Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Value of the Internet Argument

When I was in my early twenties, I started dating the lady named Erin who would eventually marry me.

We were really different: she was from Texas, a preacher's daughter, shy, quiet, a great listener. I am not those things. For whatever reason though, we hit it off. Being with her, I was put into close proximity to the kinds of people that I had previously disregarded entirely. I had not had much interest in spending time with people who weren't like me, and didn't have many friends who were Christian, or southern, or gay, or anything but white suburban transplants that listened to punk rock and liked comic books. I certainly read a lot, and that reading shaped my views, but there was very little practical life experience to back up my thoughts on a lot of things.

Erin didn't have those hangups. She was just nice, and very patient. Because of this, though she is not religious, she still maintained relationships with people she had met through her parents' church. One of them -- probably her closest friend from church -- was a lesbian who had also lost her faith. We'll call her Annie.

Annie lived in Portland, and was just beginning to live as a gay adult in an America that wasn't particularly excited about the prospect of her having any rights at all. This unfortunate national position was compounded by a complete lack of sympathy or support for her by much of her family. Those things, along with her general demeanor and college-aged angst, made her a very emotional and stubborn person. This was a person who was much more naturally like me, but who had a serious and difficult societal barrier that I did not have, nor did I understand it.

But whatever, I'm a liberal! I support folks! Sure, I thought (and still think) that economic inequality was the main problem with society, but I'm willing to support anyone in their struggle for rights. All I required (and require) is to understand why a change is required, and I will support said change. This is what I asked of a gay woman when she started talking about trans people and bathrooms when we went to visit her for the first time.

I used that age-old trope about sexual assaults and keeping people safe. Annie kind of lost her shit about it. She got really angry. I think she yelled at me. Erin was in an awkward position, and didn't really understand the issue, either. Thankfully, this argument erupted at the very end of the visit and we were actually at our car. We sort of makeshift made up, and then Erin and I were on our way.

On the way home, I was incredulous. "How am I supposed to support an idea if I don't understand it?" I railed. Erin was good enough to just let me explode. She said that Annie was struggling with a lot of stuff, and probably wasn't up to having to deal with my constant challenges on her political ideas. This didn't really appease me. "If people want the support of non-interested people," I exclaimed, "they need to make their reasons clear." Yes, I know. I actually talked like that. I was young and VERY pretentious.

Now, looking back on this incident, I feel kind of stupid, but also pretty grateful. Back in 2005, I had to look a person who thought this issue was important for PERSONAL REASONS (Annie was dating a trans man) and argue with them about the issue of trans people using the bathroom they identified with as opposed to the bathroom they were born to. Like gender-assigned bathrooms were an integral part of western civilization or something. At the time though, I wanted to be right. Immediately afterwards, I wanted to understand. But I had no one to tell me, and I didn't know where to go, so I just kind of forgot about it.

Fast forward to now again: laws in North Carolina and Alabama are going after trans people over bathrooms, and I'm hearing the same people who I disagree with on literally every issue saying exactly what I said to Annie 11 years ago. "If you let trans people into whatever bathroom they choose, what's to stop a sexual predator from putting on a dress and going into a woman's bathroom?" Except now, I've been corrected of this logical fallacy. I don't know when it happened, but at some point between then and now, someone said to me "rapists are already breaking the law by raping. Why do you think they wouldn't just go into a woman's bathroom dressed as a man? And what about male sexual predators that target men and boys?" This very basic logic convinced me I was ABSOLUTELY wrong about the issue of trans people and bathrooms, and by the time it became a major legal issue, I was long past feeling like the sexual predator argument had any merit. Now, and for a long time, I've been with Annie on this.

So what does this have to do with the internet argument? I don't know who said the above, but I do know that I saw it on Facebook. It was one of those blowout partisan arguments that you see in your feeds all the time -- the kind of argument you have to tell yourself not to engage in. Someone was being terrible and stupid and hateful, and someone else was being terrible and stupid and hateful on the other side, and then some people were chiming in with non-sequiturs. And in that rough, somebody said something responsible.

And the reasonable thing stuck. It changed me. It made me an ally to the cause.

People often say that your opinion changes when you know somebody who is effected. I think that that is often true. In this case, it wasn't. In the years that followed the initial meeting, Annie and I became friendly; even friends. We never talked about that argument again, except once, like ten years later, and even then it was veiled. But she wasn't able to convince me, because she didn't have it in her to make that argument for the zillionth time. And very probably it is not her responsibility to do so. But it's also very hard to make the case that every citizen needs to constantly research every slight, real or imagined, by every group. In both cases we are asking too much of people.

But in the case of the internet argument, there is separation and opportunity. The one thing that flare wars on social media do well is expose people as unreasonably mean or unacceptably uninformed. And to those people, you're probably not going to make much difference. What about the lurkers, though? What about those people who are watching? To see people melt down, to have something to talk about to mutual friends, to kill time waiting for the bus, or whatever reason? What about them? According to a 2015 poll, more than half of Americans get news at least partially from social media. In a world where well designed (or even really badly designed) memes can carry the same weight as the entire White House correspondent's bullpen, engaging in the nonsense you're seeing on line might be the only chance an otherwise reasonable person might have to see a differing view from their friends list and their partisan news outlet of choice.

The evidence I have for this is circumstantial. In addition to my own change in opinion on the issue of trans rights, I've done a lot of arguing with crazy people on the internet. Sometimes I say things I shouldn't say, but I'd like to think that more often than not, I'm making a point-by-point argument or asking questions to help me better understand a position. This has paid dividends in my own social media circle. About a dozen people have messaged me to tell me I'd changed their opinion on an issue. This is, to me, a very big gesture. It's hard to admit you're wrong. I certainly have trouble doing it. But people I barely know -- people that I mostly went to high school with (I went to five high schools) and who I have never had close relationships with, but who have been "friends" or "followers" since the early days of social media when people just blanket connected with anyone they'd ever known -- have told me they understood something better because I took the time to explain it.

I feel the same way about so many people I follow, though I certainly don't tell them enough.

Social media is often a place where people can be anonymous. It is a place where people can say absolutely horrible things that they would never say to people's faces. That's certainly what it can be. But it can also be what it was designed to be: a platform for discussion and for the sharing of ideas, thoughts, and arguments. When it works that way, social media is important, and very powerful.

Annie was right all those years ago, but she couldn't convince me. And she shouldn't have to. But now that I understand, I should feel obligated to carry the weight of arguing for justice at least some of the time. Rather than looking for reasons to say "no," I should be seeking reasons to say "yes." And when I see people making a case to prevent someone else from basic rights that we take for granted, I think it is my responsibility to ask them "why." After all, my rights are not being assaulted constantly, so I can use some of my bandwidth to work talk to people about other people's problems.

Sure, I might not convince the person I'm confronting. It takes a certain kind of person to share a meme that says "Transgender people have a problem with their head, not their crotch." They may not be easily swayed. But what about their friends and family? They might still be won over by rational argument. It's all of our responsibilities to make them from time to time. Otherwise, poor Annie is going to have a heart attack having to answer every apathetic acquaintance who can't be bothered to find out why they are being so wrong.

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