You Can’t Argue with Experience: Talking past Each Other on Facebook

I love how Facebook helps me connect with people, share ideas and questions, and read interesting posts online.  But I’m increasingly hating all the Facebook drama.  I just don’t think Facebook is the best place to have a truly meaningful conversation.  And I’m tired of complete strangers arguing with surprising bitterness through comment threads—not just on Facebook of course, but blogs, too.  Even Robin Williams’s recent suicide has become the context for people tearing into each other online.

What is wrong with us?  Why are we talking past each other so much?  So many times we’re not really listening or understanding, just taking a sentence from someone we hardly know, if at all, and jumping all over it.

I think one of the reasons is that we are unknowingly trying to argue with someone’s experience—with beliefs they hold not just in their mind, but way deep down in their gut because of what they have been through.  No argument is going to sway them, but it will call forth a maybe surprisingly emotional reaction.

For instance, in my teen years I was exposed to the patriarchal fringe of the Christian home school movement, and if you don’t know what patriarchy is, I’m so happy for you.  Because of that exposure, and the frustrations and resentments I felt as a teenager, I’m opposed to patriarchy not just in my mind but deep down in my gut.  Whenever I see a post about it, or comment about it, what I’m thinking is flowing from my memories.  You are never going to argue me into thinking something else.

But if you don’t know me well, you don’t know that.  You just see my two-sentence comment, and then someone else responds, and someone else responds, and we have no idea where people are really coming from, but we fight it out anyway.

Another example: through our recent work in foster care, I care a lot more about substance-exposed infants, homelessness, racism, drug use, child abuse, abortion, poverty, the list goes on.  I hope my thinking on these issues is researched and logical, but beyond that, my response to them is honestly emotional, at times almost visceral.  My beliefs about these things come from way deep down because of a baby I love.

I don’t think it’s weakness for our emotions to get involved with our convictions.  God created us as emotional beings, and that’s a good thing.  We should have logical arguments we’ve carefully researched and worked through, and if we attach a lot of emotion to the conclusion, so be it.  That emotion springs from memories and experiences that make us who we are.

But online, you don’t fully share those memories and experiences.  Sometimes we just lack the space; sometimes those things are confidential or too personal or vulnerable to share online.  Our conversations are necessarily incomplete, and they can turn really nasty.

I remember reading a blog post written by someone who seemed to have a fair bit of animosity toward HSLDA.  I don’t always agree with HSLDA’s positions myself, but I was curious about this person’s background, so I clicked on the “about” line on her blog.  I learned that for her, the label of “home schooling” had meant a childhood of abuse and academic neglect, and that one day while hiding under a table with her sister, she had promised that when she got older she would fight to make sure this didn’t happen to other children.

You can’t argue with that experience.  I’m not saying there’s never any such thing as true and false, because of course there is.  I happen to think home schooling is a good educational option that parents should be free to choose, and right now I’m choosing it.  But, if I’m going to argue with this author online about whether academic neglect is really a problem in home schooling circles, I am never going to change her mind and I shouldn’t try.  She’s experienced it.  She knows it can be a problem.  If we stop arguing, maybe our experiences can enlighten each other.

We are all wounded, and I don’t say that condescendingly, it’s just that we’re all hurt through life.  And we all have our own dreams and desires.  What we say has a backstory.

So maybe before we attack someone online, we should pause and think, “What are this person’s goals and dreams in life?  What were their parents like?  What was their childhood like?  How have they been hurt?  Why is this issue so important to them?”

That’s why I wish sometimes we lived in a time period where if you wanted to have a conversation with someone, it had to be over the dinner table.  As you’re serving the soup and passing the butter for the bread, you could ask someone these questions and find out where they’re coming from and why.  You might disagree, but hopefully you could talk about it without the silverware becoming offensive weapons.

Of course there are people you couldn’t have as dinner guests because it would be a dangerous or at least unhealthy violation of boundaries.  I get that.  But I think having some dinner guests could be mutually beneficial.  Maybe as your lesbian friend is helping clear the table, you might still hold your prior convictions about homosexual activity, but the LGBT movement would now have a face and a name attached to it, and you would have more sympathy and understanding.

Maybe you could actually ask someone in person, “When you made that statement about suicide, did you really mean it like it sounded?  Have you ever experienced mental illness?  Can I tell you my story?”

Maybe you would learn why your friend is so opposed to vaccinations—or so committed to them.

Maybe you would figure out why someone is so cynical about politics or law or journalism—or so excited about it.

Maybe you would find out why your friend loves or hates home schooling or courtship or church attendance or mission work or fill in the blank.

Maybe we wouldn’t even change our minds through the conversation, but we could change our tone and broaden our view.

I know of course having everyone over for dinner is impossible, but at least we can bring that mentality to our online conversations.  This is another human being with hopes and dreams and hurts and backstory.  Let’s be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to wrath.


  1. I was directed to your post from Life Your Way ... I don't see any comments, but I hope that many people read your thoughts.

  2. So true about online interaction bringing out the worst in people! As a counselor I certainly agree about the importance of listening before airing opinions.


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