Civil discourse and social media


My father believed that competition was healthy . He was convinced that our success as a country depended heavily on winning: whether it was wars or business or the St. Louis Cardinals, his favorite baseball team. He pushed me to play tennis quite early in my life and exulted when I won. He did not punish me when I lost, yet I felt his disappointment. He was a complicated man, an intense man, and later in my life I had to accept the estrangement I felt from him over my work in civil rights and urban education.

My lack of competitiveness comes out in all aspects of my life. I don’t want to outdo someone in public verbal jousting. I don’t want to defeat someone with clever verbal acrobatics. I certainly don’t get a kick out of publicly disrespecting anyone even if I am convinced I am right.  All this– the lack of a competitive spirit, my avoidance of public exchanges and my timidity in combative discourse– has made my work in anti- racism difficult at times. Because along with my dislike of “winning” is an equally passionate belief in what I do and what I have written about over these years in regard to social justice. When I give talks or hold workshops, as I did at a school this week, I find more and more that I don’t want to argue as much as hold conversation. I don’t want to “win” with a clever or sarcastic remark but would rather continue a troubling exchange with someone who has been made uncomfortable by my remarks, after the class or talk. As we put on our coats, get out our car keys, begin our trip to the grocery store or child care center to pick up a young one, I like to stand for a moment and go through one man’s reaction, one woman’s complaint, face to face.

Lately, I am wondering about where social media fit into my lack of competitive impulse. I enjoy Facebook for the chance to see what friends are doing, read poems they print on their page, catch up with my son’s theater career and laugh at the lives of those I feel affection for and see all too rarely. I like Facebook for the articles that are posted, the meanderings of fine writers, the jokes that sometime fit our current political situation so well. It is a public space, a town hall bulletin board, a wall on which to post broadsides about art exhibits, gallery openings, book readings and community gatherings. All this makes it something I enjoy.

However, lately I am coming to the conclusion that when sites on this public space become competitive, when I get caught up in a dialogue that becomes quickly personal and derogatory, sarcastic and condescending, I am miserable. I seem to handle this situation better in person than online, and I am wondering if that is because in person we are not so cruel to each other.  If we were, we would feel the response from our audience, our classmates. It would be a tangible, visceral reaction of sound and expression. Online, we can say outrageous things and there is no physical public square, no flesh and blood audience to keep us in check.

Perhaps I am just unable to handle negative responses. Perhaps I flinch at competition in any form (except sports, actually, and even then I have problems with the cost to body and pocketbook of athletic events) that I cannot engage in the online commenting and re-commenting, arguing and “gotcha” exchanges that persist on Facebook pages.  

Another element comes in here too. I, like many of my aging friends, feel the urgency of spending time well, of valuing and enjoying and finding strength in those in my life who feed me, who give me hope. To put in hours in fruitless exchanges and to throw words at each other in cyberspace takes time. I am willing to read articles and essays posted there. I am interested in what people think, and I am not afraid of disagreement with my views. Yet these days, these years, I ration my time. I want to see the art on the wall, hear the music onstage, read the book that probes deeply the causes of our dysfunction as a nation. I want to write a novel and paint a picture and watch dumb TV with my husband. To do these things, to continue a voracious reading habit and to teach writing and to give talks on white privilege and to take a daily walk along the river takes time. Sitting and watching the building go up beside my home takes time. It all takes minutes and hours of my life.  I have come to the conclusion that given this urgency, given the books and arguments and challenges of continuing to do social justice work, I can forgo the part of Facebook that leads to nothing for me except hurt and a spiraling into grief that comes from a deep place of vulnerability. Why hurtful or challenging comments on Facebook seem to affect me so powerfully in social media and not when I am questioned in person, I cannot say. As in any other forum in my life, I don’t enjoy in competition for the cleverest put down, the punch to the gut.

So, given the combination of having too much to do and a dislike of beating someone at their game, I have concluded that I have no obligation to be pummeled. I will read up on my friends, will send out articles and thoughts and poems and even songs to those who may enjoy them. I will offer thoughts on education from time to time. But I won’t offer myself up to be degraded or hurt. I won’t follow the thread that leads to nothing but name-calling. It is not easy to discipline myself to this new plan. I have been tempted to see what someone is saying about me at times. Maybe it is my years or maybe it is my awareness of the importance of stillness, of pausing; but I am already feeling stronger for this decision.

There is a kind of frenzy that comes from engaging on the internet. It reminds me of the leaping and yelling frenzy of the stock market.  I used to feel, on reading a post, that I had to quickly defend myself, and then wait for the next parry and then go ahead and thrust and then wait: all in the space of minutes. I don’t feel any of that now.  I don’t have to go there. I can stand on my work, my articles, my friendships, without competing to win any contest.

As I write now, I feel it is fortunate that my father, whom I loved deeply despite our estrangement at times, is not alive to read his daughter’s thoughts on his beloved competition. He would be disappointed.