How to disagree on the internet

Can we agree on one thing? I think we can, and that’s the simple fact that there are plenty of things about which we can all disagree. We live in an era of cacophonous information and walk around with continually-broadcasting media machines in our pockets, and so there are ample opportunities to share and receive opinions and ideas.

And there are also ample opportunities to alienate, engage, and upset one another.

I used to be a lot more of an ass than I am now. I can still be a jerk, but I’m a mellowed jerk now, who has simmered with age and sleep deprivation. And thankfully, I’m (usually) less likely to let the one-liners and zingers fly when strangers enrage me online.

Because guess what? There is always going to be someone who doesn’t like what you have to say.

There is always going to be someone with whom you fundamentally disagree, oftentimes on something of monumental importance. And there are always going to be plenty of opportunities for you to disappoint, annoy, or just plain enrage people with your words, whether or not they were intended to do any of those things.

And it goes both ways. For both the producer of online content, be they a blogger, columnist, photographer or the like, and for the consumer of that content, there are opportunities aplenty to engage negatively. But there are a few simple steps we can employ to make even the passionate disagreements if not entirely pleasant, than at the very least, civilized.

1. Assume the best. Another word for this is charity. The person who’s perspective you are utterly unfamiliar with and therefore prone to disagree with based on a lack of direct personal experience is not trying to incite you with her tales of life as you’ve never known it. She’s simply explaining things from her perspective. And charity demands that we give each other a fair hearing before rushing to damning judgement. If you’ve been reading for a while you know I did a back and forth dialogue with a pro gay marriage supporter last summer, and we had a pretty civil exchange that illustrated some of the ways you can respect the person without agreeing on the perspective. It’s possible! As long as we keep each other’s humanity in the forefront of our minds.

2. It isn’t personal. Just because I disagree with you doesn’t mean I hate you. A common trait in lots of online rants is the personalization of the material being discussed. So and so writes an article that makes you mad, so you post a snarky comment about their obvious lack of a brain or the way their profile picture makes their neck look fat and honestly, who can trust someone from Alabama anyway? And all the sudden we’ve gone from simple disagreement to ad hominems. So unnecessary. Stick to the facts: “you said thus and such, and I disagree, and here’s why” and leave their personal details out of it.

3. Ditch passive aggression. If you disagree with someone and hope to change their mind or win them to your side, the worst thing you can do is stop talking to them and start talking about them, instead. A few years ago another blogger told me about some hideous corner of the internet where people go to talk about other people online who they don’t like and I was like…why? Why would anyone do that? And why would anyone go there? I’m still not clear on either, but I know that one of the most effective tools for evangelization is conversation. And that means engaging with someone directly, not posting nasty memes about them on your Facebook page and hoping they stumble across it.

4. Pretend you’re actually speaking irl. I’ve saved myself many a troll moment in comment sections or on FB threads by pausing to consider “would I say this to someone at a cocktail party, to their face?” before clicking “reply.” If the answer is no, for the love of God and your fellow man, delete it. The dehumanizing illusion of the screen has made us less humane and less able to engage with each other in the flesh, and it’s a disturbing trend that, I believe, we can reverse in part by how we interact online. Civility breeds civility (and protects civilization.) Do your part to prevent the zombie apocalypse and don’t be a psychopath online while playing the part of a relatively normal human being in person.

5. Don’t feed on click bait. Are you reading stuff that you know is going to make you lose your mind just for the fun of it? What is wrong with you? If you’re not reading to gain a deeper appreciation for an alternative point of view or research for some class you’re taking, then go immediately to cats in sinks dot com and do not click away until you’ve been completely freed from the compulsion to visit places on the internet for the express purpose of raising your own blood pressure.

6. Love the people, hate the ideas. This falls into the same camp as “love the sinner, hate the sin.” It is possible to be against something in practice and to want to protect people from harming themselves by speaking against it, and to still love the person engaging in said practices. There’s an easy catch phrase for it, actually, it’s called “being a Christian.” It’s where you believe in an objective truth as revealed by a loving and redeeming God, and you strive to live according to that truth, and to pass it along to as many people as possible before you die.

It’s totally possible to love someone even while they’re still in their sin. Just ask my kids. Or my husband. Or God. Calling something “wrong” or even “sinful” does not condemn the actor. It’s a diagnosis, not a sentence.

Hopefully this is helpful. I know I need to remind myself over and over again of all of the above, because sometimes screens have a way of numbing my human decency, along with my eyeballs.

how to disagree


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