Tolerating Intolerance? Overcoming the Biggest Obstacle on Facebook
This column poses a question for which I have only a tentative answer. I am interested to learn what answers readers have. How do you deal with friends who are so intolerant of political views different from their own that they consider anyone who disagrees with them evil?
Those of you who follow this blog know that I have been hosting a series of political discussion threads on my Facebook page. (I wrote a book about the initial experiment, because I found the response so interesting.)
Two friends who participated in the discussions over several months eventually quit and unfriended me.
I have known both of these friends since college. We were not close friends in college, but we stayed in occasional contact by email and Facebook over the years since. Political discussions were not an aspect of our relationship until I started the series of topical discussions on Facebook.
Both friends replied to my initial invitation that they did not want to engage in discussions with anyone who voted for Donald Trump. They describe themselves as liberal progressives.
The purpose of the discussion threads was to promote civil discourse among friends with different political views -- conservative, liberal, pro- or anti-Trump, and any other perspective. The only expectation was that participants should not engage in ad hominem attacks against other participants.
Despite their reluctance both, friends posted comments in the threads. But, instead of engaging in rational argument, opinion sharing, or questioning, as other participants did, these two friends typically posted comments just describing Trump voters in generally insulting terms.
For example, in a discussion about whether Trump would lose support because of his criticism of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, this was the comment of one of the two (I’m identifying her as “K_”):
K_: "Ok, M_, so let me step in because as Jeff knows I am blunt and unforgiving of anyone who voted for a racist, bigoted, misogynist, sexist, woman-abusing, contractor-stiffing, tax-cheating, disabled-mocking, Putin-Indebted, hateful and treasonous traitor who is also a pathological liar. Anyone who voted for him supported any or all of the above. Period. Oh, and I forgot, Klan and white-supremacist-endorsed."
"M_’s" comment was to the effect that she didn’t think Trump supporters would desert him on account of his criticism of Jeff Sessions, because one of the reasons people had voted for Trump was his willingness to speak his mind and not be politically correct.
My reply to K_ was:
"This perfectly expresses the misunderstanding & bigotry Leftists routinely express toward everyone who voted for Trump and why so-called Progressives will fail to bring any of those who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump back to the Democrats. By ascribing everything that one may see as wrong with Trump in everyone who voted for him is just as bigoted as stereotyping all liberals as communists in sheep's clothing, Millennials as narcissists, etc. The failure to acknowledge that some of the millions of people who voted for Trump did so for reasons other than themselves being racists, etc., is itself ugly bigotry."
(Readers, please note that I voted for Clinton and had not been shy about expressing my own criticism of Trump.)
K_’s response to my reply was to unfriend me and post a comment that she never wanted to hear from me again. I would have replied privately with the playground taunt to bullies, “You can dish it out, but you can’t take it,” but she blocked me.
The other friend, "D_," continued to participate, although he regularly made condemnatory comments directed at Trump supporters, though not at any particular participant.
I thought he might be loosening up a bit, when he expressed surprise in a colloquy with a Trump supporter that the fellow “seemed well intentioned.” D_ admitted that he didn’t know anyone personally who voted for Trump. (Both D_ and K_ live in New York City.)
D_’s tolerance for interacting with Trump voters ran out when the discussion thread was about comparing the psychology of right-wing and left-wing extremism. To begin that particular discussion I posted the following:
"More evidence that extremists on both ends of the political spectrum have a similar psychology: A 'friend' who is an alt right extremist told me she is a proponent of Leon Trotsky's Marxist strategy of 'permanent revolution.' Political ideology does seem to be like a circle in the sense that the extreme right and left meet at almost the same place. E.g., Hitler & Stalin were both 'national socialists.' Has anyone else found this to be true, or has a different analysis?"
Several participants argued that the violence and crimes of extremists on the right, like Nazis and Klansmen, was exponentially worse than anything done by leftist extremists. There was general agreement with that assertion, so long as it was limited to US history. But a couple of us pointed out that, if the comparison was on an international-historical basis, then it was not clear that fascism could plead much less innocent than communism.
D_ responded to that argument like a historical naïf with this condemnation of the right and beatific view of the left:
"Certainly not. seems like just another stab at moral relativism and 'what aboutism' to me. On the contrary, the lines are very clear. Racism and self-aggrandizement on the right. Pluralism and a belief in sacrifice for others and a collective good on the left."
A conservative friend responded by pointing out recent violence of Antifa members and posted a link to an article about Antifa’s violent extremism. This was too much for D_. His response was: “BS. So adios, muchachos, and good luck to all of you on these threads. I won't be joining these hate ideology-enabling false equivalence sessions again.”
I need to point out that the ratio of liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans of participants has been three or four to one. The vast majority of commenters in each thread were on D_’s side of the political divide. So, his description of the threads as “hate ideology-enabling” was truly bizarre, given that most of the participants are self-described liberals.
My experience with hosting these political discussions is quite revealing about the peculiarities of our current political polarization. At least twelve progressive friends initially refused to participate in discussions with anyone who voted for Trump. No Trump voter refused to participate.
However, two conservative friends informed me they were reluctant to participate because of abuse that has been heaped upon them when they’ve dared to express a political opinion on social media.
Some of my liberal friends have castigated conservatives for being insensitive, judgmental, and intolerant. Yet, the few people who have quit the discussions with an angry or insulting farewell are progressives.
One should be careful in drawing any broad conclusions from a group that has included only about eighty participants. And I think much of the anger felt and expressed by my Democratic friends is a result of Clinton losing the presidency, when they were so sure she would win.
And, Donald Trump is a polarizing figure, who has raised hackles with remarks and behavior that have been misogynistic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Mexican. But the election is over, so what is gained by refusing to engage with other citizens who voted differently than you?
It can be discouraging, but my tentative answer is to press on. I take heart that additional people have joined in the discussions. To paraphrase candidate Obama’s slogan, let’s hope for change.