Why It’s Worth Arguing on Facebook (and at Thanksgiving, and at work…)

I’d like to speak to some common sentiments I often hear expressed among people I largely agree with about politics, race, Obamacare, global warming, etc.

Here’s a paraphrase of some things I’ve heard a lot of my fellow travelers say:

“When I see something [insert crazy conservative relative here] posts on Facebook, I just scroll past it, I don’t engage.”

“When I go home for the holidays to [insert semi-rural or suburban part of the country], I just have to keep my mouth shut, it’s not worth it.”

“At work, there’s this one [insert descriptions similar to the above], and I’m just like, wow, did you really just say that? But I don’t say anything.”

Or here’s a meme more or less summarizing the way I think we all deal with vast swathes of the internet:

I’ve come to think these moments represent hugely important opportunities and I want to encourage you to speak up at those times!

I’m not saying that going nuts on a thread with thousands of commenters, none of whom you’ve ever met, is ever worth it.  What I’m talking about is a little different: I’m talking, yes, about your  cousin, co-worker, in-law, etc.  They’re NOT strangers, they’re people with whom you share some context.  And they’re for the most part the ONLY people any of us encounter with whom we have a serious chance of changing their opinions.

By “serious chance” I don’t mean anything more than like 10-20%.  But that’s not nothing.

Some Personal Examples

About 10 years ago, I was at a funeral for a great aunt, and my cousin and I, for what was probably the 10th time, got locked in an extended argument during the reception afterwards about Bush-era War on Terror policies.  The discussion must have lasted more than an hour.  It was spirited, we both raised our voices at several times.  Sometimes relatives moved in and out of the discussion.  No one (bless my family) tried to stop us.  At that time, this particular cousin was at the height of what I would describe as his Fox News identity politics phase.  But the point is, we had it out.  We didn’t make any personal attacks, but we definitely disagreed with each other, and did so forcefully and at length.  In 2012, that cousin posted on Facebook that he had voted for Barack Obama, and was embarrassed about the conservative movement’s demonization of him.  I have no idea if he still supports Obama, but that’s not really the point.  The point is, here was a person willing to change his mind in light of, yes, arguments.

A few years ago, at a dinner after my grandfather’s funeral, I had an argument with an aunt about whether taxes were theft, and whether it was worth having redistributive policies if people wasted “our” money on things like alcohol or fancy cell phones.  My mother was unhappy with my decision to engage in this argument, but after a few minutes, quite honestly, I think both my aunt and I felt much more comfortable with having that disagreement than either of us might have thought.  It didn’t end with either of us changing our mind, but it did end with her saying “I’d never thought about things that way” – and she really meant it.

Also a few years back, my sister-in-law and I had an extended argument about the virtues of urban vs. suburban school systems, race, structural inequality and our potential role in all of those things.  We spoke very forcefully for a long time.  We still see each other regularly and it’s not like some sort of lingering thing.  In fact, I feel better knowing we’ve had that talk.  I’m more confident that when it comes time for both of our families to face decisions about our children’s education, we’ll do so more mindfully than we might have.

A couple of Christmases ago, my brother’s in-laws-to-be came to dinner, and we had an extended argument about the movie Lincoln and whether or not it was an overly white-privileged consideration of slavery and the politics surrounding it.  I had never met them before.  We probably talked for an hour about it.  My sister-in-law-to-be was generally silent (I don’t blame her) and seemed worried, but my long-term judgment is that now my in-laws and I have a much more meaningful relationship than we might have.

About a year ago, I had an extended Facebook argument with an uncle of mine, about whether or not the Washington Redskins’ team name/symbolism is racist.  It stretched to 40-50 comments.  We didn’t resolve the argument, but the next time I saw that uncle was at our baby shower, he said hello, shook my hand, and congratulated me on our soon-to-arrive first child.

About two weeks ago, I had an argument with that same uncle about the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.  This time, one of his Facebook friends was drawn in, someone I’d never met.  We sparred a bit and shared a round of insults, but moved past that and while we didn’t change each other’s minds, the point is, we really did talk about it – again for 40 or 50 comments.

Around the same time, I had an argument with some more distant relatives about whether or not Obama secretly wants all women to be forced into the workforce and out of the home.  One relative and I ended up clarifying our differences; the other ended up blocking me.  So I won’t say my record is perfect by any means.  And I’m sure my positions have offended people who haven’t talked to me about it.  And I’m sure a lot of people just ignore my posts or have unfollowed me.  There’s only so much you can.

What We Can Do

The mainstream media has endlessly lamented what’s been called “the great sorting” – we now live with people who agree with us about more and more.  We rarely encounter dissenting opinion in our day to day lives.  And we all complain about it, we have a vague sense that it contributes to the polarization of American politics, “red” and “blue” states, etc.

What can we, in our day to day lives, do about this?  For one thing, we can argue with our cousins, our friends-of-friends, our in-laws and our uncles.  They’re likely to be the only voices of dissent we ever encounter.  If we’re serious about making a better world, at some point, we’re going to have to convince some people we’re right.

Not that it’s so easy with Facebook.  Several reasons:

1)  The person who posts something has executive control over that thread.  They can delete your comments, or delete the whole thread.  I would encourage you not to do that.  If a relative or friend posts something that offends you or that you disagree with, try your best to talk it out.

2)  The “like” button encourages us into a ridiculous choice: agree or move on.  There is no “dislike button,” and so it’s really tempting to avoid conflict.  Push past that and take the time to read the comments (if it’s a reasonably small discussion) and push back a little.  Or a lot.

3)  Blocking and unfriending are a constant option.  In one of the stories I shared above, I ended up getting blocked.  This bothered me, but I also know I’ve never blocked someone because of an opinion they expressed.  But blocking and unfriending, except in extreme cases, were someone actually feels harassed, are really just avoidance strategies.  So think it out.  Blocking is the internet-equivalent to saying “I’m never going to talk to you again.”  Don’t do that because someone voted for Mitt Romney.  Try to tell them why they were wrong to do so.

4)  Threading sucks on Facebook.  You can’t reply directly to a comment, you just add a comment to  the thread.  So if a few people are talking, people start unintentionally ignoring each other, and everyone gets more frustrated.  Being deliberate about avoiding that can actually solve a lot of the problems that people think have to do with the arguments themselves.  They don’t – they have to do with facebook’s user interface.

5)  We can passively avoid arguments.  We can “unfollow” threads or people, so they don’t even know we can’t see them, giving them a false sense of their own opinions as reasonable, since we don’t speak up.  They can’t tell who’s NOT reading them, so they tend to think anyone on their friend list IS reading them and not speaking up.  I say, don’t passively unfollow, engage.

That speaks to online – but what about in person?

My family is probably atypical.  My father’s family is Jewish (mostly); my mother’s (except for her) is protestant.  There are two entirely different argument cultures at work in our gatherings.  I don’t mean to reduce it to a religious or a cultural question, but it has something to do with it.  My father’s family all seems to have an innate sense that disagreement is something that will happen.  Arguments rarely become personal, because more people seem comfortable with having them.  People do get emotional, but not defensive.

My mother’s family doesn’t get together so much, but things there are much more likely to get both emotional AND defensive.  This may be a coincidence, or speak to some broader sociology-of-religion truth, but my wife’s protestant family seems to have similar problems.  For the most part, in both contexts, arguments are entirely avoided.

I don’t have an immediate solution to that avoidance.  Sometimes the force of conformity and politeness can be so overwhelming that it’s hard to even start an argument even when one clearly should be started.  Martin Luther King’s observation about how the “white moderate” prefers the “negative peace which is the absence of conflict” to the “positive peace which is the presence of justice” feels relevant here.

I tend to feel much more uncomfortable in such “negative peace” situations.  I feel dishonest, ignored, disrespected, like I’m wasting time.  Not all the time – I mean if you’re all just hanging out and talking about christmases past, that’s one thing, but when something political IS being discussed, but dissent is being collectively discouraged, I hate that.  I have no idea why some people prefer that to an out-and-out argument.  So I try my best to HAVE that out-and-out argument.

It’s tough though – the forces of argument avoidance are strong.

At work?

I know job security is an issue for nearly everyone.  But amongst peers, and even with superiors, it is possible to register disagreement and talk about it.  Many people prefer not to, and I think that’s a lot of people who come from family situations like the ones I’ve just described.  But again, people you work with are more likely to be different enough from you that you might actually affect their opinions, and they might affect yours.

Embrace Your Inner Socrates

Socrates – the eponym for argumentative engagement – himself argued with fellow philosophers, but also lawyers, soldiers, poets and other semi-strangers he met on the streets.  Because of the internet, our extended family structures, and our work situations, we have many more opportunities to have discussions like that than Socrates could ever have dreamed of.

I realize Socrates was executed by a jury of his peers, and so I don’t deny that there are risks, but how often do we take them?  And then how much time do we spend complaining amongst ourselves about people who don’t get it?

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8 Responses to Why It’s Worth Arguing on Facebook (and at Thanksgiving, and at work…)

  1. Nates says:

    I agree with some of this, Josh. But I don’t think you’d catch Socrates saying “If we’re serious about making a better world, at some point, we’re going to have to convince some people we’re right.” At least not without an important qualification: that we enter into these conversations also open to being convinced we’re wrong–entirely or in part.

    But it’s really hard to do this. We’re usually talking about passionately held beliefs, beliefs that form a pretty central part of our social identity. Not easy to give those up, especially when you add the competitive aspect of wanting to win the argument.

    Since we almost inevitably have way more training in philosophy than the people we’re talking to, we have a kind of argumentative safety net. We can wiggle out of trouble pretty effectively, if need be, even if the underlying logic is a little sketchy–we’ve all done this sort of thing! So there’s much less of a sense that we’re putting our own beliefs on the line. If we were truly honest about our approach to these debates, we’d be fighting just as hard to see what’s right in the other person’s position. But who, other than Socrates, does that? I hold this as a kind of ideal, but I don’t claim to live up to it very often. And it leaves me feeling ambivalent about some of these conversations.

  2. Alice Neve says:

    Hello Josh, I have read what you wrote and tried to listen and take it in. I see myself (about 25 years ago) in the place you are regarding this topic. I do believe that even though I feel my feelings are equally as intense as yours about politics and related topics, I felt more like I was obligated to promote my feelings when I was younger. Now that I am 68, I have two types of feelings at work in my mind. The first is that I am sometimes insecure regarding my verbal ability to stand my ground in a discussion without hurting the person with whom I am arguing. Having been raised a Scandinavian, deep in me is buried the idea that we should build others up and not hurt their feelings. So therefore, if I’m not sure I have the skills to present my opinion and keep the discussion positive for both of us, I tend to not confront the presentation. I know this sounds like an excuse or a cop out, but my roots just are deeply implanted in that way. Perhaps the answer is that if I felt more strongly that I wanted to build skills to help me present my opinion regarding difficult subjects, I could take classes or read works that would be of help. (At this point in life I am too tired to do that, and laughingly say that I only want to study in lightweight areas, and read magazines with no-redeeming social value!) Since you are a skilled debater and have firm opinions (even though I think we share many of the same political values), it is a bit scary for me to take on someone with your skill in a debate! Quite frankly, I want to learn to discuss rather than argue and often when I try to discuss, I end up arguing. I think I need to clarify the distinction and build my skills there.
    Secondly, I think my ability to “discuss” or present my opinion positively with neither my hearer nor me feeling ridiculed, or angry or alienated, is lacking. So if you and I were talking about a topic on which we disagreed, I’d be so caught up in trying not to make you feel that I was disrespecting you, that I’d totally lose my power to convince you of my side……duh…thanks for listening!

  3. Sam Brown says:

    So I could not gather from this whether any of these people have convinced you that you are wrong, or forced you to think in a different way about something. Because really that has to be the other side of it, right? I think one stumbling block to discussion is that neither side (particularly the progressive) enters the conversation with an honest intention of having their mind changed. This is something legal education has forced me to recognize as a weakness of my own argumentation and logic.

  4. John says:

    I have to say that there are times and places to pick your battles and sometimes you reach a point where further efforts are just wasted energy, but in general, I agree with you.

    Not only is engaging people on ideas worthwhile in the sense that silence implies a kind of consent on issues that really can’t be left unaddressed but, to answer both Sam and Alice’s concerns, I feel like, in many instances both people end up changed by the exchange. There have been many arguments I’ve had with people where I’ve either ended up changing my perspective and outlook (generally not immediately but over time and after consideration) or else I’ve better understood those who disagree with me and feel less alienated or dispondent because their reactions are grounded in understandable concerns, even if I don’t agree with them.

    Finally, to take this idea one step further, I’m a frequent Twitterer (a forum, I feel like, approached in the right mindset, you’d enjoy, Josh) which has different mores that are worth noting. Because most tweets are viewable to everyone and following someone generally doesn’t require mutual consent, there are often tweets that make good points which result in the author being harassed pretty extremely by strangers. I make a point to comment on those, even though I understand I’m dealing purely with trolls, not necessarily in an attempt to change minds but with the idea that racism/sexism/homophobia/etc, shouldn’t go unaddressed and to support the author and make the internet/world a slightly less oppressive place.

  5. Josh says:

    Glad to hear from all of you. Thanks for the comments all around. I suppose in the spirit of my post I should try to respond directly to each point each of you made, but I fear that would take too long. I’ll try to speak to overall questions asked. It will probably still take too long.

    Why Argument?

    One big response that I think speaks to something Alice and Nathan raised, in different ways: I’m not actually committed to any particular way of engaging with people. I used the word “argument” because that’s the mode I find myself in most, but what I’m most concerned with is getting people not to *ignore* moments like this among their relatives, colleagues and distant acquaintances. Iv you want to argue, or discuss, or ask, or learn, or heck draw pictures or diagrams together, that’s all fine with me, just as long as you don’t let the moment pass (at least not always). Though I do agree with John that there are finally times where it is pointless, I think we’ve collectively decided too often that such engagements are pointless to pursue. James Baldwin and William F. Buckley had hour-long public debates! You’d be lucky to get Ta-nehisi Coates (who, by the way, is awesome) and Tucker Carlson on the same news-network panel for more than 2 minutes, and they wouldn’t speak directly to each other. We all have a chance in our own lives to be more like Baldwin and Buckley. But if that’s not through debating, it can be though other means. It should just be through something. As I say, I often argue, but I can see the virtue in a host of other less confrontational approaches as well. The point is to do something, something that is conscious and deliberate.

    Changing MY Mind?

    Clearly I’ve got a stubbornness problem – you each know me well enough to know that. I’ve come to think, though, that sometimes that’s important for me to listen to – sometimes I’m being stubborn for a reason, and should stick to my guns. Sometimes I’m just doing it for the sake of being stubborn though, and I recognize that’s not productive.

    So am I open to changing my opinions in these discussions? Let me answer with a qualified “yes.” There are two types of these discussions I find myself in – one in which I am not willing to change in, and the other I am. The kind of conversation I don’t enter with a willingness to change is one where a patently unreasonable and false opinion has been expressed. To elaborate on one of the above examples: it was being claimed that Barack Obama secretly wants every woman to be forced out of their homes, so that the cannot take care of their kids, but must go into the workforce. Something about “second wave feminism” allegedly “proved” this claim. When I hear claims like that, all I can think to do is argue AGAINST them. I react similarly to arguments about why global warming isn’t real, why Barack Obama isn’t a US citizen, and lots of other things of this ilk. It’s impossible to make a full list, but like the old Supreme Court standard for pornography, you know it when you see it. I don’t think there’s any value (other than the purely tactical one of pretending you think the other person is reasonable to get them to listen to you) in such a discussion. I don’t think we do ourselves any favors if we advocate for some kind of universal tolerance or empathy towards all such encounters. Some opinions do not deserve to be taken seriously. The better educated we are, the better we can get at knowing when to call BS, unreservedly.

    On the other hand there are times that are more reasonable disagreements. To invoke another of these examples: the discussion about Lincoln and white privilege. That was a huge and wide ranging discussion, and one of my interlocutors was talking a lot about Team of Rivals. I’ve not read that book. I felt like my opinion was reasonable, but I came to see over the course of the discussion that so was his, and it made sense that having read that book, he felt he had something to say that I needed to near, and that I felt I had something he needed to hear, about Frederick Douglass’s autobiography. To echo something John said (and it’s not surprising, for historical reasons, that he and I are on the same page on this one) I don’t always realize what I’ve got to learn during the discussion, but rather after.

    If a disagreement is reasonable, I’m open to changing my mind. IF it’s not reasonable, I’m not. I realize this will feel question-begging, but I’ve reflected quite a bit about the difference between reasonably well-informed but frustrating opinions, on the one hand, and whack-job pseudo-positions on the other. I do think that reading a real newspaper every day, and reading many more books than the average person entitles me to make that distinction. I’m not saying I’m always right about its application but I do think I’m right to make the distinction in the first place.

    Is this Socratic?

    I get the Socratic idea about pursuing the discussion in the spirit of open mindedness. And to respond to Nathan’s point about Socrates not being so confident, I somewhat agree. The main point I was drawing on in mentioning Socrates was to reference the public and unexpected nature of his argumentative starting points – that he didn’t plan ahead about these things, and nor should we always. But yeah, Socrates is less sure of his own beliefs. But I say I only somewhat agree because maybe this is something we can talk a bit about if my proposed group Plato/Socrates reading project happens. The famed Socratic modesty is often quite ambiguous I think (this is a very amateurish claim – I fully realize Nathan knows way more about Greek philosophy than I do). But the feeling I’ve gotten from a thorough, if repetitive, study of the few dialogues we read in my classes, is that there are moments where Socrates DOES know where he’s leading his interlocutor, in a more than vague way, and that his ignorance is tactical, and not sincere, at those moments. He seems sure, to give one example, that Euthyphro is wrong to be trying his father for murder. He doesn’t say so, he says he just wants Euthyphro to explain himself, but he really seems to know that he can’t.

    Formal Debating as a Technique

    All of which is to say that (and this speaks to some of what Alice said too) I see some value in stubborn and persistent argument. I understand Socrates’ strategy – I think another, wherein one maintains a formal commitment to one’s original claims, can actually work too, both for convincing others and for changing your own view. “Sticking to your guns” during a discussion CAN lead to unproductive anger, but it can also explore the shape and scope of a position in a way that backing down or moving towards compromise cannot always do. Objections that seem like reasons to abandon an original stance can in fact be deceptive, and forcing yourself to stick to them can show you that.

    Of course, when you do that, you also don’t show a lot of learning from others at the moment. I know, though, that many arguments I’ve learned the most from were ones where I realized days later I had been wrong. Using what Nathan calls the argumentative safety net didn’t keep me from seeing that, it allowed me to be sure of it, because I gave my own arguments as much play as they could take, and discovered them to be lacking by doing so.

    One last point – which also speaks to Nathan’s worry about philosophers overusing their argumentative skills: I think we should be proud of them too! Some of our colleagues and relatives might never have had discussions with people who could balance ideas in complex networks, intuitively recognize the difference between good and bad evidence, entertain hypotheticals, and so on. Yes, the less logical wisdom of our friends might be important for us to be able to hear, but our form – the organized, precise form, might be good for them in a way that, so far as I can tell, they’re unlikely to encounter very many other places, unless they happen to live among academics, lawyers or high school or college debate people.

  6. Nates says:

    Yes, I think I’m on board with everything you’ve said here. (I didn’t really think we were all that far apart in this case–just wanted to bring out a few qualifications.)

    I’m looking forward to future discussions of Socrates! I don’t really have a settled view on this point. Or, rather, I waver inconsistently between thinking he’s incredibly sincere and incredibly ironic.

  7. Alice Neve says:

    I am totally with you,Josh, in the second paragraph under “Changing MY Mind.” I am also pondering how my professional role for 35 years as Librarian, “information provider, sorter, distributor” (especially pre-Internet), was to present all sides of an issue to the individual seeking my assistance, without conveying my own opinion…..and perhaps that role has made me lazy about speaking out. I appreciate all of the thought expressed here and have much to think about and perhaps embrace more actively. Thanks

  8. Josh says:

    Alice – I do agree that when you’re at work and acting in a professional capacity, often that means intentionally not contesting viewpoints. As a teacher I face this tension all the time. My authority requires me not to express opinions in certain ways. And as you might imagine that is a struggle for me.

    That said – there’s this issue which is that a lot of what we say is not value neutral no matter what we do. For example: a science teacher who says something like “evolution is true.” That science teacher has now taken sides in a “political” argument – but of course, they need to because their discipline itself is committed to one side of that argument. I think that’s true for a lot of us a lot more than we realize. If my English class is analyzing a speech by George W Bush, for example, and we’re trying to figure out whether his argument is logical or not – well, I cannot avoid the question exactly. It has more to do with tone and awareness of my authority, I think, than with NOT expressing an opinion at all, which would be impossible.

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