I want to delete all my Facebook friends—well, nearly all of them. I feel this way most of the time, but the political season heightens the desire. My Facebook friends include relatives, people I went to grade school and high school with, neighborhood characters, college buddies, current colleagues, people I met once, and people I’ve never met. This spectrum brings a range of views on a variety of issues. Generally, I like this because it’s easy to get bubbled-in, to believe that everyone thinks like I do because everyone I interact with thinks like I do. Doesn’t everyone love Jon Stewart and sushi? Well, no. John Stuart Mill knew this in the nineteenth century, and the lessons of his On Liberty apply just as well today. The patience and tolerance practiced by philosophers for millennia can teach us something about constructive disagreement, elevate the tone on Facebook, and even save a few twenty-first century “friendships.”
When it comes to politics, I’m (un)fortunate to have a large number of Facebook friends from both sides of the aisle. They don’t share much in common on hot-button issues like abortion, the role of government, the workings of the economy, and so forth. But what they do share is haughty disdain for those who disagree with them. I would like to report that my more educated friends tend to be more sophisticated and less emotional in their condemnations, but sadly this is not so. In general, the working assumption seems to be that the people who disagree with them are Machiavellian Death Eaters or mindless stormtroopers—or perhaps both. But there is a third alternative that, in more reflective moments, some of my friends seem to consider: people who disagree are simply misinformed. Aside from the few Voldemorts on the other side, who are usually politicians or pundits, most people are Darth Vaders. They can be worn down through a constant crusade to bring them over to the light side of the Force. (“There’s still good in him. I can feel it.”) And so the information campaign begins. My friends post endless articles explaining why the other side is wrong, usually with explanations like: “If you think the Republican budget has a moral leg to stand on, just read this” or “If you think Obama didn’t ruin the economy, just read this.” Some of these articles are actually helpful and informative, but the way they are presented rarely is—and so people on the opposing side are unlikely to read them, never mind read them with an open mind. Only 16 percent of people who use social networking sites have ever changed their mind about a political issue even once in response to friends’ posts (according to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project). And a good number of those changes may have been liberals giving up one of their more conservative views and vice versa.
I posted to Facebook the other day, frustrated with the screaming attempts to educate me, “Not everyone I disagree with is stupid or evil, or even misinformed.” Afterwards, I patted myself on the back while imagining that this would go viral. People would make those little cartoon memes out of it. Maybe I’d even be invited to discuss this wisdom on a talk show. Six friends gave me a like (“likes” being the true measure of the quality of a status update), and a few others made witty comments—some of which I “liked.” In the reflective aftermath, I plummeted from the heights of grandiosity to the depths of self-doubt. But then I rebounded, thinking that perhaps I had touched a nerve. Lots of my friends probably felt the finger pointing at them for their well-meaning attempts to educate those who disagree with them. I commented on my own post by adding that “One of the reasons that not everyone I disagree with is stupid, evil, or even misinformed is that I may be wrong” because sometimes I’m misinformed or thinking emotionally.
In On Liberty John Stuart Mill argues that silencing a minority opinion amounts to claiming infallibility. We can all recognize that we are fallible. But if recognition of fallibility was all there was to my claim, then my friends might have “liked” it more. So I think what troubled some is the idea that there really are issues where good, smart, clear-thinking, well-informed people can disagree. Of course not all, or even most, people who disagree on these issues are good, smart, clear-thinking, and well-informed. In fact, they rarely are if we think only of politicians and pundits. And don’t get me wrong: I still think lots of the average citizens who disagree with me are stupid, evil, or misinformed … just not all of them.
So I have resolved to give people the benefit of the doubt. If you disagree with me, my working assumption will be that you are one of the people with whom I can have genuine disagreement on issues that matter. Philosophers are no strangers to this. We have been debating and discussing some of the same intractable problems and issues for millennia. We do not conclude that there are no right answers to the questions that vex us; we simply continue the debate and discussion. And every now and then a seemingly intractable question or issue gets solved thanks to new information or new insight.
So what should I do about Facebook? In a way, the medium is the message, and the medium of Facebook is particularly unsuited to rational, political dialogue. In at least this sense, Facebook and politics don’t mix. So while Mill would agree that it’s good to play gadfly à la Socrates, I resolve not to use Facebook for that purpose. Freedom of speech does not mean we should just leave each other alone, but prudence dictates that we argue in friendly, constructive ways.
I cannot change anyone’s mind by berating or belittling them. What I can do is watch my tone on Facebook, a lesson I continue to learn slowly and painfully. Maybe I can lead by example, but I’m not getting my hopes up for any grand changes. While I would like to delete lots of my friends who haven’t yet learned the lesson about tone, I am going to resist the urge. Facebook provides me with an opportunity to hear from people whose opinions are not my own. Philosophers of all political stripes are quick to recall Mill’s defense of freedom of expression, but we often forget that he also urged us to learn opposing views from the people who hold those views. That is why liberals should listen to Rush Limbaugh and conservatives should watch Rachel Maddow. And that is why if you are my Facebook friend you are safe from deletion.
*William Irwin is writing a novel titled Facebook Anonymous.