How to survive the online world of politics

Jay Stooksberry
Nov 10, 2017 · 12 min read

"If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error." -- John Stuart Mill

It’s inevitable. If you spend enough time online, you’re going to end up in an argument. Festering in the comments sections throughout the web are all-out wars of words between opposing sides on every imaginable topic. It’s maddening and unhealthy.

Once upon a time, I used to engage in every debate possible. I couldn’t idly sit by while somebody was wrong on the internet. My day would be absorbed with writing out lengthy retorts and waiting for a notification of my opponent’s inevitably unthoughtful response.

But then I realized that — maybe — this was a waste of time. Has anybody really ever changed their mind because of a Facebook post? Is it futile to even try and engage in online debate?

Even though I’ve become less combative over the years, I still can’t help myself. Despite the toxic nature of online culture and politics, I still enjoy the exchange of ideas and thoughts. Over time, I developed some best practices — or rules of engagement, really — that have proven to be helpful in both engaging in conversations online and maintaining my sanity offline.

If you can’t do the time…

Before you engage in any online debate, check your to-do list for the day. Do you have time for a lengthy back-and-forth with your ideological foe? If you’re like me, you already have enough on your plate: actual work, meetings, volunteering, chores, etc. And even if I did have time to kill, I’d probably prefer to spend it doing something more meaningful, like reading a book, listening to a podcast, playing with my son, or exercising. Time is a scarce resource, so how you spend it — or waste it, for that matter — says a lot about what you value in your life.

Don’t write anything that you wouldn’t say in person

This is the “if you can’t say nothing nice…” rule your mom should have beaten into your head a long time ago. If you are not a confrontational person in real life, then why would you be in this virtual world? Think carefully before retorting. If something can be interpreted as snarky, mean-spirited, or downright rude, it will — so choose your words wisely. Maintaining split personalities — both an online and a real-world persona — is a lot of unnecessary work.

Embrace nuance

If your worldview can be easily summed up with a meme, then it’s time to expand your thinking.

Not everything is black and white. Life involves gradients of both colors. In fact, our color spectrum is vibrant, dynamic, and multi-dimensional.

If everything was easy — where everything boiled down to the simplistic solutions pitched by the usual competing ideologues — then we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place. Why don’t we debate what two plus two is? Because the answer is easy. (That is, unless you are talking to post-modernists.)

Our most polarizing issues aren’t so easy. They involve competing cross-pressures, where we have to measure the marginal utility and opportunity cost of every issue in the public domain — all with finite resources. The statistical likelihood of somebody not getting their way every time is very high.

When you ignore nuance, you’re admitting that you don’t want to think very hard about the subject at hand. When you embrace nuance, it humbles you.

Don’t have an opinion on everything

Think about how much you know about the world. Now, think about how much you don’t know. Hopefully, you are humble enough to admit that the latter category is substantially larger than the former.

Considering the limits of human knowledge, why does it seem that people have opinions on, like, everything? To survive this most recent month in politics, you better have an opinion on birth control, kneeling/standing during the national anthem, health insurance, bump stocks, sexual assault, hurricane recovery, taxes, and whether or not our President promised to a write a check. And you had better form an opinion quickly, because a new onslaught of issues are coming your way soon, and we will need new, fresh opinions on those issues. Political expediency rules the day.

Due diligence is a necessary step in opinion formation, so don’t commit to an opinion if you truly haven’t done the research. When in doubt, say “I don’t know.”

If you have an opinion, evidence or GTFO

Building off the last point, if you haven’t taken the time to research your opinions, then you are more susceptible to bad information or logical fallacies. (See the Dunning-Kruger Effect.)

Apply the scientific method to your worldview. What does the research say? Furthermore, how reputable are your sources? If you’re going to quote Breitbart and Occupy Democrats as the source of your information, nobody is going to take you seriously.

If some piece of information seems fishy — such as an article titled “OMG… Hillary Clinton caught on film playing an erotic game of Twister with Vladimir Putin and the ghost of Fidel Castro” — then you probably should do the following: pause, research, and verify.

If it can be independently verified from multiple sources, then share. If it can’t, keep it to yourself.

Prioritize your outrage

When you angrily react to every issue, you are assigning equal value to every issue. As a result, you elevate the trivial and minimize the salient.

For me, I prioritize my issues by starting with the calculation of how much impact can I have on changing something. As a result, I tend to focus my energy on the local and state level. So many of us — and I admit that I am guilty of this too — focus on national issues (where our impact is small at best, nonexistent at worst) and forget about what’s happening in direct community (where we are needed the most).

I do reserve some bandwidth for national issues. I just try to focus on the most damaging ones: war on drugs, civil liberties, destructive foreign policy, etc.

Everything else goes by the wayside. Until the bigger ticket items are addressed, I reserve little energy or emotion for the other paltry issues.

Pick your battles wisely before you are in a permanent state of war.

Think of the world being full of allies

Tribalism inspires “otherness.” You are either with us or against us.

I try to avoid that binary.

To do so, I try to think of my opponent as a colleague — somebody who I need to find consensus with if we are ever to move forward on completing this project that we are working on together. I center our conversation on our mutual agreements, and build that relationship out from there.

It’s important to first establish that you are open to dissenting viewpoints. I am chair of my local Libertarian Party affiliate. However, I invite non-Libertarians — Republicans, Democrats, and disgruntled “small L” libertarians who unregistered from the party — to join our discussion on a monthly basis. In fact, sometimes I have more “non-Ls” than “Ls.” As a result of this, I’ve encountered opportunities to collaborate on issues that truly matter.

When you see more allies than opponents, the world appears less daunting. At the end of the day, you won’t agree on everything with everybody — nor should you. But consider how much easier it is to address those mutual issues when you have strength in numbers.

Establish a common language

We speak in masked language in the world of politics. These cloaked words— words like “liberty,” “choice,” and “security” —create ambiguity and obscure meaning. Many of the terms we use are so value-laden that we often forget that others may define them in their own unique way, based on their own experiences and pre-existing biases.

Consider the word “liberal.” Liberalism is a centuries-old political and economic philosophy — one championing many of the civil liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights — that inspired the American Revolution. Yet, it is a word viewed with disdain on both sides of the spectrum. On the right, it’s a pejorative that is grossly butchered to include the suffix of “-tard” from time to time. On the left, it’s a title that has been abandoned in favor of “progressive.”

These words only serve to tribalize our politics. We become “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” which is an obvious attempt to create strawmen to easily beat up in our political lives. (Is there anybody who openly admits that they are “anti-choice” or “anti-life”?)

Most arguments can usually be boiled down to a fundamental disagreement on the meaning of certain words. I can’t tell you how many arguments have ended by asking the question, “Before we go any further, how do you define [insert subjective word here]?” Doing so forces both sides to specify, clarify, and avoid ambiguity.

Be prepared to change your mind

Nobody owns a monopoly on the truth.

To explain this step, let me tell you a story of when I changed my mind.

A few years back, I remember celebrating a day where several important political decisions were made — almost simultaneously. I don’t remember the exact details, but it involved separate state efforts to legalize marijuana, same-sex marriage, and “right to work” laws. I jokingly shared the news on Facebook saying that “all we needed was an audit of the Federal Reserve for this to be a libertarian’s dream come true.”

A friend and former colleague, who I have tremendous respect for, retorted, “How is ‘right to work’ libertarian?” We went back and forth, civilly exchanging our opinions, and basically arriving at a “agree to disagree” détente.

After reflecting on our exchange, I realized that my original position was really not one of principle, but rather of antagonism. Never a fan of unions, I eagerly supported anything that unions opposed. Even to this day, I’m still not a fan for a variety of reasons. (I will address our tendency to be anti-stuff versus pro-stuff later.)

However, with reflection, it became more than apparent that I had betrayed some pretty important principles: the rights to freely associate (what else is a union other than an association?), peacefully negotiate (so long as both sides to do so without violent coercion), and voluntarily enter into a contract (one agreed upon by both the employer and the employees).

If those terms are accepted and an agreement is reached between labor and management, then a “closed shops” is a contractual agreement between freely acting individuals. If that’s the case, right-to-work laws violate this contract. Furthermore, they utilize government force to infringe upon this contract. Ultimately, nobody has a “right” to a specific job, nor do they have the right to disrupt a contact as a third party. As a result, I actually oppose most right-to-work laws based on these grounds.

Understandably, this conversation is complicated by a tenuous and bloody history of labor-management relations, obtuse labor laws, and other cultural factors. (Remember nuance?)

But the big takeaway here is that I changed my mind. And it is something that we should be more inclined to do from time to time. If you are not willing to concede certain points, then why on Earth would you expect your opponent to do the same?

Furthermore, this scenario would not have been possible if I had maintained that diversity of thought in my newsfeed. Changing one’s mind is less likely to happen within an echo chamber of like-mindedness.

Hack your algorithm

Change how social media feeds you information by selectively engaging with online content.

It’s not a matter of creating a safe space from opinions that you don’t agree with; if anything— as demonstrated in previous section — you should be seeking pluralism and diversity in thought. (I actually follow just as many individuals and groups who I disagree with as I do with those who I don’t.)

It’s a matter of seeking civility and reasonableness; I have unfollowed many accounts that I tend to agree with simply because the presentation is purposefully divisive and intellectual dishonest. (Away with ye trolls.)

Furthermore, there is more to life than politics. If you find that politics absorbs most of your feed, it’s time to find accounts that tend to focus on cat videos, bad jokes, good music, delicious food, or anything else that makes you happy. Stay informed, but don’t allow your feed to fall down the rabbit hole of negativity.

Try to be more “pro-stuff” and less “anti-stuff”

I am highly susceptible to negativity. By nature, I am a cynic. I assume the worst and keep my expectations low. I can list off ten things that piss me off faster than you can ties your shoes.

This mentality can get downright depressing after a while. And it really just becomes a downward spiral into a dark, mental abyss.

Most of the world’s problems exist in the absence of a better alternative. War escalates in absence of diplomacy. Poverty persists in the absence of economic opportunity. Corruption flourishes in the absence of transparency. Injustice thrives in the absence of civil liberties. It’s not enough to oppose war, poverty, corruption, and injustice; we must also strengthen diplomacy, economic opportunity, transparency, and civil liberties.

It’s easy to stand in opposition. It’s much more difficult to offer specific solutions to be implemented. And the world needs more of the latter and less of the former.

It’s also important to remember that — despite all of the negativity we absorb in our daily media consumption — the human experience is becoming less dangerous (violent crime is continuously declining), more abundant (worldwide poverty has been drastically reduced), more technologically advanced (gadgets and gizmos abound despite economic barriers), and overall healthier (or at least we live longer).

Though imperfect, hope is not lost. And the human experience will only improve with more innovative thinking by bold problem-solvers.

Always be the calmest voice

Civility requires discipline, self-awareness, and emotional maturity.

People reciprocate the emotions that you put on display. So if you don’t want to see people shouting at one another, then you have to commit to not shout either.

Punch above the belt. Avoid name-calling. Use profanity sparingly — or at least never direct it toward your opponent. Attack ideas, never people.

And please, for the love of dialogue, ONLY TYPE IN ALL CAPS TO BE IRONIC.

Sometimes, your opponent will be emotional, and continue to lash out at you regardless of your calm demeanor. In these cases, an honest effort to deescalate should occur. Keep in mind that you are trying to influence the audience observing this exchange, and they are more likely going to side with the one that seems less crazy. (Though, modern politics does demonstrate there are exceptions to this rule.)

If your opponent still remains combative, proceed to the next step.

Know when to walk away

Not everybody is committed to civil exchange. Some people just are —for a lack of a better term —assholes. And their behavior is most likely the result of some deeply-lodged insecurity that has nothing to do with you.

In these cases, it’s best just to walk away. These type of people will only drain your time and emotions. They are not worth it.

Take note to avoid engaging with these individuals in the future. If they continue to be combative, it might be best just to cut ties completely.

But before doing so, please carefully evaluate the pre-existing relationship (if there is one) first: Is shunning this person worth throwing away whatever positive experiences you shared before? If so, block away. If not, keep him around, avoid engagement, and hopefully this person will come around with some time and patience.

All people have the capacity to change and deserve the benefit of the doubt.

When in doubt, log out

Again, this goes back to the marginal utility of time spent online. Will one more minute online produce happiness? Or will it suck time and energy away from more productive endeavors?

My bet is that it won’t provide any value. Instead, consider going outside and taking a walk. Cook a delicious meal. Read a book. Volunteer at the homeless shelter. Walk your dog. Sow a sweater. Make love. Play hide-and-seek with your child. Call your parents. Change the oil in your car. Build something with power tools. Fish a river. Fold your laundry. Hike a mountain. Learn how to play an instrument. Travel to a new place. Feed the ducks at the park.

Think about how much time you waste on the internet, and how this distracts you from doing much cooler stuff.

In fact, why are you reading this right now? Hell, why am I writing this? Let’s go tackle all of that other cool stuff first. We can reconvene on social media and share all of the cool pictures, stories, and thoughts later.

You log off first. No, you log off first. Ok. We’ll log off together.

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