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August 22, 2017

It's just dumb politics to unfriend a foe online

Robert Niles
By Robert Niles

Please don't unfriend me. Don't unfollow me.

I don't care if you voted for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Mickey Mouse. It doesn't matter to me if you dream of marching with the KKK, the Antifa, or under a big fat balloon on Thanksgiving Day.

Go ahead, stuff your face with sheet cake or put ketchup on that hot dog. If you've ever cared to hear a thing I've had to say, I am grateful for your time and attention, and will welcome remaining your virtual friend. So, you won't see me posting stuff like this:

If you support Donald Trump please unfriend me

Sure, I get frustrated with some of the crap I read on Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the Internet, too. But I have found that the most valuable tool you can carry with you in the Internet era isn't a portable battery charger. It's a deep, long breath.

That's what I use when I read something that frustrates me on social media. Just take a deep, long breath. And keep breathing... until the desire to lash out fades away.

Look, I'm human, too. I'm not asking you to stop lashing out at friends and followers who provoke you because I don't care about outrageous statements and actions. I'm asking you to chill because I do care. What do you want? A better Facebook feed... or a better community and better world in which to live? Because if we want that better world, we are going to need help.

We are going to need friends.

But can people who post vile, offensive garbage — or who support vile, offensive people ̶ actually help do any good in the world?

I hope that you cringed when you read me putting it that way. After all, these are your one-time friends I'm talking about here. So after you take that deep breath, remember what it was that brought you together before.

For the past 17 years, I've been running a website called ThemeParkInsider.com. As the name implies, it's a site for people who are into theme parks. A decade ago, I dropped out of what most of my colleagues consider "journalism" to run Theme Park Insider full time. I reference my colleagues' opinions here because, in my view, what I've been doing at Theme Park Insider is far more important for the public good than anything I did working for a newspaper or journalism school.

When I click through to the social media profiles of some of the tens of thousands of people who follow Theme Park Insider, I see evangelical Christians from the deep South, Muslims from the Middle East, and atheists from all over the world. I see "Black Lives Matter" and "All Lives Matter." I see people who proclaim how proud they were to vote for Trump, for Hillary, for Bernie, or for no one at all.

I see all the people that conventional journalism "wisdom" tells us are not talking with or listening to each other anymore. But they are... well, at least they are on Theme Park Insider and countless other forums that have found a way to bring people together to talk. Even if we can't agree on everything over there, at least we still can agree to disagree without unfriending each other.

We need those forums, because we need to hold on to ways to work together even as politicians drive us further apart. We've got three choices here: work together, go to war, or ignore each other.

I don't want any part of a war, and if you have a real concept of what war means, I suspect you feel the same. But I also suspect that a great many politicians — and the donors who control them — would love to see the rest of us ignoring and unfriending each other. Setting people against each other helps keep them from noticing when you're picking their pockets. (See my story last week about the cookies.)

So let's not allow anyone to do that. Take that deep breath, and let's try to find common ground with more of the people in our lives. No one is illegal, after all. And we shouldn't be embracing causes that value ideological purity over protecting and cherishing people, either, right?

If after taking your deep breaths, you still need to unfollow a voice you can no longer stand to hear, go ahead and protect your mental health. But don't unfriend them and completely sever the connection.

Many people talking garbage will try to exploit Karl Popper's paradox of tolerance, demanding that you tolerate their intolerance for others. You don't have to. Respond and call out intolerance if you feel you must, but play the long game as you do it. Call out the words and the actions, but not the friend.

I truly believe that the cable TV networks, tabloid newspapers, bloggers, and radio hosts that work hardest to rile people over race and religion are trying to goad their followers into provoking their friends. They want us to cut these connections so they can exploit our division. The first step in radicalizing a population is to cut it off from any moderating influence.

Don't take the bait. Remember what you have in common with friends hurt or fearful enough to listen to radical voices, then remind those friends of the ties you share. Talk about theme parks, music, sheet cake recipes... or whatever else you can, together.

No, talking about that stuff isn't going to make anyone magically vote the same was as you do. But if I can't have an ally, at least I'd rather hold on to my friends than make more enemies.

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© Robert Niles. Read more in the column archive.