The presidential race is heating up and boiling over, protests are taking place across the country, and your favorite show didn't win an Emmy. Tensions are getting high. And while tensions rise, so does the amount of "debate" that is happening online. But rather than having fruitful discourse, it seems more like we're shouting at each other with memes.
It is healthy to disagree and even healthier to talk it out. But there are so many obstacles to keeping a discussion civil, especially online. So that we can retain our friendships, family and hopefully a bit of dignity, I've put together a few tips of how to be less of an @$$hole online (and in real life).
Before we go any further, there are some obvious things that, if you're doing, you should stop immediately. Bullying and name-calling have no place in a civil conversation. Neither does hoping a woman be raped for her crime of retweeting a news story (or for any reason, while we're at it).
Threat of physical violence, use of slurs, or even just foul language are counter-productive and just plain rude.
Stop rewarding rants.
While we're on the topic of what to stop, let's stop rewarding rants. Rants are a one-way shouting match and a lot sexier to share than a well-researched and articulated debate, but they don't do us much good. I doubt anyone has ever changed their mind after or learned something new from EPIC rant DESTROYING XYZ!!! All these do is serve hype up the people who already agree with the speaker.
So if you find yourself saying or reading the phrases "mic drop" or "end rant," it's fair to guess that a healthy discussion is not about to break out in the comments section. There are a few people who can drop a mic on a topic in their field of expertise - Neil DeGrasse Tyson on astrophysics, Bill Nye on basically anything, Apple on getting people to "upgrade" to stuff they didn't know they wanted, Olivia Benson on catching the bad guys while maintaining incredible decorum, Beyoncé on slaying - but you probably aren't one of them.
Productive conflict comes from actually listening to each other, so maybe instead of dropping the mic, you could pass it?
Stay on topic.
When discussing a topic, talk about that topic. Sometimes other topics are relevant. Most of the time they are not.
Bringing up irrelevant points is a distraction and gets everyone riled up about a bunch of stuff that no one was even talking about. And the distraction keeps us from getting to any semblance of progress.
Example: when we are talking about the latest victim of an executioner police officer, don't get distracted. The victim wrote a negative Tweet 10 years ago or the weather was stormy or people were yelling. The question isn't was force necessary or should the police have been involved in the first place. The question is, "was deadly force necessary?" The question is, "do police officers deserve better training to make sure they don't have to carry the emotional baggage of making this decision with them for the rest of their lives?" Each case is unique, but don't let yourself get pulled off target.
Listen (or read) before you respond (or share).
Reading the title of an article does not count as reading an article. Reading the headlines of the listicle does not count as reading an article. And if you have not actually read the article, suffice to say you are not qualified to respond to it or share it. That's like giving a review of Marley and Me detailing how it's such an uplifting and cute story that definitely doesn't make every human with a soul sob.
If you haven't read the whole thing or watched the whole thing, don't comment on or share it. You have to be able to understand all of the arguments in it. Once you do, you are better equipped to have an actual exchange.
"When they go low, we go high."
As much as I hate to admit it, not every one of the internet-going public is going to read and agree with this piece. Some people are going to break these rules and defy logic and go low. That's their choice. How you respond is your choice. There is no real world shame in exiting an online exchange that's taken a turn for the worse. Personally, I say do this in real life too.
This is especially important in arguments with friends and family. In 10 years, no one ever remembers that you wanted to go to a Mexican restaurant for dinner and they wanted Thai. But they do remember that little b!tch said I looked like a "f**king aardvark!"
We say things out of anger and hanger that we can't take back, so if you notice it's straying from civility and you can't bring it back, get out!
Be skeptical of everything.
I am so sorry to be the one to break it to you, but everything published on the internet is not fact-checked. Just because it's in quotes doesn't mean someone said it, just because it's in bold font over a scary pictures doesn't mean it's true and scariest of all, even if it IS true, it doesn't mean you're getting the full picture.
Being skeptical isn't a character flaw. In fact, it shows character. This article gives a great overview of how to be a more skeptical news consumer. You should be asking yourself about the bias of the medium that has published the story, the journalist (or regular ol' person) presenting it and the story itself. Is the story trying to achieve something? Does the media outlet have something to gain by publishing the story? Does the research team have incentive to present results in a certain way based on who funded the study?
A while ago a friend shared a piece that was like click-bait catnip to conservatives, the headline being about taxpayer money being spent on Obamacare for illegal immigrants. But when you read the story, it gave you an estimate of how much taxes had been spent for illegal immigrants, yet it failed to include the estimated taxes paid by illegal immigrants. Call me crazy, but that seems like an important part of that equation that this story was reporting.
So fact check and question your sources. Fact check and question your friends' sources.
Freedom of speech protects you from prosecution, not consequences
You can cite the First Amendment when saying that you're allowed to say something. But remember that it protects you from arrest, not judgment. So you don't get to say inflammatory things and then say that no one can respond because you have the freedom of speech. That's not how it works. So if you plan to say something in an argument for which the only defense is "I can say what I want," consider a different approach.
Opinions and facts are different
This feels like it should be unnecessary to call out, but based on what I see happen online, we have to talk about it. You are absolutely entitled to your opinion. But if that opinion is devoid of reason, it does not in fact have equal weight to actual data. When having a disagreement with someone, ask yourself if you're arguing from opinion or from fact. This will change the way you approach the issue.
Acknowledge your bias
Along that same line is acknowledging your bias. We all have biases. Fact. Pretending like we don't or that we can approach an argument immune to them is delusional. Along with acknowledging your bias, it is helpful to acknowledge your history that may influence your perspective. Being up front with that which frames your opinion and argument not only allows you to better articulate it, but also allows other people to better understand your points.
Realize that you aren't, in fact, the center of the universe and probably not the foremost expert on the topic at hand
We get it. You watched every camera angle on a certain incident. You watch, like any good human, every marathon of Law and Order SVU that you can get your hands on. You feel like a detective who has thoroughly combed the evidence. But guess what, you don't have all the information. Let the experts be experts. Of course, approach them with a healthy dose of skepticism (see above), but just because a subreddit has a theory doesn't mean it has equal weight to a properly executed scientific study.
This also means that you should be open to discussion. When people offer an opinion or stance that is counter to yours, hear them out. Maybe ask for sources that you can read more to understand how they got there.
Hold your friends accountable
Even as hard as we try to wear our white hats, we're going to mess up. But that's what we have friends and family for. Call your friends and family out - they'll appreciate (whether they know it or not) and it's part of your job. Now, do it in a respectful manner because there is the possibility that you'll make things worse. Maybe message them privately or talk about it in person.
But if your friends and family are being dicks and you don't say anything, you're a dick too.
Here's the deal. We're going to disagree. It's even healthy. But you don't have to be a d!ck about it. Let's argue, but let's be civil.
About the Author: Jessica is a full-time traveler on a mission to visit every country in world, sharing her trip, pictures, video, stories and observations at How Dare She. Follow her on Instagram or Snapchat (jess_ismore) to see the whole world through her eyes [slash camera].