4 Things to Do Before that Hobby Lobby Post
If you are like me, your social media feeds are currently a minefield. Between all the delightful love for Tim Howard and slightly annoying photos of other people’s fabulous beach vacations are contentious posts about the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision. As someone who has numerous friends on both sides of this issue, my feeds are full of posts on the triumph of religious freedom as well as the war on women. It is exhausting and often disheartening. So instead of adding my opinion/explanation/apologetics to the social tsunami, I’m asking a question. How we can clearly articulate our heartfelt convictions while maintaining our relationships (and perhaps even persuading someone to see our point of view along the way)?
In an address to our university’s faculty and staff before the 2012 election, our president discussed the importance of “conviction and civility” in our discourse. As a faith-based institution we share certain convictions, but even within that commonality there is still a great deal of diversity, especially as we look at the mixture of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents that comprise our 900 full and part time faculty and staff across three campuses in three different cities.
The remarks focused on the importance of the word “and” in “conviction and civility.” Regardless of your ideology I believe the words ring true. If we have conviction but not civility, our words can do more harm than good; if we have civility without conviction, we become untethered and our words have little impact. So how do we balance these ideals in digital discourse?
If we have conviction but not civility, our words can do more harm than good; if we have civility without conviction, we become untethered and our words have little impact.
While we like to blame the 24 hour news cycle, the political right, the political left, social media or the decline of western civilization for the incivility of our discourse, I believe the solution, especially on social media, is for each of us as individuals to embrace the idea that we can be civil without sacrificing our convictions. On a practical level, how might we do this? I believe as we discuss cultural and political issues about which we are passionate, there are four tests we can use to post with conviction and civility.
The Educate vs Infuriate Test: One of the best ways to judge language and tone is by reading our own post but inserting the opposite point of view. Are our comments or the comments of the article/blog/political cartoon we are linking to providing perspective to someone who agrees/disagrees? Or as you read it from the opposite point of view is it so infuriating you quit reading? By removing our own ideology from the equation, we are better able to focus on the delivery and determine if our thoughts are expressed in a way that someone who disagrees might actually read and be motivated to discourse instead of discord.
The Tone Test: Like email, instant messages, and texts, our social media posts don’t have the context of emotion and vocal inflection. Most of us have at some time sent what we thought was an innocuous message, only to receive a flaming reply making it very obvious the receiver had interpreted it quite differently. Often this is because when we read the text we are projecting our intended tone, and when the receiver doesn’t have that context the words alone can come across differently. Dr. Daniel Goleman, in his book Social Intelligence, suggests that there is an innate negativity attributed to neutral digital text, meaning that if the digital message content is neutral we actually assume a negative tone. Regardless, it is important that we intentionally find a way to clearly communicate our tone as well as our content. We can do this through language and word choice, as well as through a thoughtfully placed emoticon. I must admit, I hate cutesy heart emoticons as much as the next person, but a well placed smiley face can make all the difference in how a post is interpreted.
The Personal Test: It is easy to flame, eviscerate or create a straw man in the face of nameless, faceless enemies. I have seen numerous posts in the last 48 hours that begin “I can’t understand how people can [insert snarky, over-simplified characterization here].” But in reality many of us have friends with differing points of view. They aren’t nameless or faceless…they aren’t even the enemy. A great way to process what we post is to mentally insert the name of someone we actually know into the post. By thinking about our audience as individuals we are more likely to add nuance and avoid hyperbole.
The Face to Face Test: There are numerous studies on the way sharing online affects what we are willing to share and with whom. Described by psychologist Dr. John Suler as the “online disinhibition effect,” people are less inhibited typing and sending for a variety of reasons, including feelings of invisibility and online asynchronicity. This can have positive and negative consequences. The question we should ask ourselves before we post is simple. Would we say this to every person in our social media realm if they were standing right in front of us? If not, we should regroup or perhaps refrain from comment.
It is somewhat easy to be critical of online incivility and offer suggestions to improve it. It is equally easy to cynically dismiss the idea that civility is even possible. Perhaps most tempting to me is to say nothing at all. What is difficult is to actually invest the time required to be the difference. To share our convictions with those who do and do not agree with us, and do it with a civility that changes the conversation.