested in having an open discussion,” said Gerald Naftaly, former Oak Park mayor. “Rather than agree on a point or two, some just don’t want to consider that there’s another point of view. Many have gone on the attack or defense, depending on the tone of the posts.”

Two years ago, the Pew Research Center surveyed 10,000 Americans and found that “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades.” That report confirms that “ideological silos” are now common on both the political left and right. People with down-the-line ideological positions are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views. Facebook has become an echo chamber and when we see a viewpoint that is diametrically at odds with our own political views, we go on the offensive.

Lisa Bernstein of Ann Arbor shared how political debate on Facebook has changed her relationships. “There was a meme after the election about people dreading being with their families on Thanksgiving. I didn’t share the meme [on my Facebook account], but I liked it, and I guess it showed up on my mom’s Facebook page. I got a call the next day asking if I was dreading going there for Thanksgiving.”

Missy Kirshner of Commerce said, “It seems that people are becoming bolder about spouting their beliefs on social media, particularly after the election. People are jumping on any report and bending the facts to assert their political opinion. It’s too much. And not only have I had to ‘unfriend’ certain individuals, it has colored my feelings toward them when I see them in person.”

When we leave our manners and civility behind and engage in political grenade-launching on Facebook, nothing good will ever come from it. I don’t know anyone who had their mind changed because someone told them they were crazy, unintelligent and didn’t know what they were talking about in a Facebook comment. Certainly, the incessant posting of our own political ideology into the echo chamber of Facebook isn’t a healthy thing either. I’m terribly afraid that the time of intelligent debate and the exchange of well-thought ideas in a respectable forum is over.

“I unfriended many people. Politics was the main reason and once I started unfriending people, I just started to question what friendship means at all,” explained David Calton of Southfield. “I never vote and disliked the politics on both sides. I unfriended people on the right who used racist language, and I unfriended everyone calling on people to support one candidate over the other as a Jewish value. I figured if we were really friends we could resume our friendship after the elections.”

So, is Facebook a great tool or is the worst thing to happen to us in the Digital Age? I think Facebook is a wonderful medium, but it must also be understood to be a megaphone. When we’re on the social network, our voice is amplified. What we post goes out to many more people than just the folks sitting around our dinner table in a prior generation.

We’ve all heard the admonition to not talk politics at the dinner table and Facebook is the world’s largest dinner table. With social media, instead of sharing our political viewpoint with our small group of dinner guests or our friends waiting in line at the supermarket or a couple guys on the golf course, we are now broadcasting our opinion to the world — and it might not be a well-thought opinion. It might be offensive to some. It might be misinterpreted by others. We must guard our tongue even more in the age of social media.

Ken Bertin of West Bloomfield said, “I’ve really lost only two people on Facebook and one was because of politics and the other was because of other things we disagreed about. I really liked Facebook, but Facebook is a good place to demonstrate people’s stupidity. People use bad behavior to try to justify other people’s bad behavior.”

In a Rosh Hashanah sermon at Adat Shalom Synagogue, Rabbi Aaron Bergman urged his congregants to ask themselves four questions before commenting on someone’s Facebook post or criticizing another’s opinion in general: “Does it have to be said? Does it have to be said by me? Does it have to be said by me now? Does it have to be said by me in this way?” Several congregants have taken a hiatus from the social network since hearing Bergman’s sermon. He also has sworn off Facebook.

Social media has become a part of our culture and Facebook, with about 1.7 billion users worldwide, isn’t going away. It’s one of the new ways we humans communicate and engage with one another. And, in doing so, our political viewpoints are undoubtedly going to become part of the conversation. However, when we find ourselves engaging with people who have left civility behind, we must make the mature decision to remove ourselves from that toxicity. It’s unhealthy to stay involved.

Rather than unfriending our friends on Facebook or, worse, allowing our friendships to be severed because of political clashes, there are alternative solutions. Facebook allows you to simply unfollow someone’s posts and, more recently, has offered a feature to “snooze” someone for 30 days, providing some temporary relief from seeing their posts if they’re bothersome or inflammatory.

We should take proactive steps to guard our speech in our online discussions, thinking twice before commenting. We can also make the effort to not get sucked into explosive, insult-filled and vitriolic debate. Finally, we can aim to not allow the echo chamber of our own Facebook communities deafen us to other opinions, and hope that others will make similar efforts.

The way we communicate with everyone— from close friends to the stranger who commented on our friend’s Facebook post — says so much about our own character. Let’s all seek to make these conversations holier, both on Facebook and in person.

Originally published in The Detroit Jewish News

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