The Facebook platform does not dictate the nature of political debate on Facebook

Political debate on Facebook can be illuminating if it is built on a foundation of respect.

Once they have exhausted the privacy issue, Facebook haters often turn to the fatuous updates posted by users. “Do you really want to see pictures of someone else’s food?” they lament. Well, yes, if it’s a shot by Charles Pizzo, a trained chef and connoisseur of fine dining. Charles’s pictures of food, and associated commentary, fascinate me.

“Well then,” they cry. “What about the political debate? It’s just a bunch of shouting and name-calling and people hating each other.”

Not in my experience. In my experience, political discussions on Facebook are generally courteous, thoughtful, well-reasoned, and supported by evidence. What’s more, I enjoy many non-political conversations with Facebook friends on the opposite side of the political fence. We can debate politics one day, then share our enthusiasm for a musician the next, then discuss a PR tactic the next. I’d be happy to have a meal or a beer with any of them. In fact, when I’m in their home towns, I plan to ask for a get-together.

Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Foundations for civility

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams started out as allies during the American Revolution, but when it came to the future of America and the role of government, the diverged to the point that they stopped talking to one another. After both were retired, Adams’ wife, Abigail, wrote to Jefferson in 1801 imploring him to restart the correspondence. Jefferson did, and the result is an unparalleled intellectual dialogue, one of the most comprehensive discussions of the two fundamental and vastly different views of America.

John Adams and Thomas JeffersonThe correspondence was made possible because neither Jefferson nor Adams viewed it as an argument, or even a debate. Rather, it was an effort for each to explain himself to the other. The two men, despite a canyon separating their political beliefs, held each other in high regard. It was that respect that allowed them to share diametrically opposing views without blood pressure rising or vitriol spewing from their quills.

By no means would I compare myself and any of my friends with whom I engage in political discourse with Adams and Jefferson. Their approach, however, is worth emulating. I am not trying to convince my Facebook friends to cross the line and join me on my side of the fence, nor do I expect they believe they can convert me. Rather, as reasonable and somewhat intelligent people, we enjoy explaining ourselves, and we do so while maintaining respect for one another.

The Jefferson-Adams letters (which I am re-reading) are one of two influences that guide my approach to online political debate. The other is my experience on the high school debate team. My partner and I were pretty good, gold-medaling at one competition. (To be fair, I have to give my partner most of the credit. Though we’ve lost touch with each other and haven’t talked in decades, I do sometimes find myself remembering how damned smart and quick David Herst was.)

High school debatersIn debate, governed by what was then the National Forensics League (yes, that’s the NFL), a single resolution was selected that teams nationwide would debate for the entire year. Teams had to be able to argue both the affirmative and the negative. In many tournaments, there were four rounds, two affirmative and two negative. That means you had to take a position twice that was exactly the oppositive of the position you took the other two times. No matter how strongy you believed you had the better argument, the other debaters were still colleagues and friends. You would argue your heart out during the debate, then grab a snack with your competitors.

One more thing about debate: Even the best argument didn’t win without evidence to support it. The resoltuion for the next year was announced just as summer began, which led to many long summer hours spent in libraries preparing index cards containing expert quotes and data we could pull out of a double-drawer card file to support our points during our rounds.

Facebook is what you make of it

There is a core group of a half-dozen people who share political views contrary to my own with whom I regularly debate on Facebook. Somebody recently told me I was brave to raise the issues I do. I disagree. It’s not brave. It’s fun, just as debate was fun. Our conversations never devolve into name-calling. Perjoratives aren’t flung. And there are those wonderful moments when either I or somebody I’m debating will concede a point because we’ve learned something.

The Facebook platform does not dictate the nature of political debate.

Learning is the greatest outcome of these exercises for me. I may still disagree, but learning something I didn’t know before can inform my view, help me refine my case, and sometimes even moderate my perspective.

It’s not uncommon—especially when I neglect to change the update from the “public” setting—for a troll to jump in and start screaming, swearing, and belittling. I find that ignoring them tends to make them go away: Deprive something of oxygen and it’s likely to die.

But for those people who regularly join me for a good, healthy explaining of our points of view—and you know who you are—I think you’d agree that we emerge from most of these discussions the better for having participated in them. And our respect for one another is unabated and, perhaps, even heightened.

From where I sit, the conversations aren’t about winning. The conversation itself, with smart people I enjoy talking to, is its own reward, and evidence that we don’t have to be polarized if choose not to.

Either way, it’s not a condition of Facebook that determines the nature of these discussions. It’s just a matter of how we choose to engage with each other.