The last couple of years of American politics have been nightmarish. Even in 2014, a year before Donald Trump began his presidential campaign, polarization was at an all-time high — 92 percent of Republicans were more conservative than the median Democrat and 94 percent of Democrats were more liberal than the median Republican, according to the Pew Research Center. There hasn’t been any reliable research on polarization since the 2016 election, but I’d wager that it has only gotten worse. It’s easy to see how far our political discourse has devolved when we hear calls to “lock her up” from the highest levels of our government and read the filth that is spread on Twitter and Facebook. There has always been polarization and incivility in politics, but we reach new lows every day. One response to this breakdown has been to block, unfriend or otherwise disengage from people based on their harmful political ideas.
I’ll be honest: I think that Republicans are to blame for most of our breakdown in dialogue. Despite their constant calls for civility, Republicans elected a president who actively seeks to play Americans against each other with xenophobic, sexist and racist remarks. His complete lack of regard for political norms has trickled down to rank and file Republican supporters and I believe that the slurs that Republicans on social media use for Democrats (cuck, femi-nazi, libtard, etc.) are far worse than the adjective of “deplorable” that caused such furor when Hillary Clinton used it to describe Republican voters. Republican, conservative and alt-right social media users use inflammatory and hateful language to describe people and groups that they disagree with. This further degrades our political discourse while also making minority groups feel unsafe.
With all of that said, you still shouldn’t automatically unfriend or otherwise break off a relationship with people who post terrible things on social media. Unfriending people just because of their stupid or hateful posts helps to create ideological echo chambers that further divide Americans and make us less able to hold dialogue. You also shouldn’t have to suffer under a constant barrage of posts that degrade your identity or other people. There has to be a middle ground between unfriending everyone who disagrees with you and being a social media doormat subjected to a never-ending stream of digital abuse.
When you see something on social media that makes you want to cut a person out of your life, ask yourself this guiding question: Do you actually have a relationship with this person? If it’s your high school classmate who you haven’t seen in years, posting about how they are afraid of a “white genocide,” then unfriend them as fast as you can — there’s no point in engaging with someone with whom you don’t have a relationship. If it’s your aunt, co-worker or a member of your religious congregation, then seriously consider whether you need to unfriend them for your own mental health. Since you have a relationship with them, you can try to engage with them and see why they believe in what they do. If you are somewhat close to them, then try asking them to meet and discuss in person — it’s harder for people to dehumanize someone who they know and who is sitting right in front of them.
Don’t be quick to unfriend people who disagree with you. Sometimes it’s necessary for your mental health, but sometimes sticking around and inviting people to have real, face-to-face conversations can actually change minds and hearts. Be thoughtful, be kind and take care of yourself in our crazy political climate and try to be a bridge in our divided politics.