Do you ever wonder if Facebook is making you hate people? I don’t mean to suggest I hate my Facebook “friends.” I like those folks. I keep my friend list short, filled only with people I know and like, so I can still feel comforted by their pictures of their kids and pets, their vacations, political peccadilloes and complaints about the weather. They tend to be pretty calm, and so they don’t raise my blood pressure too much.
No, it’s those occasions when I have to rub up against a bunch of people I don’t know—on news articles and public pages. Those people are, by and large, awful. And they seem to be multiplying.
To run a news website these days, you have to manage a Facebook page. And while it’s generally Jim’s responsibility to manage ours, I check in on “Friends of the Canyon Country Zephyr” sometimes, and keep track of what people are saying. And, frequently, when I read an article on another site that seems related to the Zephyr’s interests, I’ll ask Jim to post it on the page.
So it happened that, a week or so ago, I sent Jim an article titled “Why Liberals aren’t as Tolerant as They Think,” from Politico. The article was nuanced. It didn’t single out Liberals for their intolerance, but pointed to a study which suggested that Liberals were no more tolerant than Conservatives, though they might like to think they would be. The conclusion was that both sides need to be more comfortable engaging with each other. I knew the provocative headline might draw some attention from our many Left-leaning readers, but I hoped it would also prompt some acknowledgment that greater listening and understanding is required of all of us in these polarized times.
But I should have guessed that “listening” and “understanding” wouldn’t be high among the priorities of the Facebook community.
New comments kept piling on, and many were far worse.
Finally, I felt I needed to break up the thread of insults. Certain that people would calm down a bit in the face of some explanation, I posted:
“If you’re planning on living your life without ever interacting with, living next to, or becoming friends with a Conservative, that’s your own business. But you are missing out on knowing a group of people just as varied and diverse (if not more diverse) in thought as the Left. There are absolutely horrible Conservatives who do not care about anyone but themselves, (most of them seem to become politicians.) But then some of the kindest, most generous and community-minded people I’ve ever met have been Republicans. And they’ve been a lot more accepting of the liberals in their midst than the people in this comment section would be toward them.
Also, if I’m not mistaken, the goal of the Left would be to win the next election, right? Not lose more voters? Because this kind of dehumanizing talk about people who think differently than you will only cause the latter.”
But, again, very few seemed to understand what I was saying. Commenters continued to insist that they would NEVER tolerate the Power-Mad Fantasy-Driven Theocrats who, apparently, make up the Republican electorate. And by suggesting they should, I was an appeaser to Injustice and Fascism. And Domestic Abuse, according to one post.
By the end, I was absolutely disgusted.
I would love to think that this sort of commentariat conflagration was an isolated event, but I keep seeing the same vitriolic hatred of Republican voters in the comment sections of News articles, in blog posts, and, of course, all over Facebook. The word “delusional” popped up a lot, as did “stupid,” “moronic,” “fascist,” etc. These insults weren’t aimed at politicians, at actual Neo-Nazis, or public figureheads for any Conservative groups. No, these slurs were aimed at ANYONE who voted Republican, anywhere, in any race, across a country of more than 320 million people.
Yes, if I spent more time haunting the comment sections of the Daily Caller or Fox News, I’m sure I’d find a million angry Conservatives spouting off equally hateful, ignorant nonsense about Liberals. I’m sure that “libtard” appears online as often as “repuglican.” To make it easy, we can call it a draw. The numbers of spitting-mad Leftists and Rightists on the Internet might be exactly the same.
But that doesn’t make it okay. “He did it first!” is the excuse of an eight-year old. When a Conservative says something insulting and vile about the Left, we should correct him; and we should correct a Liberal when he does the same. It’s understandable to be angry, furious even, when you see politicians committing injustices. But, when you’re looking at another citizen, talking to them about the “issues,” which are shorthand for the values that shape their lives, there has to be an attempt for civility and understanding. For empathy.
More than ever, our lives are lived online. You’re as likely to see your next-door neighbor on Facebook as you are in your front yard. So we have to speak to each other online the same way we would speak over the fence—with humor, humility and empathy. Surveying the broad swath of political grandstanding I’ve witnessed over the past few election cycles, I notice that lack of empathy more than any other failing.
Sure, it’s easy to have empathy for folks who are like you. People who vote like you, live in communities like yours, or whose troubles fit the narrative you’ve already constructed about America and its problems. But that isn’t real empathy. It doesn’t demand anything from us, to feel what we were already feeling. True empathy takes us out of our own concerns and into the experiences of others, who may appreciate the world in an entirely different manner than we do.
Recently, Jim called me over to his computer to show me another Facebook post, from a liberal Utahn. “The only thing that makes life in Utah bearable,” the man wrote, “is that it is part of the United States. If it had remained the State of Deseret it would be ruled by polygamous ‘prophets,’ the women would wear long dresses and be submissive, the environment would be plundered, the Native Americans exterminated, and outsiders turned away at the wall around the state.”
As the man who wrote that lives in Utah, we can assume that he has literal neighbors who are Mormons. He seems to think that those folks would jump at the chance to live in this fantastical theocracy he’s imagining, as if nothing has changed in the Mormon religion in the past hundred and fifty years. I can’t help but wonder when was the last time he spoke to any of them…
When our area was decimated by wildfires this Spring, so many people gave all they could, through time and money and energy, to help out. By and large, those people were from here, or from other rural areas around the State and the Country. Others were from cities, but with family or friendship connections in the area. It was the most beautiful display of generosity en masse that I have ever witnessed.
But, when the news of our wildfires finally reached some national media outlets, the comment sections were filled with exactly the sort of people I encountered under the “Tolerance” article. Because we live in Kansas, or Oklahoma, many commenters took their chance to make jokes about Trump voters, to rail against our politicians for not believing in Climate Change, or to openly state, based on the political bent of the locals, “I have no sympathy for these people.”
No sympathy? For people who have lost their homes and their livelihoods? I read that very statement multiple times across multiple comments sections. Rural people, by virtue of the way they vote, were, to those commenters, expendable. The lives of Kansans were ignorable, incidental. To those Liberal representatives of the “greater” world—urban, tech-driven professionals—my neighbors and friends were just a blip in a busy day. Those Liberals looked our way for a moment, made a joke, and then dismissed us.
And, in the midst of my frustration and dismay at these heartless snobs, I felt shame. Because these commenters were supposed to be in my Tribe, fellow members of the Left. And I couldn’t stand them. I wouldn’t want them in my home. And it hurt to know that my Conservative neighbors would see those comments too. They would know, when they read “ I have no sympathy for these people,” that “these people” were them. It would only encourage them to believe that the Left hated them, that the Left would prefer that their towns die off, their farms and ranches fail, their children move away. And what could I say to convince them otherwise? Apparently that is what a lot of people on the Left really think.
I don’t know what Party I belong to anymore. I know what I believe in—equality, compassion, helping the poor, saving communities, empowering the worker and the farmer. But I don’t see those values reflected in the national Democratic Party. I don’t see them in the leadership and I don’t see them in the voters. The past couple years have been illuminating as to the character of the people who are meant to be the “Progressives.” People who are supposed to fight for the common man, to save the forgotten classes from being fed into the machinery of growth and efficiency. In the wake of losing the Presidential election, there is no more compassion to be found among them than there is among the most rigid Conservatives. All that matters is the Game—our side, their side—and whether you hate the other side as much as they do.
How can I belong to a group that despises 46% of the population? Among that 46% are people I personally know and respect, whose values I trust, and whose motives are nowhere near as simple, as “delusional,” as the Left would prefer to believe. Among that 46% are people with lessons to teach others, lessons that are worth learning. And when we call 46% of the population “delusional” and “stupid,” “fascist” and “repuglicans,” that’s the end of the conversation. We close the door on any opportunities for persuasion or compromise, any opportunities to learn from each other.
That’s it, really. What I see from the Left is an assertion that they have absolutely nothing to learn. That the other side has nothing at all to offer. That the beliefs and values, the experiences and knowledge of an entire half of the population is utterly worthless. More than that, their lives are contemptible.
And, again, had I been a Republican, encountering daily the vitriol from the Right, maybe I would be saying the same of them. I might be begging them to step back from the arrogant, unyielding posturing they fling around the internet. But the Republicans I know aren’t behaving like that. They’ve generally been more humble, shoulder-shrugging, and “let’s see what happens” about this whole political climate. And, honestly, I think there are plenty of voices out there already telling Republicans to sit down and shut up. So I’m focused on the Left. After all, that’s the tribe in which I was raised.
I was raised to believe that being a Liberal meant believing in the Sermon on the Mount, dignity for all people, compassion and respect for all walks of life. I was taught that being on the right side of history meant taking the proverbial high road, behaving with the same kindness that you would want from others, and acknowledging when you’ve fallen short of your own values. I cannot reckon that vision with the experiences I’ve had of the Left lately. Instead, there seems to be a reflexive contempt for anyone living a rural life, anyone who believes in God, anyone who hasn’t jumped immediately to the correct position on a host of political issues. The volume of contempt is so deafening, it almost feels like a concerted effort to turn people away from the Left. To convince people that the Democrats don’t want them. Honestly, I’m a lifelong Liberal and I don’t feel like the Democrats want me these days.
I don’t want to lose my faith in the Political Left. And I don’t want to accept that being on the Left means hating good people who are just living their lives. So let’s all make an effort, okay? Can we please try to be a little kinder? Can we be more understanding of people whose lives are different from our own? We lose nothing by listening, really listening, when someone tells us how they live, how they see the world, what they’ve gathered from their experiences on the earth. We aren’t diminished by letting them speak, and listening doesn’t force us to believe what they believe. But we have to leave ourselves open to the possibility of being surprised. After all, maybe we have some things left to learn.
Tonya Stiles is Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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