In the diversity of thought that makes up the landscape of American culture, one convention has held perhaps more sway than any other: “Never, under any circumstance, bring up politics or religion at a dinner party.” We all take this maxim seriously, but inevitably, at some point in our lives, we break this rule, and we pay the price for it. I usually leave those events thinking, “Why didn’t I keep my big mouth shut?” because the whole thing devolved into an incoherent shouting match or an awkward silence occasionally punctuated by stifled sobs.
Perhaps because we’ve all had a few of those experiences, we’ve taken this sage advice and expanded it to extend to all areas of our discourse. We don’t talk religion and politics at work or with our families–I have good friends who avoid such topics even with their spouses, so as to avoid any discomfort in the household. These areas of our lives, areas of ultimate concern, areas for which we all have deeply held convictions, are simply regarded as too toxic to air out in the company of others. For anyone interested in free and open discourse, influencing others with their religious world views, and functioning democracy, this ought to be regarded as a sad state of affairs. For practical social reasons, we’ve chosen conversational comfort over helping one another come to correct conclusions about how best to navigate the world.
Perhaps because of the anonymity it offers, we seem to be a little more loose-lipped (or should I say, “loose-keyed”) about our concerns on the internet. The fetters of traditional American interaction fly off in the comment section of the local newspaper website, Facebook feeds, and Reddit threads. And it can get downright ugly out there. People who, in typical social situations act with the decorum of a Puritan will unleash a string of scathing arguments and insults that would incite riots in the streets of Los Angeles if they were uttered in public. People get really brave about their ideas behind the computer screen, and there is no practical consequence for just about anything they assert in Web 2.0. Though many of us find ourselves duking it out through social media about important topics, there is still a general societal consensus that this is a poor use of time at best, and a negative behavior at worst. Many of us, conditioned by a desire to be comfortable above all, avoid these discussions online as we do in our day-to-day, physical lives. And we think that we have good reason to do so.
I’d like to assert however, that the wisdom that governs dinner-party decorum is damaging when taken to its current extreme. It is absurd that in a culture such as the United States, where freedom of expression is the primary protected right, most of us can navigate our entire day without meaningfully interacting with a viewpoint that opposes our own. This is a terrifying state of affairs. If you value democracy, I wish to encourage you to argue about it. If you value religious piety and freedom, dialogue about it! I realize that the dinner party rule is probably a wise one, but we most not let this mantra extend unfairly throughout our lives. In a (roughly) democratic society, you must argue religion and politics, and you ought to start online for at least three reasons:
The Web is the Only Place that We’re Honest (Sort of)
Apologies for the crassness of this example, but it makes the point so well.
As I’ve pointed out above, the world of social-media “discussions” is an ugly one. Racial epithets, four-letter words, and (worst of all) poor arguments fly at blistering speed and intensity. This certainly can be distasteful and off-putting, but I’d like to assert that when it comes to debates about ultimate concerns, for most of us, the web is the only place we don’t choose to pull our punches. The little “peace-keeper” switch in our brain that tells us to bite our tongue when Great Uncle Leo starts making racist remarks about the President at Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t work with the same force on the World Wide Web. When we engage with interlocutors online, the chances that they are honestly and directly expressing their political and social opinions in the words that they type are much higher than if we were chatting them up over coffee. A lot of us don’t talk politics at all any more, but this does not mean that the world of politics does not affect our lives in profound ways. In my view, if we care about the world, we have to leverage any medium that gives us the opportunity to delve into these concerns, and if we allow the dinner party rule to ruin our last avenue of meaningful dialogue, none of us will see positive social change in the ways that we hope. On the web, we tend to know exactly where our “opponent” stands, and we have the opportunity to be informed but their worldview as well as offer our own critique. Sadly, we don’t have (or take) that opportunity in our daily lives, so I think it crucial that we be involved in social media discussions about important issues.
We Surround Ourselves with People Like Ourselves
One of the side-effects of a society that allows us to move about and associate freely is that we tend to interact with people mostly like ourselves. We tend to feel most comfortable with people of our own race, class, religion, and political party, and most of us stick with those people because we share common desires, interests, and opinions. This is another reason we don’t debate politics and religion: we all agree with each other, so there’s no need for debate. In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt argues, using social psychological research, that one of the key reasons we find ourselves in such a political quagmire in the United States today is because of this dramatic ideological segregation that has occurred in the 20th and 21st Century. In the realm of politics, we now no longer even watch the same news channels because we have dedicated news channels that cater to our own political preferences. And yet, we are stunned that anyone might see the world differently than we do, precisely because we’ve surrounded ourselves, through a good portion of our lives, with people whose mind operates in lock step with our own.
When you choose to engage in argument through Facebook or other social media platforms, you will likely run into someone form another ideological tribe with the same same disbelief that you hold ideas that are so self-evidently false. This interaction is profitable, because you are compelled, through this interaction, to critically examine your own position as well as that of your opponent. Chances are, you’ll both move from a position of ignorance about the other side of the issue, to one of a more full and robust perspective than before.
You’ll Make Your Own Positions More Robust
It’s one thing to merely hold beliefs in one’s mind, it’s quite another to actually write about them. As of right now, the primary way that you and I interact with others on social media is by typing out our ideas for others to read (although this will change). In my career, I’m a researcher, and I’ve found that one of the significant virtues of writing arguments out for an audience is that it helps you to clarify exactly where you stand on the issue at hand. You have to think about not only what you mean to say, but how your reader will take what you say, and in tailoring my words for my audience, I often find mistakes in reasoning that I would not have noticed had I not taken the time to write them down. Another advantage of the social media debate is that everyone gets a turn to speak. In a face-to-face debate often the person who speaks loudest and fastest wins the discussion, regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the claim they defend. Admittedly, writing out one’s ideas on religion and politics demands more time, but if we are interested in holding positions that reflect the true nature of the world, it is time well spent.
The Demands of Citizenship
If you care about religion and politics, you cannot keep that care to yourself. Though the world of online debate is often uncouth and certainly not pretty, this is where we find ourselves, and if we hope to make our mark on that world, we cannot allow the Dinner Party Rule trump our positive liberties, the responsibilities that our right to free speech entail. It’s not enough to merely vote our conscience and go to church or synagogue frequently. A good life is one of political engagement, control of one’s environment, and positive affiliation with our peers.