Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Violence and Nonviolence in Social Media

In our back-and-forth online political sparring, can we express the transforming practice of nonviolence?

Let’s talk about violence and nonviolence in political sparring, particularly via social media. Many of us engaged in online issue debate employ strong rhetoric. What crosses the line from what’s fair and nonviolent to what’s hateful and violent?

Haven’t we all seen Tweets or Facebook posts that we know cross a line into ugliness--but we “like” or retweet them anyway? I know I have. And I’m sure I’ve sent out things intended mostly just to get the goat of someone on the other side of a political issue. I’ve usually regretted it.

I am an advocate of nonviolence, but I am as guilty as the next social media user in wanting to set others straight and expose obvious flaws in their thinking and information--and to do so with emphasis and a bit of punch. But, I’ve been thinking more lately: Shouldn't my my commitment to nonviolence include my verbiage and messaging via social media? What are my expressions via social media doing inside me, to or for others, and for the issues and greater causes I feel committed to? To me, it's worth contemplating.

Here are a few more or less stream of consciousness observations and suggestions I’ve been mulling over regarding violence in social media--and the powerful possibilities of taking nonviolent principles to heart and action in our online discourse:

1. Violent-language political sparring may be tempting and immediately satisfying, but it is ultimately self-defeating. Twitter and Facebook invite emotive reactions and unchecked venting as par for the course. But if one’s use of social media might be remotely intended to increase understanding or encourage others to consider an alternative point of view, then character bashing and mean-spirited repartee undermines that effort. It also reduces us to merely reflecting the image and antics of hateful people.

2. Refraining from violent repartee and pointedly de-escalating heated political sparring via social media takes much more discipline, energy, and wit than launching or passing along a real zinger. Again: I'm guilty here. But I always find it refreshing when something better is shared.

3. Denial, suppression, or distortion of what is fact and true is, in fact, violent. Intentional distortions do violence to truth--one of the most important principles of our social fabric. Untruth and half truths--including obfuscating spin that has become so much the stock in trade of politicos--needs to be called out and its purveyors held accountable. BUT…how can we make valid political statements and hold others accountable for unfounded distortions without enflaming hatred and verbal violence?

4. Violent-language repartee on social media doesn’t move anything forward. It just makes our cohorts and us feel more justified and right. It might feel good and it might serve a purpose of comfort and consolation, but it doesn’t move the issue forward. We all wallow in self-pity for a while. But the sooner we can turn our anger into responsive, constructive conversation and action, the better chance we have of being the difference we wish to see in the world (to paraphrase Gandhi).

5. The effort to call out Trump & Co.’s lies, distortions, and obfuscations by those who feel called to resist his regime is important enough to do so without malice. Instead of seeing ourselves as merely drive-by social media gangsters spraying easy sarcasm and “let the chips fall where they may” verbiage at things that offend us in our news feed, what if we see ourselves as a small but critical part of a collective resistance in which each voice speaking the truth in love for our neighbors, our nation, and our world turns the tide?

6. On one hand, I don’t think Trump should be given an inch; strong responses are required. On the other, the nature of responses matter much. Unless our varied and many expressions of truth-telling and resistance are nonviolent, our very words and actions play into the self-defeating lie of justifiable violence. Justifiable violence is one of the greatest and most pervasive lies that goes unnoticed and unchallenged 95% of the time. But it is a lie. Those who do violence become violent and perpetuate its endless downward spiral. When we engage in violent language, not only will violent people and forces feel justified in their violent ways, but we will become like them while trying to undermine, stop, and defeat them.

7. One principle of effective nonviolent change is both maintaining a moral high ground and offering an alternative path that ennobles all. This is the wise teaching and effective practice of Gandhi and King. In resistance to Trump, the moral high ground is to deny him the justification for acting violently because those who resist his policies are violent. The alternative path is a better worldview and reasonable--if complex and difficult--path forward that includes and seeks the best in all people, all nations, and the earth itself.

8. Seek and follow exemplary purveyors of nonviolence on social media. Who are the exemplary social media participants who reflect nonviolence but on-target messaging and winning wit in their political debate? I try to follow and emulate those who do not shrink back from the fray of political issues but who engage without malice and who demonstrate that they are making serious effort to contribute to a way forward and upward. To me, those who engage in creative humor in response to Trump & Co.'s distortions are worth a follow.

I invite your ideas and responses. Social media in the political domain fascinates me. I am a participant in back-and-forth issues daily. I have lots to learn. You have much to teach me. I look forward to hearing from you.

John Franklin Hay 
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA 

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