If You Wouldn't Say it to Someone's Face, Maybe You Shouldn't Say it All
I'm extremely tired of online debates that are all heat, no light. How crazy am I to think there's a better way?
A British expat, a Turkish artist, and an Indian Muslim walk into a bar.
No, wait, it was a recent dinner party Michael and I attended!
Here in Turkey, we’ve done a lot of socializing. We’ve had dinner after dinner with locals, expats, foreign tourists, and fellow digital nomads. We’ve had dozens of more casual chats too.
And it’s been fantastic. Almost daily, I encounter wildly different points of view and frequently get to talk in depth with the people who hold them.
I’ve had conversations with a devout Muslim woman, a Spanish-Turkish Jew, several European journalists, a lapsed Muslim lesbian, a 30-year veteran of American law enforcement, a non-binary LGBTQ activist, a German doctor, a Turkish guy who grew up desperately poor with no schooling whatsoever, and a British man of Pakistani descent.
Cancel culture, the Israel/Palestinian conflict, the Islamic view of cats, the rise of fascism, and the deliciousness of Turkish apple tea — you name it, we’ve discussed it!
I didn’t agree with everything that everyone said on every issue, and sure, I think people sometimes got their facts wrong. Sometimes people were even a little rude or insensitive to each other.
At one dinner party, we were discussing the political situation in Turkey: the country is in the thrall of an authoritarian government, and activists and dissidents are being arrested.
The German doctor sighed and said, “It’s terrible, but somehow we must carry on.”
The Turkish artist tensed, clearly annoyed.
A few minutes later, she pulled me out onto a balcony, presumably so she could have a smoke. But she really wanted to vent. “She’s minimizing how bad the political situation is here in Turkey,” she said about the German doctor. “It’s really upsetting.”
“Maybe you should say something,” I said.
So a few minutes later, back at the dinner table, she did.
The doctor listened and said, “You’re misunderstanding me. I agree things are really bad here. Every day, I try to help the people I see in my office, and I think I’m making a difference in my small way. We all have to somehow carry on.”
I could tell the Turkish woman was still annoyed — the sensibilities of the two women were just too different, one young and fiery, one older and very practical — and they didn’t interact again the rest of the evening. But there had been a connection of sorts, and I had a feeling the doctor would be a little more sensitive going forward.
Anyway, the moment of tension was diffused, and the dinner carried on.
I can’t help but compare this exchange to virtually any interaction on social media.
Did you hear the one about the woman who wrote a short story — and almost had her life destroyed? Or how YA Twitter has become a cat fight in a toxic waste dump? And don’t get me started on Donald Trump.
The people who win online? They’re the ones with the most simplistic, most over-the-top takes. All heat, no light. In the end, it’s always everyone talking past each other, with very few people actually engaging at all, except with people who already agree with them 100%.
And why would anyone engage? By this point, we all know what’s going to happen.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why social media creates such a fast race to the bottom.
Social scientists have long known about “confirmation bias”: how we all seek out information that confirms what we already believe, because it makes us feel better — that we’re good people on the “right” side of all the major issues.
And, of course, social media now uses complicated algorithms to actively confirm people’s biases, because they’ve learned that’s what keeps people engaged (and sells more ads!).
It’s also the nature of social media itself, which has unlocked an avalanche of user-generated content.
In the middle of that deluge of clutter, how in the world do you get attention for your own content?
Well, you can be outrageous. Obviously, that works. Every time I look at Gay Twitter, how crude and sexualized it can be, I feel like Doris Day in that old movie, Pillow Talk.
You can also get attention for yourself on social media by being outraged. Social scientists have known for a long time that nothing gets people to pay attention like anger (and its close cousin, fear). Just last week, there was yet another study that the best way to get attention online is to attack someone else in hyperbolic terms. It works even better than scientists imagined!
This combination of outrageousness and outrage is terrible for humanity. It’s making people anxious and unhappy, and if you care about an issue, it’s also terrible for your cause, because it makes people more entrenched and even less likely to change their minds.
Increasingly, it feels like American culture is in a feedback loop: our media encourage both outrageousness and outrage, which inspires American society to become more outrageous and outraged, which our media then reflect back, and Americans consume and, well, lather, rinse, repeat.
It’s hard for me to see how this ends well. I know American democracy has survived worse, but this still absolutely feels to me like a Five Alarm Fire.
And I hasten to add that this isn’t a “both sides are equal” situation. It’s still only one political party, the Republicans, who tried to deny a pandemic and then inspired an insurrection — and now, incredibly, openly denies both those things ever happened.
The situation is complicated, because while most of the left-wing crazy is still mostly confined to social media, the right-wing crazy is also firmly ensconced on cable news, talk radio, and the rest of the internet.
But here’s the thing. You know where outrageousness and outrage almost never fly?
In person, when you’re sitting across from another live human being. If you resort to outrageousness or outrage in person, you usually just come off looking like a damn fool, at least when it’s obvious posturing. In person, boorishness and sanctimoniousness rarely land.
In person, people are actually people. They’re not cold pixels, or simplistic stereotypes, or emotionless punching bags.
That’s why, sitting across from someone who disagrees with you, it’s at least possible to connect with them — and maybe even change their mind a little.
Listening to all these different points of view lately, I’ve certainly felt my own perspective shifting. And I think I’ve shifted a few points of view too.
That’s why the guideline I’m setting for myself from here on out is: even when I’m online, if I wouldn’t say something to a person’s face, I probably shouldn’t say it all.
Look, I know that change is messy and hard, especially when it involves deep-rooted pathologies like racism or sexism. And I also get how frustrated the younger generations are, because it currently seems like the world is getting worse, not better, on so many of the issues we care about.
But I really hate this idea that we shouldn’t even be talking to our opponents — that we just need to wait for them to die, and it’s not our responsibility to “educate” them anyway.
The fact is, the world is complicated. Issues are almost never as straightforward as they’re made to sound online. Sometimes the people on “the other side” really do have a point! If nothing else, engaging with others forces us to question and strengthen our own beliefs, which is always a good thing.
The part I truly don’t understand about America, 2021, is how, on one hand, so many people say our problems are incredibly dire, and it’s really, really important that we change the world right this very minute!
But on the other hand, these same people can’t bother to use strategies for change that might actually, you know, work. Like, trying to change people’s minds? Instead, they employ tactics that are scientifically proven not to work — and are probably counter-productive.
As usual, progressives seem more interested in being right than winning.
Yeah, yeah, I’m old and obviously completely out of touch.
Sure, there are absolutely people who are unreachable. Or just plain bad.
But assuming everyone who disagrees with you on any issue is unreachable is, well, objectively wrong. And also incredibly bad strategy. You don’t have to change everyone’s mind to change the world. The difference between a loss and a landslide is only five percent.
That actually seems doable to me!
Do listening, and trying to engage, and talking it out always work? Nope.
Does it often work? Probably not.
Does it sometimes work?
Yeah, actually it does! Sometimes only a little, but every now and then, it works a lot.
The older I get, the more I’m convinced it’s the only thing that ever really does.
Brent Hartinger is a screenwriter and author, and one half of a couple of traveling gay digital nomads. Visit us at BrentAndMichaelAreGoingPlaces.com, or on Instagram or Twitter.