Reaching across the divide

TL;DR: Reaching across political divides. Self-reflection after failed effort. (Image of “my favorite big fat swimming pool,” AKA the Atlantic Ocean at the end of my street, for visual interest.)

Putting this out there in case my experience might help other people. And also as a note to my future self, so I can at least avoid adding more discord into the world even in situations where I fail to increase the peace.

The topic of this post is “Reaching out to social-media friends across political divides’.”

This post is meant to serve as a reference for myself, and possibly for other people, who are striving to be more authentic and more effective in “reaching across the divide.”

Specifically, I’m talking about communicating with people who I’m connected with on Facebook, who either 1) I have never met in real life, just friended through business circles or something; or 2) we know each other IRL but haven’t been in touch for some years.

And suddenly a post of theirs pops up in my feed. Just out of the blue for some reason suddenly I see one of their posts. Whereas I usually don’t. And the post is very shocking somehow. In a political / societal sense. Like a strong hate meme or something.

My first impulse is to just block those people; decide that they are impossible and off the deep end and no use trying to talk to them.

But the thing is, people are influenced by other people. How often in my life have I ended up shifting my viewpoint because a fellow human being in my proximity chose to engage with me instead of just cutting me out? Maybe not everyone has experienced this, but it has definitely happened a lot with me. Because I am no saint and have had to do a lot of evolving in my life to become a somewhat decent person.

Which is not by any means to say that by reaching out, I should expect to change everyone’s mind, or even change a lot of people’s minds. But at least sometimes it’s worth trying to bridge the divide. ***And (very important!) actually a lot of the time, we end up finding out that the divide was an illusion and we really are more on the same page than we had thought.***

In my anti-racism learning in recent years, I’ve been introduced to the concept of calling people IN as opposed to calling-out.

This is not about glossing over racism, misogyny, transphobia, xenophobia, or any other hate and bigotry. The object of such communication isn’t to have warm fuzzy feelings and be pals with people who spout that kind of stuff & live it to some degree.

Rather, the object is to try to make some kind of difference in that person’s outlook, based on my connection with the person (whatever connection existed before I saw the person post hate speech). ***OR, probably just as often — or maybe even more often — to realize that we actually really are basically on the same page!***

So far, most of my efforts to call people in have been very clumsy. Today an old social acquaintance I tried to engage got furious, accused me of fakeness and narcissism, and blocked me.

Now I’m not saying the outcome would’ve been any different if I had tread more slowly and cautiously. But next time something like this comes up, I have an idea of how I could approach things so there might be a little bit more of a chance of an opening for dialogue.

What I did was jump right into a direct message to someone I hadn’t spoken with in 10 years or more! After seeing a really strong hate meme on their page. For some reason today a post of theirs suddenly popped up on my feed. Let’s just say it managed to cover the bases of misogynoir, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, just plain recreational cruelty, and probably some other things as well. And their followers posted additional hateful GIFs reinforcing the original.

I decided to direct message my old friend.

What I should’ve done is just written something like, “Hey _, it’s been some years and suddenly your post popped up on my feed so I thought I would say hi. How are you doing?”

And then let the response come, and then try something from there.

Instead, I launched into the whole kit and caboodle all at once. I did at least first ask “How are you?” — but then rather than just wait for a response to that, and go from there, I immediately launched into “what’s the deal with that meme, you always seemed like a really nice person” etc.

A couple months ago, this shoe was on the other foot with a different person from my life. Someone from way back in school days, who I had “Facebook friended” but we had never really talked, messaged me in response to a post of mine that she interpreted as being antisemitic. Accused me of supporting Nazis, condoning murder etc.

I was too reactive and started jumping down their throat, when instead what I needed to do was take a deep breath and ask which post they were referring to, because I actually didn’t know and I had to go checking back.

That encounter was salvaged because I was able to explain to this old school acquaintance that the post they had interpreted as being antisemitic had nothing to do with Israel, and was about Native Americans.

Now still, there is a gap between me and that person. I have not attempted further discussion, and I imagine that if they knew that I was sympathetic towards the Palestinians as well as the Israelis they would not be happy. But at least there is some possibility for further discussion.

Whereas with the person who I contacted today, my hasty jumping-in closed off all possibility of a dialogue as I have been blocked.

Again I’m not looking for any kind of reassurance that I’m a good person yada yada. This is practical troubleshooting.

Why does it matter? Who cares what individuals are saying to each other in the direct messages of social media?

Well, I don’t think that war and peace are an on-off switch thing that only has to do with what governments are doing from on high. I think that war or peace is here and now, on the ground in front of us, happening between us as everyday grassroots individuals.

I am a strong believer in the butterfly effect, and the neighbor effect. Contagion can be beneficial or not.

In World War II Germany and other parts of Europe, neighborly relations broke down as people found themselves on opposite sides of the political divide. Now, as well as back then, some of the divide probably will not be able to be helped. If somebody is going to spout hate and genocide, there may likely be no reasoning with them. But there are times when I feel I have a responsibility to try.

Another dimension of my personal sense of responsibility is in my capacity as a person who identifies as “left/liberal.” Many times, we so-called “liberals” have been meanspirited in our characterizations of “the other side,” and we have posted mean memes as well. Two wrongs don’t make a right. I have started talking with my “liberalish” friends about this, and I should have started long ago. So my attempts at outreach across the liberal – conservative divide are part of an ongoing amends and reform too.

Note, I would not presume to try to tell someone else that they need to try to engage people who are spouting hate. Activism takes many forms.

Other lessons for me:

  • After the incident, I realized belatedly that although I thought I had gotten my intention focused on increasing understanding, there was still some part of me that was in it to try to convert somebody. The feeling of me being right and wanting to prove someone else wrong.
  • It’s OK to feel sad. The person this morning was someone I had known from a very peace-centered community years back. I literally can’t remember anyone in that community being mean to anyone. I was actually the meanest person I knew in that community! There is grief in acknowledging that people change, and/or that all along this person was not who I thought they were. In such cases, though, I need to remind myself that the tragedy is collective rather than just personal.
  • Although I have done a lot of work on it, I am still too much of an approval-seeker. When I catch myself trying to just “be liked,” I have to acknowledge it and check myself. On that note, when the person called me narcissistic they were actually right in a way, because in part of my message I was “trying to be nice” in a way that, when I thought about it later, was inauthentic. People who have dealt with narcissism are very rightfully allergic to fakeness. We should all be allergic to fakeness.And I can see how that would come across as like narcissistic love-bombing.
  • Things work better in these interactions if I stay focused on my larger purpose, which is to try to add to the level of peace in the world, or failing that, at least not add to the pain & discord that’s already out there.
  • By no means is it good, necessary, possible, or wise to try to talk to everyone. When I first saw the hate meme meme pop up on my feed, my first impulse was oh, just unfriend this person. And sometimes that might be the best course.
  • If I’m going to choose to try to talk to people, popular movies and social stuff can be a good onramp. For example, when I checked this person’s page after seeing the hate meme, I saw that they had posted about a current popular movie, dealing with TEOTWAWKI / Doomer-adjacent themes. One thing I noticed about the great political divide in the USA is that there are Doomers on both sides of it. And doomerism is something I can relate to.
  • And regarding social stuff as an onramp: I could just ask “Hey, are you still going to XYZ community social event that we used to go to back in the day?” Or “Do you still do XYZ type of work?”
  • If I’m going to choose to try to do this engagement, I have to remember to correct for my problematic behavior patterns. Which I have made progress on but they still do crop up. Mine include a general lack of social skills, and a tendency to talk too much, use too many words. Those tendencies are things I can correct for if I remember to do that.

And in closing (if you have read this far, thank you so much!!):

How about you? Have you had experience with trying to reach across “the divide”? And have you had experience where you just decided to quietly block or unfriend somebody? (I have done that too.)

Please feel free to share anything that has worked for you, or has not worked for you. I’m not so self-important as to believe that my tiny actions are going to make the difference between our country breaking out in a civil war or not, but I do really strongly believe in the butterfly effect and all that, and I believe in doing what I can as an individual. And I know a lot of you are similarly minded and that things weigh on your hearts.

Further exploration:

• Posting a quote here from one of my alltime favorite teachers. Harry Palmer, author of the Avatar® materials. This quote has made a huge difference in my life: “When we perceive that the only difference between us is beliefs and that beliefs can be created or discreated with ease, the right and wrong game will wind down, a co-create game will unfold, and world peace will ensue.”

• And a dear steadfast reader, Tim B, shares this excellent quote from a transcript of popular commentator Rachel Maddow’s podcast: ” … I want us all to make ourselves as resilient as we can. And that means not having baggage trailing behind you that you don’t want to be trailing behind you. It means making up with your estranged family members. It means getting to know your neighbors. It means if you have very serious concerns about politics, it means working in a political campaign. It means having something to do with the civic life of where you are so that you are not alone. While we have a tough year in this country, this has come for us in this generation, in this country, in this lifetime. And it does not come for every generation. It has come for us and we need to be up to it. And it means you cannot live in your phone and you cannot, you can’t build from a position of despair and feeling powerless.”

• Tim B also reminded me that Katharine Hayhoe’s book has been on my reading list. Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. I need to bump it up. Tim shared this quote from the book: ” … ironically, the very thing we fear most. Talk about it. Why are people not talking about something that matters to them so much? Even if we agree it’s real and it’s serious, talking about it can be discouraging and depressing. There’s too great a risk the conversation might devolve into a screaming match or end up leaving everyone overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. We want to talk about it; we just don’t know how.” (Her highly acclaimed book sets out to explain the “how.”)