Do you ever let your mind wander way back through the mists of time and remember what presidential election years were like before social media? Of course you don’t, because you’re too busy scrolling through Facebook.
But believe it or not, there was once a time when Americans experienced entire election cycles without being regaled with the political opinions of their high-school classmates, hairdressers, dog walkers, ex-coworkers, and cousins-in-law. There were entire segments of our acquaintance—that guy who used to date our neighbor’s daughter, for example—whose political leanings we didn’t even know.
Like cavemen, we had to look for bumper stickers, yard signs, and other primitive indicators to know which candidates our friends preferred. If we had to confront someone about their silly policy ideas or browbeat them into voting for our guy, that happened face to face, around dinner tables and water coolers, like barbarians.
Thankfully, those days are long behind us. Now, at the click of a button, we can enjoy the provoking and stupid opinions of just about everyone we know. (Note to my Facebook friends: I don’t mean you! A different friend.) There’s also never been a more provoking and stupid year than 2016. If there were ever a year designed to test the friendships and the mental fortitude of every social media user in America, 2016 is it.
Of course, the simplest and healthiest solution might be to take a break from Facebook. Hahahaha! Okay, enough with the crazy talk. Here are a few tips to help you stay sane and not be a jerk, through November and beyond.
1. Learn to Appreciate Ideological Diversity
If you have a Facebook friend who thinks differently about politics than you do, I want you to take your right hand, extend it over your left shoulder as far as possible, and pat yourself on the back. Give yourself an extra pat for people who are your political polar opposite, two extra pats if you take time to think about their ideas once in a while, and three if you can genuinely call them a friend in real life.
It’s natural to gravitate toward people who think the same way we do. But it’s unhealthy to create echo chambers that completely shield us from opposing viewpoints—and allow us to demonize everyone on the other side. As much as they sometimes get under my skin, my Bernie-loving, Hillary-supporting, and Trump-touting friends have helped me understand their viewpoints in a way that no one else could.
This, in turn, better informs my efforts to engage and persuade. That doesn’t mean my friends’ ideas are always valid, but it does mean I would be a short-sighted ninny to excommunicate them from my life. So the next time a Facebook friend posts something that makes you want to spit bullets into your computer screen, say, “I have diverse friends. I’m not a short-sighted ninny. Good for me!” Then go stress-eat some cake.
2. Know When Not to Engage
All that happy talk about diversity aside, there are some people—be they friends, friends of friends, or frenemies—who aren’t interested in discussing ideas. They’re out to hear themselves talk, waste your time, and thin your hair. They are firmly convinced that everyone on The Other Side is a direct descendant of Lucifer, and their demeanor reflects this belief.
Do not descend to their level, but do give these folks a well-earned spot on your Do Not Engage List (DNEL). Simply put, “do not engage” means to let their political statements pass without comment. Someone from your DNEL could say, “George Washington was a Muslim who faked the moon landing,” and yet you would ignore him, sitting on your hands if necessary. Instead, focus on engaging people who are capable of reasoned and civil debate.
Behavior, not political ideology, is the determining factor for who lands on the DNEL. My list includes all name-callers, flame-throwers, and jerks, as well as people who—bless their hearts!—have shown themselves incapable of following a logical argument. We may still dearly love these people, but debating them exemplifies Robert Heinlein’s quote about teaching a pig to sing: “You’ll waste your time and annoy the pig.”
Sometimes I have added someone to the DNEL midway through a discussion, bowing out as politely as I can even if it means they get the last word. It’s okay to let them have the last word, really. Stress-eating cake can help.
But my DNEL also includes a category you might not expect. I won’t allow myself to debate or argue with family members who are at least a generation older than I am: parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. Call me old-fashioned, but I think it’s unbecoming to publicly disagree with someone who changed my diapers. I’ve broken this rule a few times and have always regretted it. I’ve seen others breaking this rule, and it never fails to makes me cringe.
If I wouldn’t get up on a stage in front of 500 people to debate my parent or grandparent, then I’m not about to do it on Facebook. This same rule can apply to any fragile friendship where a political disagreement would create more strain than it’s worth. This doesn’t mean a private disagreement is off the table, but a public one is.
3. Two Words: Private Message
Speaking of private disagreements, let me take a moment to sing the praises of the private message. One of the beauties of social media (I’m convinced there’s a good side, truly) is that it allows people to communicate with each other directly about real issues: religion, politics, and all those other vital things we aren’t supposed to talk about.
After all, social convention tends to dictate that I not walk into a room and announce: “Who wants to hear my opinion on criminal justice reform?” By contrast, the Internet allows me to put ideas out there and strike up a conversation with anyone interested. But once the discussion gets going, social media can become an awkward forum.
As I said before, it’s like having an impromptu debate onstage in front of 500 people, who are cheering, booing, and heckling. At worst it lends itself to a mob mentality, and at best it discourages people from being frank and open-minded. If things are getting heated surrounding an important topic with someone you value as a friend, consider moving the discussion to a private message. You’ll often find that both of you are better able discuss difficult subjects openly and amicably in the absence of the peanut gallery.
Private messaging is also good for apologizing if you ever need to. At some point, you probably will.
4. If Necessary, Unfollow
Despite all our best efforts, some people are just too much. They get going on a certain controversy or candidate, and neither rain, nor snow, nor heat, nor gloom of night will keep them from their appointed rounds of filling your News Feed with inflammatory posts. In these cases, you might think your only option is to go nuclear and “unfriend.” Not true! In most cases “unfollow” will do the job with fewer relationship consequences.
Unfollowing people simply means their posts stop showing in your News Feed. You’re still friends, these people will still see your posts, and they will never know they’ve been unfollowed. You can still go directly to their Timeline to see the posts you’ve missed. So when you’re feeling strong of mind and well-fortified with cake, you can head over to Aunt Matilda’s Timeline, “like” all the photos of your cousin’s graduation, and quickly leave before you’re tempted to make snide comments about Cecil the Lion. Whenever the current campaign or controversy is over, you can always start following Aunt Matilda again.
If your problem person is prone to being a bully on your page, Facebook does provide privacy controls for your posts. They are highly customizable, right down to letting you hide one specific post from one specific friend. Frankly, this is a tool I hesitate to recommend for frequent use. It becomes tempting for people-pleasers like myself to hide our beliefs from those who would disapprove, feeding the echo chamber effect. Still, it can be helpful for especially sensitive topics, or for difficult friends who lack self-control.
5. Remember the Value of Personal Relationships
I’ve mentioned already that I appreciate the way social media can facilitate political dialogue. But for heaven’s sake, don’t let your Facebook account become “all politics all the time.” At its best, Facebook is a tool to bolster our real-life relationships and strengthen our real-world communities.
It can keep you in touch with scattered family members, help you get to know neighbors, and connect you with church friends. It can help you find out about events and news in your local community. It can throw a lifeline to lonely moms of toddlers. It can allow us to speak a word of encouragement at the right moment—even to a friend who doesn’t share our views. Especially to a friend who doesn’t share our views.
It’s good to care passionately about politics and policy. But let’s remember that personal relationships are important too—probably more than we realize. Here at The Federalist, Stella Morabito has written at length about how strong private relationships threaten the power of the state. Totalitarian regimes have made a science out of isolating and dividing people, undermining the family, preventing assembly, curtailing the free exchange of ideas, and sowing the seeds of mutual distrust in every possible relationship. They know genuine human connection robs them of power.
Thankfully, a desire for genuine human connection is written into the hearts of all people everywhere, liberal and conservative. People want to be accepted, so let them know you love them, even when you disagree. They want to feel like they aren’t alone, so be real, resisting the temptation to make your life look perfect. They want to laugh, so have a sense of humor if you possibly can. Let people know their babies are beautiful and wish them a happy anniversary. Use social media not to isolate, demonize, and foment a mob, but to build community. Who knows? You may strike more blows for freedom that way than with a hundred political posts.
6. Bake a Therapy Cake and Have It at the Ready
Here’s my favorite recipe.
Deep Dark Chocolate Cake
1¾ cup unbleached flour
2 cups sugar
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa
1½ tsp. baking soda
1½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 cup milk
½ cup butter, melted
2 tsp. vanilla
1 cup boiling water
Combine dry ingredients in large mixing bowl. Add eggs, milk, butter, and vanilla; beat two minutes with electric beater at medium speed. Stir in boiling water (batter will be thin). Pour into two greased round cake pans, or a greased 9×13 pan. Bake at 350 for 30-35 minutes or until cake springs back when lightly touched.
¾ cup semisweet chocolate chips, melted and cooled
2/3 cup butter, softened
4 cups confectioner’s sugar
3-4 tablespoons brewed coffee, cooled
In a medium mixing bowl, beat together melted chocolate and butter. Gradually beat in confectioner’s sugar and enough coffee to desired consistency. Frost cooled cake.