I had a grandfather who liked to greet my visits as a young adult with a rump steak cooked to my liking and a Fourex beer. Sitting opposite me he would sip a neat whisky, probably his fourth or fifth for the day, and descend into an embittered rant about Australian politics and life in general. When he was really in his stride he’d turn his invective to family matters.
At this point, from behind the barricades, so to speak, I’d let fly with a growl, “Stop it Cec!”
He would stop, with a sarcastic grin on his face, back down, and change the subject back to the mundanity of his 24/7 care of my stroke-paralysed grandmother.
My grandfather was an object lesson for me in how a life can become sour, and I was confronted with it in every encounter from my earliest childhood.
The memory of this has been freshened for me in this US election cycle. Who knew I would become an American citizen in my middle age? And it’s Facebook, that wonderful forum for dropping in and out of one another’s lives, across all continents, that has brought back that same experience for me.
The rants I object to are from people who matter to me and their biting words seem to reveal a bitter hatred of President Barak Obama, the real cause, they believe, of all their patriotic disappointments. With as much well meaning as my departed grandfather, they name-call anyone associated with the Democrat Party, and to me it seems vicious. (I wrote on this in the last election cycle when it was email that was the vehicle for disinformation and hate commentary.)
What they have in common? They are white, they describe themselves as Christians, as I do, and they are staunchly Republican. Me, I consider myself an independent politically. I also value good journalism.
It’s hard to speak about these encounters. How do you discuss this assault with words without returning serve like I inevitably did once I was old enough, with my grandfather?
My attempts to debate the rationality of the arguments from three people I care about has resulted in permanent “de-friending” – that’s got to be a word in the English dictionary by now.
One, a woman of high public profile, was convinced that George Soros is incarnate evil in the US, wrote about it with a passion, and directed it to what I came to realize was a gathering choir of like- minded believers. But she excludes dissenters. She can simply de-friend them. Like me.
The other an 18 year old high school senior, and sharp debater – his language became so out of control, that I suffered the worst personal slanging in five and half decades of life for daring to warn him that Facebook rants might affect his job prospects.
Then yesterday – the catalyst for this reflection – a former colleague, cut the Facebook cord then wrote me off to his Facebook audience as a one-eyed Obama supporter. Because? I challenged his conspiracy-theory attacks on “Ohblahblah” with New York Times & Washington Post reports from eyewitnesses in Benghazi.
For some years he has been, in my perception, a megaphone on Facebook for every right wing extremist that supports his view of Obama as the cause of the demise of the USA. And, all the way from Australia.
It’s the mean spiritedness that gets to me, but beyond reminders of my grandfather, I allowed myself to make another attempt to persuade him to another way of seeing Benghazi and the film by the discredited Dinesh D’Souza, “Obama 2016.”
The issue isn’t really he said/ I said. The issue is the lack of value we give to people who don’t see life the way we see it. So little value in fact that it’s easy to cut them off despite previously important relational ties. Now mind you, I own that my participation in the backward and forward is not without its own follies. Who handles an argument faultlessly? But in each instance, I didn’t expect nor want a friendship divorce.
Still, it’s not a black eye. I’ve been king hit twice in my life. And, it’s not a gunning down, or a roadside bomb – so perspective matters here! It is a shunning, as a pariah, as one who just doesn’t get it
So, I discover that each de-friending hurts because it demonstrates that the feeling behind the argument is more important to my former Facebook friends, than me as a friend. That their integrity feels impugned because I exist as a challenge to the lens they use to view reality. Therefore, for them, I’m quite expendable.
Expendable. Said that way, it sounds like the seed of terrorism doesn’t it? Come to Facebook & see how to make an enclave of like-minded people, militant and chanting cliches over a life reduced to just a few issues, and discard our non accepting friends, our dissenting relatives or neighbors. De-friend them! It’s a bit like how the seeds of murder are sown in simple anger with another.
So, as I began, this isn’t just a Facebook phenomenon. It’s been the experience of human beings since records have been kept. Novels and memoirs and movies, and our news cycles are full of it, and in those stories “de-friending” often comes to murder, slavery, torture, war, or romantic tragedy.
For all its benefits in interpersonal communication, Facebook is a new channel for expressing our feuding over tribal or cultic loyalties. And since, ironically, it is NOT face to face, some people are willing to put into text online what they would never say to me in person.
The danger here is to our very souls – a selling of ourselves to a mean spirit, a spirit that makes sport of others through the expression of our basest feelings. And the saddest thing? When we do this we know we are doing it, but believe it is coming from our truest, our best self.
Lord, help us!