Ms. Skikes was a fiery, freckled woman with a booming voice and tough-love energy that made us both love and her. We related to her a little. She was close to our age, the basketball coach, still working on her Master’s, and it gave her cathartic joy to watch us try and kill one another.
In tenth grade history she had us flip our desks over and push them up against the sides of the classroom to recreate the trenches of WWI. We threw yellow medicine balls at one another pretending it was mustard gas. In the spring she took us outside, gathered us on the tennis courts, and ordered us to“storm the bleachers” like it was The Bastille. And senior year, in Participation in Government class, she loved our weekly, mandatory debates.
She’d reward us for cutthroat arguments, and broke up physical battles more than once. I won the pro-choice abortion debate after manipulating a member on the opposite team to admit she believed abortion was still acceptable in extreme circumstances. That opponent had been a close friend before that debate, not so much afterwards. I don’t think I’d ever see Ms. Skikes prouder than that time she watched me damage a friendship, just so I could stick to my political convictions.
A decade and a half has passed since then. I’ve bought an iPhone, found an “adult job”, collected a mortgage-amount of student loan debt, and managed to gain some real world experience. This thing called social media happened and I decided to make a career from it. I’m not the same person I was in that debate class.
But there I was this morning, concluding what I knew would be the most important piece of writing I composed that day — an impassioned reply to a comment someone made on my friend’s Facebook post. It was about a sensitive topic and the commenter had a very different view than I did. Because their opinion was different than mine, I knew they must ultimately be in the wrong. What’s more, because they were wrong, it was my responsibility to persuade this individual to change their mind. I never put this much thought into school-assigned essays. But now I’m focused and productive. I have a cause. I structure my introduction, my arguing points, back those points up with a few links, and conclude with my sassy signature “tough love” jab. I have no idea who I’m patronizing. I’ve never met them, couldn’t even tell you where in the world they were.
As I was writing this one-line zinger, it hit me. Why the heck was I doing this? Ms. Skikes wasn’t going to pop-up out of nowhere and give me an A+ for my closing remarks. If I was just bored, there were video games on my phone waiting to distract me from work. So why did I choose Facebook? Why did I choose to insert myself this into this argument? The tone of her comment put me on edge, but things most people say put me on edge. I don’t start an argument about it. I had some third-party experience with the topic at hand, but it wasn’t anything personal, it wasn’t something that affected my daily life. I received a rush from writing the argument, but I didn’t feel accomplished I always feel a little sick afterwards, like I indulged on too much fast food. I honestly don’t even care if people reply or not. I just like writing my opinion.
That’s when I remember debate class, and Ms. Skikes’ booming voice as she lectured on the reasons behind why she had us debate once a week. And when I thought about it, I remembered that she didn’t have us debate because she liked breaking up our fights — she had us debate because she wanted us to care about something bigger. Social media has become a tool for open debates. It’s only natural that we’d want to utilize that platform.
But here is where we made the mistake in debate class: We formed two teams. During our earliest introduction to how government operates, we were taught that there were two sides to every issue and winning an argument had very little to do with whether your argument was the best solution to the proposed problem. It had to do with who had a silver tongue.
I believe that the person with the best argument is going to be the one with the most conviction. People with conviction don’t back down, and their compassion for the topic will ultimately cause them to outwit their opponent or exhaust them into surrender. Having conviction does not mean you are in the right.
At the end of it all, we’re sitting in the same position we were in when the argument began. The debater goes back to their day-to-day lives, their opinion unchanged by their opponents talking points. No solution comes. We understand the importance of debating, but we don’t understand what to do when the argument ends.
We’ve seen how social media can be damaging to our society, so let’s harness that power to do some good. Everyone gets sucked into Facebook debates and the drama that comes with them because everyone wants the world to be a better place.
Everyone wants the world to be a better place. We just have different opinions on how to make it better. And let’s be real, utopia doesn’t exist. We’re blessed to live in a world full of diverse cultures, backgrounds, and beliefs that give people a different idea of how the world should be. The political upheaval I’ve witnessed in the past few years gives me the impression that no one is happy with how things are now. Everyone wants change. So, to me, it seems like we have one goal. And when you have one goal, you form one team, not two. And teamwork is about compromise.
I ended up changing the tone in my reply, and instead asked the thread if we could take some time to brainstorm a solution together. “This way, in ten years, we won’t need to argue about this on Facebook.” I don’t know if it will work, but sometimes you need to recognize the problem, and stop letting it be a problem.
I wonder what Ms. Skike’s classes are like now, if she’s still running debates, and how those conversations she’s having with her students must have changed in the past fifteen years. So much has happened, and students today are more politically engaged then my generation ever was. Social media has helped them understand these issues and enticed them to care. I like to think those in-classroom arguments are more inclusive, less cutthroat. Being encouraged to care about things also encourages solutions, and I hope they’re forming solutions together.
It’s not about my team versus their team. It’s not about arguing. It’s about acknowledging an individual’s ideas and opinions, and instead of trying to convince them their wrong — learn more about them. Ask someone why they believe what they believe. Have conversations without judgement. Learn about other cultures. Become informed. Then come up with ideas. New ideas. Don’t keep rehashing the same tired “facts.” Acknowledge that something is shitty and needs to be fixed, and work on fixing it. Together.
Oh, and thank you for caring.