Listening to what people think
As we near the election, there’s been a distinct uptick in heated political rhetoric, especially on Facebook.
I didn’t learn about Romney’s “binders full of women” remark from watching the debates, but from Facebook, where people began posting jokes and comments about the phrase within moments of it leaving the Republican candidate’s mouth. The Democratic and Republican conventions inspired similar observations and commentary. Even on relatively quiet days, my Facebook page is filled with political chatter, and this chatter ranges from the calm and level-headed to the completely unhinged. (Beware of any post that was written with the caps lock button on.)
For the past few months, one of my friends has been writing essays on various issues — health-care reform, the economy, the 47 percent comment controversy, etc. — and posting them on Facebook, along with his thoughts on the candidates and their proposals. And he isn’t just blowing off steam. He actually believes that he can persuade people to vote for Obama if he lays out reasonable, intelligent arguments for doing so. His goal, he told me, is to convince moderate Republicans to vote against their party.
I tend to doubt that my friend’s Facebook posts have the power to change anyone’s way of thinking, although I don’t completely rule it out, and I wasn’t at all surprised when someone he served with in the Air Force unfriended him with a dismissive, “Nobody cares about your political opinions.”
“Well, that’s the risk of voicing your opinions,” I said. “You might lose some Facebook friends.” Or real friends, I suppose.
I’ve never actually unfriended anyone on Facebook, and certainly not over their political opinions, no matter how stupid I find them.
I view Facebook as a village, filled with relatives, friends and acquaintances from various walks of life, and looking at the site gives me a sense of what’s going on in the village. I’ve always been interested in What People Think and Why They Think It, and the village occasionally provides some insight, in addition to making it harder to regard people with different opinions as some sort of hypothetical Other. I don’t want to block out the people I don’t agree with, or denounce them as WRONG and EVIL — I want to try to understand them.
Which can be hard.
For instance, I was a little baffled when one of my Facebook friends suggested that “The Dark Knight Rises” shooting outside of Denver could be explained by the large number of hippies living in Colorado, and the thin air. You know, as if the actions of a lone gunman could be blamed on a group of people who like to smoke weed, listen to the Grateful Dead and play hacky-sack at high altitude. I mean, why would anyone make a comment like that? It’s a question I’m still turning over in my mind, because I genuinely like the person who made it. He offended me, but I saw no reason to unfriend him.
Of course, everybody has their limits, and I’m always interested in learning what they are.
A few years back, my best friend decided that she didn’t mind if people expressed different political viewpoints on Facebook, but that she would not tolerate anyone who was anti-gay, and promptly unfriended an old high school classmate who posted frequently on his opposition to same-sex marriage. Since my friend is gay, I found it perfectly understandable that she would draw this particular line in the sand, and I almost joined her, as a gesture of support. (She is my best friend, after all.)
But I ultimately decided not to, and remain both fascinated and frustrated by this old high school classmate, and the stuff he posts on Facebook. I don’t believe he’s a bad guy, and in everything he writes he appears motivated by a desire to make the world a better place. I might wish that he felt differently about certain things, but he has every right to his opinion, and to express himself however he wants. If I don’t like what he has to say, I can tune him out, but I actually think there’s more value to tuning him in. After all, blocking his comments won’t make his ideas disappear.
I’ve only been one place where it felt like a majority of people shared my outlook on the world: college.
And even there the overlap in ideology was not 100 percent.
My roommate and I agreed on a great many things, but we disagreed on things, too, such as capital punishment, which I was opposed to, and my roommate was for. As we’ve gotten older, our opinions have evolved, as opinions generally will, and we’ve both been challenged in our positions. Covering a capital murder trial and having a friend whose brother was murdered prompted some soul-searching for me, while my roommate has been troubled by the number of death row prisoners who have been exonerated. One thing we can both agree on, I think, is that innocent people should not be executed for crimes they didn’t commit.
When I talk to my friends and check in on the village, I’m amazed by the differences in opinion, but I’m also amazed by the areas of common ground.
Voting maps reflect that America is a polarized country, with red states and blue states and a small number of swing states, and yet wherever you go you’ll find that people want the same things for themselves and their loved ones. That people tend to be, as Anne Frank once wrote, “good at heart.”
It can be tough to believe this during a heated election season.
But I believe it’s worth trying.
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