Having lived abroad the last few years, my friend group has become incredibly diverse. Though social media often acts as an echo chamber, my newsfeed remains evenly balanced between conservative and liberal, religious and secular. I usually enjoy this diversity, but when current events trigger another round of cultural warfare, I cringe as they dig their heels in and shout.
I have my own opinions on hot-button issues, but I’m also curious enough to continue reading all the statuses, blogs, and manifestos that get thrown around with each new battle. Sometimes I learn something new. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been bludgeoned by an internet troll. Always, I see two sides fearful of what will happen if the other “wins” and willing to do anything to make sure they don’t.
I understand the impulse to fight for what you believe in, but I have a hard time navigating the nastiness that often accompanies it. As I look to my political right and left, I don’t see faceless enemies. I see friends, family members, and peers. I see people I long to understand and get along with.
In order to maintain these friendships and my own sanity on social media, I’ve adopted a few mantras to carry me through the war:
I Don’t Have To Have An Opinion.
We live in the age of over-sharing. Spend a few minutes on social media, and you’ll suddenly know what your coworker had for breakfast and what your high school classmate thinks about global warming. It’s easy to feel like you have to have an opinion on everything…and that it’s your job to share it. But here’s a freeing thought: it isn’t. Sure, there are issues that need a voice, but you cannot and should not take on everything. Better to choose a few key issues and really know your stuff than subject your peers to a bunch of half-formed, crowdsourced opinions on every little thing.
I Don’t Have To Be Right.
One of my favorite phrases in the English language is “I don’t know.” It protects me from being the Great Knowledge-Keeper of Everything and allows me to learn from other people who are really interesting and smarter than me. Being right is, quite frankly, boring. Sometimes even lonely. Being curious about other people’s opinions and experiences is a far greater adventure, and you generally make friends along the way. Even if you have really strong convictions, try not to let rightness be the end-all of your encounters with others. Ask questions, listen, and grow.
Some Things Are Worth Fighting For
Whenever I’m tempted to react to a culture war, I stop myself and ask why it matters. Is someone being hurt? If so, what can I do about it? With culture wars, there’s often a lot at stake. That’s why they get so brutal. But it’s important to channel that passion and indignation in the right direction. For example, if you’re pro-life, consider spending your time and money supporting pregnant women, low-income mothers, and adoption programs. Advocacy is important, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg with most issues. If it’s worth arguing about online, it’s worth fighting for in real life too.
It’s Okay To Unfollow
As I said earlier, I read a diverse group of statuses, blogs, and rants. I like to remain open-minded and learn new things, but even I get angry sometimes. Even I find myself disliking people because of their uber-political social media personas. Even I press the “unfollow” button sometimes—and I think that’s healthy. Knowing your boundaries is key to good relationships, and sometimes that means bowing out of a comment thread or unfollowing a Twitter feed. If you wouldn’t spend all day talking about it in real life, you probably don’t need to read your friend’s every political status online.
When In Doubt, Choose Empathy
It’s hard to empathize with someone who seems to be the antithesis of everything you stand for. But that’s what culture wars force us to do: either demonize the other or try to understand where they’re coming from. When I empathize with people who are very different from me, I often discover that we want the same thing: freedom. We just have different ways of articulating it or different ideas of what it should look like in society. Ultimately, these differences are good—they challenge us and bring balance to our world. But if we constantly live in fear of “the other side,” we’ll never reap the benefits of diversity.
At the end of the day, a little bit of grace goes a long way in these cultural battles. If we can put down our guard, shelf our pride, know our limits, and ward off fear, we have a much better chance of surviving the war with relationships intact.
Photo: Grigory Kravchenko, Creative Commons