We’ve all seen it — the toxic mayhem of a heated online comment feed. During my capstone research for grad school I chose one doozy of an article to analyze; truly, it was awful. As I trudged through comment after comment, the things people said to each other took its toll. After coding one of the worst sections I actually texted to a classmate I felt I needed a shower. People on all sides were running amuck. Those who valiantly tried to point out the misleading, inflammatory points within the article were utterly overpowered — with one remarkable exception. One commenter used her communicative superpowers to create an oasis of civil disagreement. I was deeply impressed, and want to share what I learned from her. For the purposes of this post, I’ll call her Rita.
In online exchanges, many who may otherwise wish to cut through the damaging tension are actually thwarted from within, as the seductive resonance of frustration over an offensive opinion undermines the ability to connect with people. Research has shown repeatedly that digital communication emboldens us to dehumanize the other person. Simply put, we say things online we would never say in person. Rita, for her part, would have none of it. That doesn’t mean she made friends with everyone — in fact she was bold and unflinching when attacked! Looking at her comments now, two years later, one in particular speaks to the current divisiveness in our culture. Although you probably won’t like it, I’m going to bring it up anyway. I’m betting you want to see that divisiveness come to an end as much as I do.
Rita’s #1 Rule: Make room for opinions you despise
Rita skillfully exposed the underlying problem in these all too common online power struggles. We have forgotten our civic duty to make room for opinions we truly dislike:
“The plain fact of the matter is in America, you do have every right to practice whatever religion you wish to practice, not agree with people’s choice of sexual or life partners, and believe that certain groups of people are inferior. It is a hard truth about our republic that not everyone is going to fall into step behind the way you think. If we did, we would be living under Hitler who required his countrymen to believe in his hatred of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and intellectuals, and to kill them in the name of the State or risk their own lives for disobeying. I do not want this country to become Nazi Germany, therefore, I do not want people to run through the streets proclaiming that the way a person practices their religion or spends their money should brand them as being ‘on the wrong side of this’.”
Rita moved the conversation away from the topic at hand to point out what people were doing to each other. She also painted a clear picture of where we are heading if we don’t knock it off. Most of us agree that these “United” States are anything but, yet what can one person do in the face of the current cultural tide? Perhaps looking at the cultural tide is unwise — it’s overwhelming. Instead, the place for the average person to wade in and do some good is in the small, regular waves of everyday conversation – including the tough ones. This begs the understandable question, “how exactly do I do that when people just keep pissing me off?” Let’s stick with Rita, because there are many sources to back up her point.
Civil disagreement: online, offline and anywhere in between
Rita’s comment above resonates with much of the communication research I’ve read. Have you ever noticed that when you truly resonate with what someone says, you feel a sense of peace? That peace cannot coexist with the swirl of negative emotions we experience when offended. The authors of Crucial Conversations, for example, point out that “at the core of every successful conversation is the free flow of relevant information. People openly and honestly express their opinions…even when their ideas are controversial or unpopular” (p. 23). They also point out that, “understanding doesn’t equate with agreement” (p. 167). Not unlike Rita, they counsel that people can understand each other and still retain their own opinions — not matter how emotionally charged. The implication there, however, is that you give up the expectation that “they” agree with you.
As both a Christian and a communication professional, I feel a compounded obligation to initiate a respectful tone in any conflict, no matter where it happens. Jesus taught that putting God first was the greatest commandment, followed closely by “Love your neighbor as yourself.” As a test, someone asked Him, “And who is my neighbor” (Luke 10:29)? The question is understandable — it’s natural to want to avoid people you don’t agree with. In response, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. So much for easy answers! In that story, one man took care of another who was suffering not out of some deep friendship; they were strangers. Rather, “love” in this case was simply seeing the humanity in someone very different and doing the right thing — no more, no less.
Don’t chase that rabbit
We should all remember Rita when tempted to make online comments in a state of righteous indignation. Those temptations abound in the digital age. Don’t chase that rabbit. Today we live as much in online spaces as we do offline, and this does not encourage our best selves during conflict. Did you ever notice how many online platforms beyond Facebook use the “Like” and “Dislike” buttons? Think about the pervasiveness of that. I will leave you to ponder the relational implications on your own.
It’s easier, yes, to let someone have it online than in person. But consider this: it is also easier to catch yourself before saying something damaging. After all, one only needs to push back from the keyboard, right? Again, don’t chase that rabbit. Because once you post it, it’s always there, ready to inflame rather than inspire understanding. I’m not suggesting silence, however. The theorists I used for my own research make an interesting point: “the key to interpersonal communication is an invitation to relationship building, not smooth discourse at all costs” (Arnett, Fritz and Bell, p. 130). What I take away from all this is that we are to neither avoid the conversation nor try to overpower it. We should instead be prepared to wade in and share our thinking freely without attempting to overpower others we think are just plain wrong.
Easier said than done, right? And yet, the alternative is worse, as Rita points out.
Understanding. Relationship. Disagreement. When our own communication reinforces the idea that those three things cannot coexist, we add to the divisiveness. If we are to love our country then we must love our neighbors. That means learning to separate your revulsion at someone’s “wrong thinking” from your connection to them as your fellow American. By siloing ourselves into comfy bubbles of “those who think like me,” we give oxygen to the divisiveness we want so much to snuff out. I do not reference the article I studied here because, like Rita, I want this conversation to stay on my point. We can only have great influence, as she did, if we are fully mindful of how we are being influenced. When seeing our opinions overpower others becomes more important than the humanity of those we disagree with, the freedom we risk is our own.
Thanks for the reminder, Rita. Well done.
About the author:
Neely Monemi first came to the CORRAL as a volunteer in 2011. Inspired by her involvement with CORRAL, she returned to grad school at Queens University in Charlotte while still an at-home parent, earning her MA in Communication in May 2017. She joined our staff in September 2017 as Marketing & Communications Manager. She has a background in horse training, has worked in a corporate manufacturing, small startup and restaurant management. She lives in the Triangle area with her husband, daughter, and the family dog Sadie (who joins her for work at the farm daily).
Patterson, Grenny, McMillan & Switzler, “Crucial Conversations”
Marshall McLuhan, “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”
Naomi Baron, “Always On: Language in and Online and Mobile World”
Arnett, Fritz and Bell, “Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference”
Other Biblical references: