As an author, I get to connect with a lot more people than the average person. Actually, let me revise that statement: I get to connect on the basis of idea exchange with a lot more people than the average person. I mean, basically my whole job is to polish, package and present ideas in an entertaining fashion for readers to peruse.
So it’s inevitable that people with significantly different–even radically opposite–perspectives and values systems will interact with me. Honestly, I love it . I cherish it. It’s one of the true perks of being a writer, and I treasure every interaction I have with people online–even those interactions which are little more than trolling or spirited (if partisan) banter about the topic du jour.
Here’s an example of something troublesome that I’ve noted in recent years. I’m not going to use the real name of the reader in question because it’s not relevant (and because I still happen to like the guy). For the purposes of this article, I’ll call him ‘Steve.’
Shortly before the last Presidential election, Steve and I got into some discussions (not arguments or heated debates so much as just laying out our thoughts about certain political issues) and those discussions reached sensitive ground, as they generally do. Now, I’m not a silver-tongued politician, but I am reasonably sensitive to when people are nearing their limits and I’m perfectly happy to divert conversations into more pleasant/productive directions when I think I’m coming up on a tender topic. Some people really go for incitement or incendiary invective, but I don’t think it’s productive and I don’t enjoy it. At all.
But Steve was kind of insistent that we broach a few sensitive topics, so I did my best to consider the questions and then answered them as accurately and completely as I could. I’m pretty sure much of the subject matter was Trump v. Hillary-related, but honestly I don’t remember the first conversation where this became a problem. Again, I think it’s unimportant to the phenomenon I’m trying to outline.
Steve basically hauled off in something of a huff and blocked me on facebook. Now, honestly, this was the first time I’d been blocked on facebook by a reader, and Steve was/is one of my favorite people to gab with about my chosen profession. So I was a little taken aback and, truthfully, a little hurt. I’d never physically shared a room with Steve, but we’d had several in-depth conversations and shared perspective on a great many issues that are near and dear to my heart. So to be blocked was a little brow-raising and, again, a little hurtful.
He unblocked me some time later (I don’t remember if it was a week, a month, or a couple months) and we resumed conversation. I essentially ignored the blocking and went back to answering his queries, which were significantly more pointed than they’d previously been, and soon after our reconnection I found myself blocked again under similar circumstances. Just today, I found Steve had unblocked me and asked a question on facebook related to how I thought Trump is doing as president (I think Steve is under the impression I was/am a Trumpkin–I can assure anyone reading this that I am not. I think Trump has done a reasonable job on the economy, but the heavy lifting is still to come in shoring up the gains he’s made.).
Once again, I did my best to describe my thoughts on Trump’s performance (which I feel like I rated as lukewarm/mildly positive) while comparing him to GW Bush and Obama (both of whom I calmly and dispassionately, without an ounce of rancor or divisive language, characterized as failures on all of the issues I thought were most important).
Steve said something to the effect of ‘I think you aren’t remembering all the good things Obama did, and if you’ve got criticisms of him then I’m sorry I reached out at all.’ I was once again blocked shortly thereafter.
Here’s the problem as I see it: Steve and I had a chance to re-connect and communicate about crucially important issues of the day, not to mention that we could have reignited our conversations about our mutual passion for science fiction. But instead of doing that, Steve chose to disconnect from any and all potential communication, and that choice was based on perceived differences in our opinions on various issues.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is how a political divide not only persists, but how it widens. When we refuse to engage with the people standing on the other side of a given aisle, what we’re doing on the most fundamental level is refusing to validate the other side’s (op)position. That’s dehumanization 101, and it’s becoming one of the go-to tactics for an increasing number of people interacting online these days.
I don’t need Steve’s validation in order to continue going about my life as I’ve always done, but I do value his opinions and perspective on any subject we’ve yet discussed. Being denied access to him diminishes me, just like his denying himself access to me diminishes him. But more than being diminished by the disconnection, both of our horizons (and the horizons of everyone we interact with) are narrowed. It’s his choice to disconnect, and I’m going to respect that choice by not trying to reconnect, but when that response becomes our primary choice in difficult conversations…
It won’t end well–for any of us.
So the next time you feel like hauling off in a huff and abandoning a tough conversation, take a deep breath and do your best to give it another go. Most of the time you’re probably going to end up hauling off in a huff anyway, but some of the time you’re going to push through the would-be barricade to your continued engagement with that person or group.
Your life will be enriched for the effort, which is the only reason you’ll ever need to make it.