What Friends Do I Want on Facebook?

Today I unfriended two more people from Facebook, both for political posts.

One of them was complaining about the Bernie Sanders / Elizabeth Warren kerfuffle at this week’s Democratic presidential primary debate. This person was very clearly on team Bernie. But what bugged me was not which side he was on in the argument—although I disagree with him on that—so much as how he described the disagreement. He was complaining about how CNN was being so unfair to his candidate—his tribe—when to me the dispute revolves around a much more important and salient ethical point. I don’t want either of those camps to get the short end of the stick, and to me, both camps appear almost identical to each other. So here was a Sanders supporter who seemed to be falling into the same trench of tribalism that’s destroyed the Democrats in 2016. How do you reason with someone who has fallen into that?

The other person I unfriended today shared a pro-Trump meme. I’ve mentioned before, that fact itself I believe is sufficient reason to get someone off of my Facebook newsfeed. This particular meme described the differences between Republicans and Democrats, portraying Republicans as thoughtful people who care about issues, like border control and corruption. Meanwhile, Democrats are characterized by one and only one motivation: they hate Trump. Now don’t get me wrong, I do hate Trump. But I’m also not a Democrat. The fact is that most Democrats seem to hate Trump because of his policy positions. They care about issues, too, like human justice, stability in government, rule of law—all issues that Republicans used to care about—as well as more typically liberal issues like gun control and climate change. And the really strange thing is that American voters overwhelmingly support the Democratic position on these issues. Even Republicans support these positions… just maybe not when espoused by Democrats.

Both of these examples fail The Outsider Test. To perform this test, ask yourself how your own beliefs are perceived by people outside of your ideological circle. This includes your ideological opponents. How would you see your position from their perspective? This exercise forces you to step out of your own shoes and into theirs. It forces you to exercise empathy. And that is the antidote to tribalism.

How do I, a political independent, have an adult conversation with someone about important issues, when they have sunken into an ideological quicksand that blinds them to their own biases? It might be possible to have such an adult conversation in person… although that is becoming less and less a possibility as well. On social media, however, it becomes nigh impossible. As I’ve opined before, they probably aren’t even seeing my posts. And I certainly don’t want to see theirs, because I’ve evaluated their rhetoric, and there’s nothing to be learned from it. They’re very good at whooping up the passions in their own tribe, but ineffectual at speaking with anyone who does not already share their political identity.

Increasingly, I desire a circle of Facebook friends who are able to cognitively traverse the political jungle without falling into tribal quicksand. I think I might learn something from them, and I hope that they might learn something from me. For our mutual intellectual benefit—and for my own mental health—maybe there’s a rational justification for excluding the extremists at all corners of the political landscape.

There’s an irony in this, that it too is itself tribalistic. There’s an in-group of people who I want in my tribe, those who respect honest differences of opinion between good people acting in good faith and are intolerant of intolerance. And there’s an out-group, those who honestly think the referees are biased for always making calls against their team.