Navigating Politics and Facebook

By Paulette Schuster (Student Activist)

 

“Grow the f*** up. Who do you think you are calling me that bullsh*t. Learn some

f*****g respect for our country and your piers (yes, spelled piers not peers) or shut

the f*** up.” This is a message I received from a Facebook friend (now a former

Facebook friend) after I expressed my disagreement on an article he shared the day

after the 2016 presidential election. The article declared that it was unfair to claim

that all those voted for Trump are racist; some simply supported small government

and the free market. I commented that in fact while he might not be Donald Trump

racist, he was a racist to take an action (a vote) that supported racism.1

 

I am not sharing this story to victimize myself, or to demonize him. Take the story as

you wish. I am sharing this story to highlight how volatile Facebook disagreements

can be. You never know if your comment will foster a productive discussion or if you

just stepped on a grenade. And grenades feel terrible; they disavow any standards of

respect in disagreement, even if at the end of the day that person is insignificant. If I

see a post where I have an opinion, I want share my thoughts in hopes that those

ideas may challenge someone to think a little more. But more often than not, I don’t

say anything. The anxiety of joining the discussion and possibly being nastily

berated is too much. Plus, I feel hesitant to possibly be branded as that “overly

political Facebook friend.” So how do you navigate?

 

Some words that come to mind that describe my state the day after the presidential

election: distraught, emotional, a wreck. That message was the icing on the cake. I

responded, and then I had a panic attack. I calmed down and soon realized what an

utter waste of time it was to talk to this person that could not hold a respectful

conversation. Unfriend.

 

Productive discussions are ideal, but sometimes you can’t change someone. You

decide when to engage. You know where the lines of your comfort zone are, and

how far away from those lines you are able and willing to trek. Continuing to scroll,

not replying, or unfriending are not signs of defeat or weakness. It is not your job to

educate people at the stake of your own mental health.

 

That saying, understand that the burden of educating people on certain issues often

falls disproportionately on victims of that issue. It exhausting to have to constantly

explain yourself and that exhaustion and isolation increases ten-fold when a

person’s identity is at the center of that issue. For example, think people of color

having to defend themselves against racism, or Muslims against islamophobia. It is

absolutely crucial to have the voices of those disaffiliated at the center of the

conversation. But lets be real, social media debates are often at the fringes. I am not

talking about sharing articles or posting; I am talking about the comment chains and

rapid-fire messages of dissent. Sharing an article online where the world can see

takes a lot of courage. Allies must bolster minority opinions by helping fight against

the backlash. So if you see a hateful post about a minority group you aren’t affiliated,

understand when you are taking up too much space, but don’t leave that minority

alone to defend themselves. It’s your job to help out where needed.

 

Also acknowledge where your opinion is coming from. In about how Trump

supporters are not necessarily racist, both the person sharing the article and I were

white. Besides the initial problem of a white person posting how they are not at all

racist for taking an action to support a racist person, neither him nor I can approach

a discussion as if we have firsthand experience with racism. So if you are a white

person talking about racism, a cis-gender person talking about trans issues, a male

talking about sexism, or someone from a dominant group talking about a minority

opinion, your opinions could very well be valued and appreciated, but recognize

that there are other people with firsthand experience with the issue. No matter how

strong your opinion, respect the opinions of those directly afflicted with that form of

oppression. Not only are they 99.9% more likely to have a deeper insight about

issue, oftentimes refuting their opinion perpetuates the very issue you are talking

(or commenting) about.

 

There is no rulebook on how not to run into hateful crazies on the Internet. But

there are some general guidelines to avoid as many explosions as possible. Put your

mental health first, you have no obligation to engage with someone online,

especially those who may hurt your wellbeing. Know your place and how your

identity influences your comment. Let those afflicted by an issue have the strongest

voice; don’t take up more space than you should. And even if you step on a grenade,

know that a hateful person behind a screen will never determine your self-worth,

just that person’s insecurities.

 

1 To contextualize this disagreement: both of us are white college students from

upper-middle- class backgrounds in major US cities. There is a lot of debate when

people claim that all Trump supporters, including poor rural whites, are marked as

racist. That is a subject for another article, but recognize that in this instant neither

he nor I fit that category.

*Here's one way author Paulette Schuster suggests you can get involved: Karmatube 

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