Reflections on Social Media and Politics

Note: this essay draws on material originally published in two posts on my personal blog, Historicisms.

Having just read Mark McCormack’s post, “Dialogue in the Age of Unfriending,” I felt that I should share my own experience with social media in the run-up to the election.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the last few years have left me increasingly tired of bitter partisanship on Facebook—and in general. Mostly this is because I engaged in it vociferously. Unlike Mark, I gave the people who unfriended me pretty good reasons.

That said, I began to lament the stomach-churn, the time wasted, the friends and family alienated, so I tried to stop being an obnoxious Facebook liberal. I struggled to refrain from pouncing on ideological statements with which I disagreed.

Then, one day in early October, just before the first presidential debate, I saw a Facebook status that made me so mad I could spit. The person quoted a verse from the Book of Mormon about how an antichrist deceived the people with his smooth talking. My first thought: “What if Romney wins tonight? Will that mean that he, and not Obama, is the antichrist?” I was saved from posting by only two things: this person is my wife’s friend, not mine; and I decided that I needed to stay off Facebook for a while. It’s not that this post was unusually obnoxious: it was just the proverbial straw.

Partly the decision had to do with the significant demands on my time made by other more important things that were, incidentally, also more conducive to my happiness than getting in Facebook spats. So I focused on getting those things done and avoided Facebook until after the election. Indeed, I tried to pay as little attention to politics as possible.

Now that the election’s over, the time has come to reflect on my decision. There were things that I did and did not miss about Facebook. I certainly did not miss obnoxious political posts, by which I mean drive-by attacks on the other side and glorifications of one’s own. I did miss updates from family and friends: babies’ births, news of how people weathered Sandy, and so on. I also missed some political content: I have a friend who researches the practical impact of legislation and posts what she learns. It’s valuable stuff. She maintains that having ideologically diverse Facebook friends keeps her honest, forcing her to ask: “Can I really back up what I’m about to say?”

What of that decision to stay away from politics? Well, I’m glad that staying off Facebook kept me from the temptation to enter into bitter and pointless political exchanges. I really don’t want that stuff in my life. Still, I can’t quite bring myself to embrace political ignorance. Perhaps what I needed was not to quit politics altogether, but to achieve some kind of balance or perspective about the place of politics in my life, and especially among the many demands on my time.

I’ve realized in the week since the election, having checked Facebook occasionally, that I don’t need to put politics aside altogether. What I do need to do is to keep it from threatening primacy over other things that should be more important. I also basically need to grow up and learn to deal with the fact that people sometimes express political opinions in ways that I find obnoxious. (I freely admit that there’s some self-loathing in that sentiment.) The best thing to do in most cases is just to  keep on scrolling, or to delete the email forward, or whatever it takes.

This is not a rationale for complete disengagement. It is, however, an argument for being very selective about one’s engagement. Why sign up to be a victim of a drive-by? So often our political discourse has a façade of trying to persuade the political other, when in fact its purpose is to unite partisans through a polemical definition of the other. Why voluntarily jam one’s square peg into somebody else’s round hole and then gripe about the uncomfortable fit?

The time to engage is not when other people are being aggressive—unless the situation genuinely calls for intervention—but when they are being open. Amidst the apocalyptic musings of despairing conservatives, there were some who, while disappointed, nevertheless tried to look for the good that might come of a second Obama term. There were also some liberals who returned the favor. (This blog post details such an exchange.)

Grace in defeat has a higher cost than magnanimity in victory (kudos to Romney for his lovely concession speech), but both are worlds better than aggressive demonization. From such a place of openness might come conversations that enable us not only to talk about, but indeed to enact the process of working together in the face of real difference. The trick is to meet this openness in others with openness in oneself. That’s something I’m still very much learning how to do, and I hope that someday the better angels of my nature will prevail.

xkcd comic, “Duty Calls,” used under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.5 license. Mouseover text from original comic: “What do you want me to do? LEAVE? Then they’ll keep being wrong!”
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4 thoughts on “Reflections on Social Media and Politics

  1. Jason,

    Thank you for this perspective. Like you, I have struggled with setting limits on how much/when/whether to engage with others (I love the cartoon – hits a little too close to home!). Just yesterday, in fact, after typing a long–winded response to a friend’s comment, I decided just to delete it – I had other things to do, and it suddenly didn’t feel like the right time or way to engage with this particular person.

    At any rate, I appreciate your point on selective engagement. There’s an art to knowing when to engage and when not to engage (and it’s one I haven’t quite mastered, ha!).

    Thanks, Jason!


    1. Thanks, Mark, for your wonderful piece, which prompted my return to SoF. I, too, have lost whole reams of writing to a happy decision to delete. Neither have I mastered the art, but here’s hoping that we can both do better!


  2. This really resonates with me. I know that several General Authorities have given talks in General Conference or similar contexts recently about the need to prevent our internet activity from running into excess.

    I don’t know that anyone actually has a clear image of where the excess-point, though, and the result is that people just get drawn deeper and deeper into it. In the absence of a definitive boundary marking where internet use has crossed into excess, it’s probably a good idea to experiment with setting our own limits at first. It may not be pretty initially, but we’ll eventually find the right balance.

    I recently decided to experiment with turning off and leaving off my phone on Sundays, which in addition to meaning no phone calls, also more particularly means paying attention the whole time in church instead of zoning out onto the internet in a case where I find a lesson or a talk wanting. I blogged about it on another SoF post here.

    Overall, I like the idea of a Sabbath-rhythm because it’s not complete withdrawal from a certain discursive forum–I can always turn everything back on Monday morning and see what I have missed. And yet, by setting Sunday aside as a time for relative withdrawal from the phone and internet, I’m able to experience a large chunk of conscious embodiment.

    I’m almost certain that one of the GC talks about the internet mentioned LDS doctrine about the significance of embodiment and the fact that we exist in a physical world and are not just minds or spirits alone. I think it was in an Ensign issue last year or the year before. I thought that was such a creative and cogent way for Mormon theology to speak to the issue at hand, as opposed to just expressing an ambiguous fear about the onset of new technologies. 🙂

    It seems like your specific reason for turning off Facebook for a while was that you took issue with some of the content that was being published in that forum, not that you took issue with the form and structure of the forum itself. Still, I guess these thoughts were what came to mind. Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. I think you’re remembering a CES fireside by Elder Bednar from a couple of years back, which was subsequently published in the Ensign.

      I, too, like the “Sabbath” idea, though I’m an imperfect practitioner. (The iPad saves me lugging a pile of books and papers to church. That it’s wi-fi only saves me from pulling a Mitt.)

      Recalling Jesus’ saying that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, allows for a broader application of the principle, which is basically to be mindful in our use of technology: make sure we’re using it to serve our ends, not making ourselves serve technology.

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