A Grain Of Saul: Why I Argue About Politics On Facebook, And Why You Should Too

It's not as fruitless as you think.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

On Nov. 9th of last year, just hours after Donald J. Trump became president, I made a plea to my friends on Facebook: keep arguing about politics.

Despite being disappointed by the election's outcome (I have some grave concerns about President Trump), I knew that political discourse was now more valuable than ever. The political divisions we saw in the 2016 presidential race seemed to be inflamed by how little the two sides spoke to each other, argued, hashed out issues or found common ground.

Which is exactly why we should keep doing those things on Facebook.

I know some people don't want to see politics on Facebook — and Facebook knows that, too. Cute dog videos, life updates and pictures from vacation seem to play a lot better than anything else. But nonetheless, Facebook has the potential to be the single best tool for political discourse the human race has. It's global, has no character limit that's easily approachable and provides a clean, readable platform for more than two people to be involved in a discussion. There are, of course, some issues: the echo chamber Facebook creates has been well-documented and blamed by some for our political polarization today.

But when you use it to argue about politics, you can learn a lot about yourself.

For one, I realized that my "liberal smugness" wasn't always effective. I'm not a hardcore Democrat and don't feel a ton of party loyalty, but I definitely have progressive views. A couple of years ago, I'd express those views with snark, sarcasm and little wiggle room when I argued with people on Facebook. But I learned over time, and through those discussions, that smugness never helped bring someone closer to understanding me.

I also realized my emotional connections to major issues — like racism, health care, or war — frequently left people thinking I was angry when I wanted to sound empathetic or passionate. After arguing about politics on Facebook, and seeing people react negatively, I realized I frequently came off angry when I wasn't. 

Finally, I began noticing that I held politicians I voted for to lower standards than the ones I voted against. When I'd call out a politician I was already opposed to, Facebook commenters would sometimes remind me a politician I supported had done or said a similar thing. In fact, I think this is something most Americans do: once you vote for someone, you protect yourself from their faults by being less critical of information you absorb about them. When you're opposed to someone from the beginning, you welcome information that is critical of them — and you explore that information thoroughly. 

Of course, I also learned a ton about my friends, who were surprisingly interested in politics. Loads of friends who never liked, commented or shared statuses I made on Facebook would message me privately, or talk to me in person, to discuss something I'd posted. Their political knowledge varied wildly, and I learned not to make assumptions about them. I expected my friends from top universities to always have the best analysis or information, but frequently it was friends who didn't go to college, or went to state schools, that seemed the most plugged in.

The most pleasant surprise of all was how my own opinions changed.

When the election first started, I was an ardent Bernie Sanders supporter who "despised" Hillary Clinton and couldn't stomach Trump. But through debating with friends on Facebook, I came to respect Hillary for her experience and expertise in both foreign and domestic policy. After hearing from friends who were Trump supporters, I understood the appeal of his off-the-cuff comments and how he called out political donors and overt partisanship.

To my surprise, I've actually changed some other people's opinions on Facebook, too. 

I convinced friends of mine who were gun lovers, and thought former President Barack Obama was going to confiscate all their weapons, that this was nonsense. Without being smug or forceful, I explained that gun sales only went up during Obama's presidency and — if anything — gun regulations were loosened. I was able to help them understand why restrictions on who can buy a gun, and where, is an important step for the safety of Americans. Some even told me they'd advocate for increased background checks after we hashed out our differences. 

Of course, none of this happened without some effort. In order to have a productive Facebook conversation about politics, I've learned you need to avoid a few things: name calling, angriness, generalizations, or "link bombing" someone — the act of sending them article after article to make a point.

When I used my time and energy to speak honestly, to admit error, to deliver a point politely and be kind, I've found that, oftentimes, discussing politics on Facebook is more than worth it. 

And in a country where so few people seem willing to hear the other side, it might be worth it for you to start engaging in those Facebook conversations, too. 

Cover photo: Shutterstock / ThomasDeco

You call follow Isaac Saul on Twitter here  

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