“The next person to post about [hot sociopolitical topic] gets unfriended. I mean it.”
“Had to unfriend some people after they posted about [hot sociopolitical topic].”
I see this all the time on Facebook, and to a lesser extent on Tumblr and other social media platforms.
You’ve all seen it, too. Perhaps you’ve even engaged in it. Heck, back in my younger, wilder days I probably rage-quit a few friends myself.
Somebody posts some racist screed for the hundredth time this week, or comments about how Robo-Obama is destroying America with an army of telepathic droids. You can’t believe the disgusting filth you’re reading.
You angrily unfriend, perhaps leaving behind a self-righteous tirade for the friend (now the “unfriend”) to chew on. That’ll show that racist/sexist/homophic bastard, right?
Indignant unfriending, in my view, is stupid. Here’s why.
First, unfriending accomplishes nothing.
Generally, people have three reasons for unfriending:*
1. To punish the offender.
This is the dumbest reason for unfriending ever, but it also seems to be the most common.
“In retaliation for that comment my third cousin Sarah made about confederate flags, I will forever deprive her of my baby pictures, cat videos, complaints about co-workers, and last night’s ‘Daily Show’ clips.”
Congratulations on your moral victory. Your racist cousin has learned nothing, will continue to be a racist, and probably will not even notice you have disappeared from her feed. Unless, of course, you leave behind an angry rant about what an ignorant neanderthal she is, in which case she will likely cling to her prehistoric viewpoints all the more tenaciously.
2. To demonstrate to the rest of the world that the offender was punished.
I get this one more than Reason No. 1, but it’s still dumb. “Attention Facebook: I am no longer friends with my uncle Jim because of his posts in support of polygamy. Now no one can say I am a polygamist.”
Good going. You’ve demonstrated to everyone in your Facebook fiefdom that you will not tolerate something. Will that deter future posting of similar topics by other friends? No.
People are going to post whatever they damn well please on their own timelines. Will it improve your standing among your other friends? Possibly, but only the ones that already agree with you. If you’re looking for comments reinforcing what you already believe, this is the way to go. The friends who disagree will get the message: There’s no room for discourse with you.
3. To keep undesirable reading material off of their feed.
This is the most sensible of the three, but it kinda defeats the purpose of social networking, doesn’t it?
The great thing about social media is not just the endless stream of photos of kids on their first day of school, or insipid e-cards with witty, grammatically incorrect aphorisms. It’s the exchange of ideas and information, right? Not only can it keep you abreast of what’s going on in the world, but what people think is going on. Right?
Self-segregation is like home schooling. It doesn’t make unpleasantness disappear, it just delays the inevitable contact that you’re bound to have with the rest of the big, scary world someday.
And that’s a good segue into the second reason not to cavalierly unfriend: While unfriending likely does little harm to the unfriend, it does serious harm to the unfriender. In reality, here’s what you’re accomplishing.
A. You are severely limiting your ability to understand, sympathize with, and/or respond to the unfriend’s point of view.
When you cut yourself off from ideas you find distasteful, you don’t have any possibility of understanding what the thought process of the person espousing those ideas might be. I’m not suggesting that you should be open to having your mind changed about something you feel passionately about (god forbid).
And I’m not even necessarily suggesting you should try to foster an attitude of compassion toward even the most misguided of nature’s creations, although that doesn’t hurt. No, beyond those considerations, there’s a longstanding principle at work which simply cannot be ignored:
“Know your enemy and know yourself, find naught in fear for 100 battles.”
Sure, Sun Tzu in the 21st century is for pseudo-intellectuals with MBAs who go into sales, cheat on their wives, and drink bourbon that doesn’t come from Kentucky. But this nugget of good ol’ ancient Chinese wisdom applies to any disagreement you might have with another human.
It’s rare that someone plucks an opinion out of thin air without it being informed by something. Personal history, family influences, CNN, Ayn Rand novels, the conversation they had at lunch — all these things lead to a person’s view, no matter how ignorant.
You are unlikely to score any points in a debate if you can’t undermine the assumptions that contributed to your friend’s woefully misguided opinion in the first place. You are even less likely to change someone’s mind. Living in a sanitary bubble where all you ever hear is tepid agreement does nothing to sharpen your wit, your wisdom, or your compassion. At least one of those qualities ought to be important to you.
And that leads us to:
B. You are severely restricting your own sphere of influence.
If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence. Whitney v. CA, 274 U.S. 357 (1927).
This flowery concurrence by Justice Brandeis presents the most compelling argument against unfriending. Think about this one. If you cut someone off from all communications, you no longer have an opportunity to influence that person in any way, positive or negative.
Restricting your influence over other humans is virtually never in your best interests unless you are going for total isolationism. And total isolationism isn’t really possible anymore unless you’re in a monastery in North Korea or something. Probably not even then. If you’re on Facebook, you’re not an isolationist. If you’re reading this, you are not an isolationist. If you’re alive, you’re not an isolationist.
Now look, I’m not suggesting you go trying to push your opinions off on other people all the time. That’s likely to restrict your influence as well, because who wants to listen to a blowhard ideologue?
But If you subtly sneak the occasional soapboxing into your timeline, chances are someone who does not share your worldview will read it. And chances are it will influence them, one way or another. Hell, you owe it to your misguided followers to set them straight because, after all, you’re always right, you never lie, and you’re the smartest person you know. Right?
But seriously, if you genuinely feel like you’re taking the moral high ground, and you have facts to back up your beliefs, put ‘em out there. If someone reads and agrees, great. If someone reads and is educated, even better. If someone reads and disagrees, it’s a chance for you either to be educated, or to educate someone else.
While social media affords plenty of opportunity to segregate yourself in an online community of like-minded whitewashers, its real power is in persuasion. If you can reach 1,000 people with an idea, your chances of changing opinions are better than if you can only reach 100, or 10, or one.
And if you can change even one mind out of that 1,000, in my view, it is worth reading the occasional unpleasantry.
* I’ll acknowledge that a separate reason might be that the unfriend has invited you to play thousands of games about farms or candy or what-have-you. While I still think it’s a better practice to hide that person’s posts, I totally endorse unfriending someone you barely knew in middle school over that kind of annoying BS.