You Can't Just Block Everyone Who Disagrees With You | Gradient

How to have an online debate like a rational adult

My dad and I were having a discussion about how toxic social media can be to our relationships. I was venting my frustrations to him and looking for some practical ways to engage in hard conversations with people holding very different opinions than me. I wanted to be able to share my beliefs and still treat others kindly in the discussion of them.

A mark of maturity is maintaining connections with people whose ideas are different than our own. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have changed this for us. Social media can make it hard to like the people we love. It colors and shapes our perspectives about family members, lifelong friends and maybe even that one girl from high school who seems to like everything we post on Facebook.

Relationships with people have always meant relationships with their opinions.

Surrounding ourselves with people who think different from us is useful. If we’re not challenged in our way of thinking from time to time, we turn stagnant, only stirring when a passing news report disturbs our surface. Echo chambers are dangerous, reinforcing the idea of sides — my side, your side, one right, one wrong, for and against.

The reality is, everyone believes their ideas are the best ones. The experiences and education of other people leads them to perspectives which are often different than yours or mine. Sometimes this creates a result which is beautiful and challenging, even easy to appreciate. Other times, it creates hate and bigotry.

As my dad and I continued our discussion, I asked him, “how do you love people who hate?” I was looking for a practical answer. I didn’t want to hear, “Leave social media and their presence. Block them. Only discuss easy topics.” I wanted something better. To love a person well, you have to acknowledge all of them. Abolishing someone and their opinions from your life just leaves them alone with their opinions and you alone with yours. What if both of you need to be challenged? What if we’re all just a little bit wrong and a little bit right and need one another to figure that out? Hating someone else perpetuates the cycle and leaves love out of the conversation.

We need to keep engaging, even in the difficult conversations. Especially in the difficult ones.

There will be ideas you should speak out about. Justice doesn’t have a voice unless you give it one. We’re often taught to be nice to those in our community, but “nice” can be flawed. Nice gets us into trouble, because when people tell you to be “nice” they often mean you should be silent rather than rock the boat. There’s no sense in being “nice” in the face of racism, bigotry and hatred. That’s how atrocities occur. Instead, choose kindness. Kindness can boldly express sorrow at injustice and desire for change without hatred.

Social media will continue to be a place where challenging topics are discussed. Here are a few suggestions for how to engage people whose opinions are different than yours:

  1. Be unfailingly kind. When you have the opportunity to be gracious, be gracious. When you have the opportunity to be a jerk, be gracious. The world has enough assholes, don’t join their ranks. You’ll never regret speaking kindly to someone regardless of how ignorant their words appear to be. Obliterating them with your quick wit and capable words will only serve to push them further away. Their hatred is loud and proud, let the sound of your love rise above it.
  2. Use facts in a conversational debate. Emotion will always be your first response, don’t answer its call. Choose not to engage until you’ve done the research and know the facts. Take a moment to breathe. Use reputable resources. Memes don’t count. A picture of a candidate with letters over it is not a study.
  3. The issue is the issue, the person debating it is not the issue. Stay laser focused on the topic. Never make a personal attack on someone involved in the conversation. If you want to talk about an issue that’s important to you, do it. Leave discussions of someone’s character out of it. If someone else brings your character into it, that might be a sign that the debate has gotten too heated to be worth pursuing any longer.
  4. Remind them that they are heard. People want to know that their opinion matters. They want to feel seen and heard. There will be times that a chasm cannot be bridged, but by acknowledging someone’s opinion (and the person behind it), you can salvage the relationship. People matter.

The world is dealing with complex problems; this isn’t meant to simplify them. Loving people well is an action. It’s a choice. It isn’t something we stumble into, especially when their opinions make us angry.

Conversations evolve slowly. Stay in the mix. It’s the only way things change.