Facebook, Politics, and Human Ignorance

Miriel Thomas: What a stranger’s words have me thinking about the role of assumptions in American public discourse.

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Yesterday I got an email from a stranger. Well, perhaps stranger is too strong a word, since I’ve met the guy (nearly five years ago, in a foreign country) and exchanged a couple dozen casual messages with him since then. We’ll call him a distant acquaintance.

Anyway, in his email, this distant acquaintance, playing “devil’s advocate,” wanted my thoughts “as a committed conservative” on Paul Krugman’s latest column. The substance of the column isn’t particularly relevant to my point here; he’s making Krugmanlike observations about the GOP field and drawing Krugmanlike conclusions from them. The point is that this acquaintance wanted me to attempt a defense of the Republican party line (which he presumed I espouse) against Krugman’s argument.

I shot back a mildly snarky response, which I hope wasn’t too harsh (sorry, pal! nothing personal!), challenging his assumptions and declining to engage in the debate he was trying to provoke. But the exchange is still bugging me a bit, and I think it boils down to this: Americans don’t know how to talk to each other about politics.

Think about it: in the last few weeks, politically aware Americans have seen enough controversy to last for a very, very long time. The HHS contraception mandate has Catholics (and lots of other people) up in arms; the Komen Foundation’s decision to revise its funding standards in a way that would (maybe) limit or eliminate its pass-through grants to Planned Parenthood has legions of liberals up in arms; somewhere in there, there were some primary elections, the import of which nobody can determine.

The contentiousness of these issues has elicited a lot of political discussion in a lot of fora that are very ill suited for political discussion. I say that not because I think people should “keep their opinions to themselves,” but because virtual spaces like Facebook and Twitter are designed to function as stimulus-response environments. That’s perfectly fine if you’re aiming to raise awareness about a particular issue, but it’s not a particularly helpful way to engage in genuine discussion, nor is it useful for forming a clear and complete picture of other people’s political views.

Let me put it this way: if you and I were Facebook friends, you would know some things about my political views. You would know, for instance, that I think people who run faith-based organizations shouldn’t be forced by law to do things that violate their consciences. You would know that I am Catholic. You would know that I am a student of American politics, and that I take the Constitution seriously.

But you wouldn’t know a lot of other things. You wouldn’t know whether I was registered as a member of a political party, or which candidate I voted for in the last presidential election, or for whom I plan to vote in November. You wouldn’t know what fraction of the Democratic platform I agree with, or what fraction of the Republican platform I agree with, or how many of my political views don’t find an easy home in either major party. You might think you knew, but you wouldn’t actually know. And if you asked instead of assuming, you might be surprised.

I’m not trying to paint myself as some kind of radical non-conformist (although I am quite extraordinary – just ask my mommy!). On the contrary, I’m trying to suggest that my circumstances are anything but unique. There probably are some hook-line-and-sinker hardliners on both sides of the aisle in the United States, but I suspect they’re less common than you’d think. I suspect that a pretty hefty chunk of politically aware Americans don’t exactly stand anywhere along the colloquial spectrum from left to right, but maybe slightly above it, or below it, or behind it, or off in a corner where everyone thinks they’re a little bit nutty (Wendell Berry might fit into this category). And I suspect that very few people present a complete account of their political convictions to the people they know on the Internet.

So as we head into what’s bound to be a controversy-filled year, I have a favor to ask you. If you have some distant acquaintances whose Facebook pages you only tend to check when you feel like your blood pressure’s dipped a little low, and you think you have a pretty good handle on their political convictions, take a step back. Realize that your perspective is comprised of a tiny little sliver of the things they think and say. Realize that politics and people are both complex. Say to yourself, “I do not know.” If you decide you want to know, ask, and then listen. And if you don’t really want to know? Hold your peace.

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