Take that, right-wing Facebook friends: It might be exhausting, but I will keep challenging you

The endless spiral of flames and trolls and comments might be a grind. But this is why I won't stop arguing

Published September 5, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Scott Bauer/Richard Drew/J. Scott Applewhite/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Scott Bauer/Richard Drew/J. Scott Applewhite/Photo montage by Salon)

Engaging in politics on Facebook can make you crazy: As you wade into a potentially passionate argument on lightning-rod issues with people you might not even know, a thousand different thoughts pop into your head, and you’re not sure which one is right.

Is it safe to post this link about Hillary Clinton? Should I make a statement above this link, or should I just let it sit there, and will my friends/followers know what I’m getting at if I do? What if I think I have an important point to make about the link: is my point innocuous enough that only my sensible Facebook friends will leave sensible, agreeable comments below it? What if it leads to an argument? Should I engage in the argument? Should I stay out of the way of getting on someone’s nerves, or would it be wrong to abandon my friends, who are passionately making my points for me in the comments?

There really is no clearly defined etiquette for arguing about politics on Facebook, possibly because it’s the sort of thing that none of us expected we’d have to deal with when we joined Facebook. Part of the appeal of getting to choose your friends is that, in theory, we should be able to eliminate the racist douchebags of the world from our consciousness. And yet, in a twist of fate, the technology of Facebook has made it so that we’re subjected to the ramblings of people we can’t stand politically all the time, more than ever.

Sometimes, it comes out of nowhere. I’m sure we’ve all friended someone on Facebook who we thought were decent enough people at the time, decent enough to be called a “Facebook friend,” a title that, after all, means next to nothing. And yet, over time, you realize that this friend is batshit insane politically, and likes to argue, and argue, and argue. You look at his wall, and he’s got a picture of the Confederate flag up, and his posts are filled with political memes (always with the memes) that are so damn stupid and smug that you want to throw your laptop through a window every time you look at them.

So then, you start asking yourself… should I unfriend this person? Is this person’s politics so abhorrent that I can unfriend them, just because they think Obamacare is the work of Satan? If it’s someone you barely know, the answer might be simple. But what if it’s someone you’ve known your whole life, or someone you work with, or a relative? You can’t just cut them off, you think to yourself, because that could make things really awkward down the line. Plus (you might rationalize to yourself), in a way, it’s better to have some level of discord on your Facebook wall, just so that your political conversations aren’t completely insular and one-sided. Sure, the Republicans seem to be wrong about everything these days, but isn’t it necessary to hear their wrong, wrong, amazingly wrong viewpoints expressed in a dialogue, just on the off chance that they’re actually right about something for once?

In the end, the desire to avoid conflict wins out. You try to hide your Facebook friends whose posts you find the most infuriating. And maybe you let one or two of them avoid the cruel fate of the hide button, because maybe Bobby T. is a nice, chill dude 95 percent of the time -- when he’s not posting about Feminazis.

Unfortunately, your political opposites haven’t decided to hide you, because unlike you, they actually like arguing, and getting in people’s faces, and making things uncomfortable. And you know that every time you post something even mildly political, you run the risk of them descending upon your post and ravaging it, turning it into an all-out shouting match that only ends a) after some levelheaded arbiter comes in and says, “Hey, let’s keep it civil guys,” or b) after you see the pointlessness of arguing with someone who will never, ever agree with you.

After a while, after you’ve become a veteran of several long-fought political threads, you start biting your tongue. Someone you know posts about Benghazi, and you have the perfect comeback in your mind, a rebuttal that will completely burn his/her ass. You start typing it out… but at the last second, it dawns on you that your comment is just going to lead to a flame war, and damn it, you’re too tired to deal with this shit right now. “This is Facebook,” you remind yourself. “It doesn’t matter, just let it go.” Maybe you should just quit Facebook altogether, you think for a split second. “It is a pain in the ass, after all. Nah, it’s too essential at this point. I guess this is just something I have to tolerate.”

So you backspace your brilliant, concise counter-argument. You feel like a Buddhist monk too: you’ve taken the path of peace, and no one will ever know about it; it’s too bad, because you would have owned that dude, even if he wouldn’t have realized it. Oh well.

You go through this ritual for weeks and months, subconsciously crafting your political musings in a way to minimize the likelihood of another shouting match, while abstaining from stating anything so political that you’re practically asking for an argument. And then... one day, without you looking to instigate anything, you find yourself thrust into a potential shouting match. You just commented on someone else’s political post (the dreaded loophole), someone you agree with. But now, you’re being subjected to the opinions of your friend’s friends, and as it turns out, your friend, for whatever reason, has a friend who’s so radically right-wing that even Ted Cruz would look at him and be like, “Whoa man, turn it down.” Your friend’s friend isn’t just wrong, he’s INSANELY wrong, and his psychobabble is filled with the prejudices of either racism or homophobia or sexism or what have you.

And now, you’re in a bind. You want to hammer this guy, rebuke this guy for his insensitive, assholic remarks. You can’t just let him get away with saying that. This guy needs to know just how wrong he is. But… should you do this? If you engage him, it’s going to make things really awkward for your friend, who’s suddenly like a middleman between the two of you. Ultimately, you decide that it’s your friend’s own fault for befriending this douchebag, so you go ahead and type out your counter-attack, and this time you do press enter.

What ensues is pure chaos. The guy you’re attacking either responds very quickly, because he has a short, pithy comeback for you, or he takes 10 minutes to respond, because he’s just typed out the most rambling, nonsensical diatribe of gibberish the world has ever seen. You feel like you’re staring at the Unabomber’s manifesto as you pore over his response, with its spelling errors, lack of sources and illogical conclusions. And it’s even crazier than his first comment. He mentions “the blacks” or “the gays” or some other qualifier in a pejorative way, and again, you feel the urge to come back at this guy, but even harder. Again, you type out an indignant, harsh reply, and it comes much more instinctively than your previous one.

And from there, it just goes on and on and on, with either you or him insulting the other for being a dumbass. You’re no longer concerned with appeasing the sensibilities of the other side as you type out your response; no, you just want to destroy this jackass. But he won’t give up. Despite your logical and totally valid viewpoints, he keeps coming back with nonsense, and before long, you’re in a never-ending war with this guy. In the back of your mind, you keep hoping that enough of your friends or enough of your friend’s friends will gang up on him, and collectively, you can persuade him that he’s an idiot. Except, it never works out that way, because other people don’t want to come anywhere near your flame war. In fact, if they’re likely to make any comment, it’ll probably be, “Hey guys, let’s agree to disagree,” which will of course annoy the living shit out of you, because you’re right, and the other guy isn’t.

Sometimes these political shouting matches end quickly. Sometimes though, they can drag on for weeks, at which point, you will become terrified of hearing an alert on your phone, telling you that you there’s activity on your Facebook page. You hear the little notification sound and you go, “Oh Jesus, please don’t let it be this guy again.” You become almost afraid to even go on Facebook after a while, because you’re just tired of dealing with this guy.

And that, almost always, is how Facebook political flame wars end. No one ever wins them; one or both sides merely reach the stage where they can’t physically bring themselves to even stare at another word of what the other person has written. The need to prove the other person wrong is trumped by the need to have as little to do with the other person as humanly possible.

Needless to say, it’s all a bit exhausting. After enough encounters like this, you’re likely to contemplate if you should stop having anything to do with politics on Facebook, and in the back of your mind, you kind of feel that that’s your best option. But in the end, you keep posting stuff, and keep expressing your genuine opinion on issues, knowing full well that at some point a contentious debate is inevitable, because even if you can’t definitively win a political argument, the world is still a slightly, almost infinitesimally better place if people are challenged on comments or statements that they make that are flat-out wrong or offensive, and that the only way those people can even begin to know that they’re wrong is if someone, like you, confronts them.

Or, maybe that’s just me.

By David Pincus

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