Room to Disagree

http://www.niemanlab.org/images/argument_cc-300x223.pngDoes anyone remember instant messaging?  I remember instituting it in my office in the late 1990’s as a way to encourage quick interactions and rapid iterations on work topics.  Of course, I know that many of my co-workers also used it for personal correspondence and related distractions.  But, I took the good with the bad, since I trusted my people to be productive and since the work uses of IM made us so productive.  As I described it to my team back then, imagine that everyone you know is in a room together, so you have instant access to the collective knowledge of your entire network.  That’s a powerful way to do your job.

For many of us, Facebook has become that “everyone you know is in a room together” platform, and not just for work stuff.  It’s the place where we share kid milestones, vacation photos, funny videos, and social/political rants.  How incredibly enriching it is to be able to share and be shared with, across many miles and years.

The tone of such sharing tends to be light and easy when you’re talking about cute baby pics, gorgeous images of nature or dessert, and laugh-out-loud video snippets.  Even more serious content like social or political commentary is usually consumed without incident.  But of course even among our social networks we can have differences of opinion, and some can be quite stark.  Any number of social, political, ethical, and religious issues can contain a wide range of perspectives, even those that are vehemently and diametrically opposite. 

It is a healthy thing to believe something so strongly that the opposing opinion enrages us.  It is important to stand for things, which means to disagree and to even at times be disagreeable.  And, it isn’t just “I don’t care what you believe, just that you believe in something,” because it is likely that in life there are in fact some absolutes, and time will tell that there are some things that are absolutely right or absolutely wrong so shame on us if we are for that which is right and we do not repudiate that which is wrong.

However.  How many times have you read (or perhaps yourself said) something to the effect of “If you say anything in support of X, I will block you immediately.”  The drawing of the bright red line is intended to send a clear message: I am on this side of this issue, and if you are on the other side I no longer want to have contact with you.

I concede that an opposing opinion on some issues may be so enraging that you need to just wall yourself off from interacting with that opinion.  People do what they have to do to stay sane, and I respect that.  But I lament the walling off of differing perspectives.  This isn’t just a matter of America being more polarized, although I do think that is true and I think that what we expose ourselves to and avoid contributes to that.  This is also a matter of being enriched by exploring topics and positions more thoroughly.

Life isn’t about winning arguments as much as it is about having beliefs.  And when you wall yourself off from anyone who doesn’t share your beliefs, you can get lazy about those beliefs.  Worse, you can grow cold to others who don’t share those beliefs, with whom you have less and less contact and thus for whom you have less and less ability to empathize.  Conversely, keeping communication lines open with others, even those who espouse beliefs you find abhorrent, gives you a fuller sense of all of the ways an issue can be viewed. 

Perhaps it is my personality temperament that allows me this level of detachment, of not taking things personally or letting vile viewpoints irk me: it is said that INTJ’s view the world from a distance, as a thought experiment less so than something that is directly experienced and consumed.  But perhaps this desire for openness is borne of something that is universally good, which is that exposure to a diversity of perspectives makes life richer and makes you more tolerant and sympathetic.  Think about that the next time you threaten to pull the plug on any social media contact who dares take a position opposite yours.  

Facebook is our big room that contains everyone we know.  I hope your room has room for lots of love, lots of laughter, and even lots of vehement disagreement. 
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