The “fine art” of unfriending

It’s easy to cut the anonymous trolls loose, but how about the family and friends you still have to deal with in the real world?

“Fine, we’re both Hitler. Can’t we leave it at that?”

Let’s begin by acknowledging that debating on social media is the equivalent of breaking wind in the general vicinity of your foes. For those that disagree, I suggest SNL’s recent tribute to you.

But the reality is that politic banter has become the national pastime*, and with an elderly toddler leading the free world, we’re all feeling the need to vent. Even the right wingers will need a place to bitch about how Trump’s policies are insufficiently cruel, and liberals are bedwetters for arguing otherwise.

And most of us have family, childhood friends and co-workers with politics we find appalling, and some of them are spoiling for a fight. Years ago, I had to unfriend my sister-in-law after I posted an article about about a proposed New Mexico law that would charge rape victims with “tampering with evidence” if they aborted a pregnancy that resulted from the assault.

My sister-in-law posted on my wall something to the effect that if a woman’s already raped, why commit another crime? It’s true, family holidays are delightful. The truth was she hadn’t even read the article; she just wanted to rile me up. Mission accomplished.

I had a choice. Either weather her constant trolling or unfriend her. One might unfollow people, but they can still troll you, which was what my sister-in-law was doing.

With family, suck it up or give an explanation. I unfriended her, and of course, got the expected diatribe over email about her being so much more open minded than I was, and how dare I do such a thing. So I picked up the phone, knowing full well what kind of heat I was going to get.

I explained, we weren’t ever going to agree, so why get pissed off at one another on a daily basis? We were disconnecting on facebook so we could have a civil relationship everywhere else.

I do love this woman, a former businesswoman and a devoted Mom and yes, a Dixiecrat turned Trumpeteer. I can find her political beliefs a blight on the country, while still being willing to show up if she needed me. It’s what we used to do before the Internet crammed us all into the same stalled elevator.

But that conversation, about why it mattered more that we had a relationship offline, was valuable. We aired some dirty laundry and spoke with an honesty that we hadn’t in years. We’re a polite Midwest clan that bury our feelings in sugar, carbs and cheese.

And no matter where you’re from, your family saw you shit your drawers for the first few years and figure out how to use a fork, so it might be hard to take you seriously as a SJW now.

And most will still stick around when your cancer or diabetes or other indignity of age arrives. If they don’t, they’re monsters and maybe it’s time to see if a fellow protestor, or doomsday prepper, can drive you to dialysis.

But with family, it might be best to have one unpleasant chat about why you should communicate via email, where you can focus on catching up. About babies. Pets. Maybe Harry Potter. Provided they don’t think wizards are agents of the Devil. I don’t, but then again, I don’t give one shit about Potterworld, which may be the most controversial thing I say here.

The fact is, as Kacey Musgraves puts it, Family is Family and “you don’t have to like them, but you love them.” However…

With friends, it’s complicated. What prompted this post was the recent unfriending of a long time Facebook friend whose politics were mostly libertarian, which made him an advocate for criminal justice reform, drug legalization, and a few other one-off issues, like say, believing in vaccines, where we could find some common ground. For nine years, we’d have reasonably sane chats, laced with plenty of good-natured malice.

When I had a question for a conservative, he’d do his level headed best to respond without demonizing anyone, and to his credit, he even posted once that while President Obama was a failure, he was clearly a decent human being. In the current climate, this was tantamount to admitting that climate change is real.

After November 9th, I stayed off social media altogether. Look, I’m a white guy in Los Angeles. It felt like a time to shut the hell up, donate a small fortune and listen to the concerns of people that were bracing themselves for the Orange Reign. But as Inauguration Day approached, the mounting evidence of the Russian interference, the liberal blame game and a tendency to treat the last eight years as some national tragedy finally ending, I returned for the meager satisfactions of the medium.

And this friend, let’s call him Randy, begins an unceasing defense of the Con Man in Chief. I was always disturbed to find him in Trump’s corner, but he’d since become an outright cheerleader. I shrugged it off, but I found that even if I went weeks without posting, as soon as I did, he’d be there, moments later, to defend whatever nonsense Trump tweeted or you know, released as an executive order. Not to mention his tendency to pick fights with other friends on my feed.

I’d end up in long-winded battles that he pretended were chess, when they were basically a seesaw ride. The last two arguments found him defending the suggestion that Sweden was some hellscape of rape and terror, and that the Russian steel used to build the Keystone and Dakota pipeline wasn’t a betrayal of Trump’s promise to use American steel for all such projects.

He argued that both those pipelines were already approved and the steel had all been bought. Somehow, he was unwilling to admit that the pipelines were only being built because Trump demanded they be, and furthermore couldn’t see the problem if Russia was profiting from the pipelines. Actual Randy quote: “Is it illegal to do business with Russia?” No, but when they just tipped the scales to elect our President, we might be a little sensitive about further evidence of quid pro quo.

I unfriended him. Not to win an argument. Not so he’d feel that sick burn. But because life is short and I didn’t want to battle with him day after day when we were both never going to budge. And I haven’t spoken to him since. And it’s been lovely.

Looking back, I realized why I hesitated. The dirty little secret was that I was proud to keep him around, to listen to his point of view and gloat as the Great Reasonable Liberal. See? I’m not some communist. I’m not looking to demonize anyone. Look at me, patiently waiting for my turn to talk. That’s not to say I didn’t listen and I’d grant him a point or two over the years, but in the wake of the Trump election, I no longer respected his perspective. Especially when it started to feel like sycophancy, rather than some consistent worldview. And pretending otherwise was exhausting.

Although… if I was willing to cut ties with one of the few conservatives I regularly engage with, doesn’t that mean I’m retreating to my coastal bubble? I might read the Wall Street Journal, Red State, the National Review and The Blaze but I do the way some people endure rom coms or action flicks to have a Movie Night with their significant other. Going through the motions, having my existing tastes confirmed, with one or two notable exceptions. Why not purge all the Trump voters from my feed? Why don’t we all ditch the assholes who didn’t vote like we do?

Because some of those assholes are more than their political stances. Some of those assholes had and continue to have our backs. Some of those assholes might know more than we do about a given topic. And some of those assholes are smart, funny and fascinating about things that we do have in common. Lest we forget, every asshole is good for at least one, or maybe two things.

Here are some questions to think about before hitting the unfriend button in the wake of some unwanted trolling from someone we once enjoyed.

What kind of friend are they?

“Friend,” like “love” or “lie” is a term bandied about so often it’s ceased to mean anything, except when it does. It’s only human to take any term loaded with sufficient power and mystery and reduce it to something more meaningless, and therefore, manageable. And it’s only American to make such things the basis for a multi-billion dollar business. Lest we forget, social media is a service we use, not the air we breathe. It’s important that we acknowledge the friends we made offline and afford them some real consideration online.

One of my friends is an old-school Republican, with a lovely family and a rock solid Catholic faith. I’m talking about the kind of faith that prompts framed photos of the Pope and sacraments for his children. Back in college, I nursed him through a terrible acid trip while he sat screaming in a friend’s tub. And when I say “nurse,” I mean drunkenly babbled while he frets that his face is melting.

We don’t talk politics. He steers clear of my posts and I do the same. We enjoy football games in the real world and commiserate on the fate of our favorite team. But even if I happen upon one of his unsavory opinions, I brush right past it. This would be the ideal. He’s also the exception.

What makes that work is we genuinely like one another. We put the time in as pals when we were younger and able to enjoy the long hangout. And I think as people grow old and end up living lives that don’t mirror our own, they’ll develop their own bias, just like we do. But to be clear, this isn’t another bullshit plea to empathize with working class bigots. I do already; that’s why I support a slew of programs that would help them live and work with dignity.

No, this is a plea to remember that person who guided you through a bad trip, or who at that music fest gently guided you to throw up in the trash instead of on that hot girl’s back. These are the tiny moments of charity that get forgotten when Facebook reveals a pal paid to see Hannity Live. There are people worthy of our forgiveness, our understanding and as Senator Cory Booker clarified, not merely our tolerance, but our love.

And in these cases, these friends are family. They should be treated as such. I’d leave my uncle at the side of the road for the guy who let me crash on his couch for weeks on end when I was broke in New York, which was basically, always.

Randy? Randy was an acquaintance in high school. We shared some classes, but never got drunk and climbed a tree together. We reconnected on facebook where we began essentially one long political slugfest.

Are their opinions informed by some real-life experience and expertise I don’t have?

I have a pal who adores the legal mind of Antonin Scalia. He’s a Second Amendment purist, who owns guns for self-protection. He’s also a Vietnam vet who served as a police officer in places as diverse as New York and Lake Charles, Louisiana. He’s also a believer in the reality of police bias, brutality and corruption. He ended up at Harvard in his fifties and remains one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met. I lean in and listen to him because he’s been exposed to situations and been forced to address dilemmas that I haven’t been.

My older brother is a small business owner, and I pay attention when he’s frustrated with regulatory complexity and taxes. His feelings on Benghazi? Not so much.

Randy works at a bank in Florida. So his feelings on immigration, terrorism and geopolitics are based on the same handful of online resources as anyone else. And as someone who’s written about financial regulation as a journalist for many years, I take his grudge against Dodd-Frank or the fiduciary rule with a grain of salt. I know, I know. People need to be free enough to get conned out of their savings. It’s the American Way.

Are they willing to acknowledge my own experiences and expertise?

One of the things that led me to unfriend my sister-in-law is while I was willing to lend her the benefit of the doubt about things concerning raising a family or running a small business, that courtesy was never extended to my skills and experience. I didn’t understand Wall Street, media bias or geopolitics as well as she did from watching Fox and listening to talk radio. Never mind my travels or reporting, I was just a brainwashed liberal.

When Randy started resembling a Trump troll, I decided to level with him about what experiences fed my beliefs, something I avoided in our debates before this. He defended Trump’s tweet that Sweden was terrorized by refugees, and argued that the travel ban would spare the US a similar fate.

I admitted that I’d survived a terrorist attack, so I wasn’t naïve about the risks. But I personally felt that American values matter more than American fears. Because the statistics argue we should be a lot more nervous about fellow motorists than foreign terrorists.

And I went on to explain that I spent time in some of those banned countries and had plenty of friends throughout Europe who have a more nuanced and complex view of their own refugee issues.

He promptly skipped responding to any of that. Not even offering a acknowledgement of that terrorist act with a, “Hey, I didn’t know that. That must have been terrible.” Instead, he jumped right to how statistics can be miscalculated, and what mattered more was a report that one Swedish police chief felt the need to warn local women not to go out at night.

A news story reporting the feelings of one guy that confirmed his bias was more valid than a year-long study or even actual people I’d spoken with personally. I realize this is hardly a groundbreaking observation.

But when that person discounts your own experiences in favor of what they read online, that’s a pretty good indicator most exchanges won’t have much value. Nobody’s an expert at everything, so they should be willing to defer, or at least value real world experience at least as much as their own “research.” If they don’t, why exactly are you engaging with them?

Do we have anything in common other than our desire to argue?

What’s great about social media is being able to connect with a vast array of people, but rarely is it with any depth. You love a post or their perspective or even their taste in pet videos. Personally, I prefer videos of arrogant cats failing or upbeat dogs trying the impossible… and failing. Also, I love chill otters. I mean, I never seen one in a panic, but you catch my drift.

There’s a full-time contrarian on my feed who makes me cringe every third day or so. She’d rather the whole country burn to the ground, if we might rebuild something better from the ashes. This stance always pisses me off, because these people seem so flippant about the lives that get ground up in that glorious revolution. Hint: It’s almost never their own.

Steadily striving for political gain by say, voting on a regular basis, isn’t romantic enough. Somehow, it’s been working so well for old white bigots since 2010 that now they own a majority of governorships and state legislatures, and are well on their way to marching us all back to 1853.

However, she’s also one of the filthiest and funniest voices in my feed, with pithy insights into movies, TV and music. I skip arguing politics altogether to enjoy her brilliance on other matters. She even calls me out from time to time about my own blind spots around race or gender, and truth be told, eight times out of ten, she’s right.

I’m tempted at times to unfriend/unfollow her, but there’s so much other great stuff we share with one another, the feeling always passes. She confounds me, which is why I’m still paying attention.

Randy and I never talked about sports or music or movies or even each other’s lives. He might know I’m married, and I have a sense he’s seeing someone, and that he enjoys prog-rock. I swear, he has some good qualities. But the fact is, a little more fun and a little less squabbling might have kept our conversation going.

Which is why there’s no art to unfriending. Because that group of 5,000 people aren’t friends. They’re walking down the same street, maybe shopping in the same place, but they aren’t friends you call up when you’re about to have a kid or when your marriage collapsed. Those people are worth sticking with despite their shitty taste and even shittier politics. This doesn’t mean you feign love for Steve Bannon, it just means you pick and choose when to sigh over drinks.

Platforms like Facebook and Twitter aren’t there to foster friendship; they foster connection, good or bad, so long as those connections are “sticky.” The success of any social media tool is how often we use it, period. And outrage is a reliable way to keep us engaged, even if that outrage puts us at each other’s throats. Mark Zuckerberg can play the sad puppy at the state of our political discourse, but he’s shrugging all the way to the bank.

All “unfriending” should ever be is a decision to keep family and real friends offline, away from an environment designed rile everyone up. And if these people don’t warrant an offline relationship, why are you enduring their bullshit?

And yes, I suppose in many ways, this is still some lame diatribe from a Reasonable Liberal, but it’s less about thinking the “correct” things and more about basic human decency.

And in the interests of fair play, I vow that should I be unfriended, I’ll be willing to admit how I ran afoul of any of these rules and even be ready to keep some relationships strictly off line if someone asks the same of me. After all, I’ll admit I’m not perfect. And that may be the first step to staying decent while carrying a megaphone all day long.

If this didn’t waste your time, click that little heart below and hell, follow me for a spell.

*When you post without voting, volunteering, boycotting or donating, you’re not an activist, you’re yelling out a window for your own fun and relief. That didn’t work in NETWORK and it doesn’t work anywhere else.