GUEST COMMENTARY--Politically, I used to be “that guy.” In high school, I competed in public forum debate at the national level, I was outspoken in class on matters of public policy, and I won several thousand dollars in scholarship money for essay contests and public speaking competitions, all of which concerned some political issue (like foreign policy or the sanctity of the First Amendment).
I was an arts major in college, but my argumentative drive didn’t go away, and social media provided an opportunity to channel it. I started an argument I knew I could win on every political post. I dropped friends like flies. I spent hours doing this on Facebook, often exchanging hundreds of comments with people on a single post. It became so rampant that someone I graduated with once posted, “The best part of my news feed is watching Therin annihilate people for their politics.” I relished in the feeling of declaring victory over my opponent not by changing their mind, but by making them look dumb.
Although I take complete responsibility for my actions, in some ways I think this behavior is exactly what competitive debate and call-out culture trained me to do. The purpose of argument, it seemed, wasn’t to engage in a mutually constructive conversation, to deepen my understanding of an issue or the people on the other side of it. It was more like a video game, where the goal was to collect as many gold coins as possible, in the form of likes and shares, which were only granted each time I intellectually humiliated someone. It was toxic, unhealthy, and achieved precisely nothing, save for bolstering an ego that didn’t need it.
This year, however, I decided it was time to quit. I’d argued, ranted, and raved from Obergefell v. Hodges to the Black Lives Matter movement, through the 2016 election up to the Kavanaugh hearings. I argued about abortion, immigration, single-payer health care, gun control, the minimum wage, and everything in between. I must have lost over 100 Facebook friends and was blocked by no fewer than three family members. In addition to social media, I wrote a political opinion column for my university’s student newspaper, most of which was intentionally inflammatory—so inflammatory, in fact, that the often vulgar debates taking place in the comments section of my articles forced the newspaper to change its comment policy.
I took a step back and asked who it was I was fighting for, and if what I was doing was helping those people. The answer was no.
After the dust settled, and I looked around at the wreckage my words caused, I decided the world had probably had enough. But, more importantly, I also realized what I was saying about politics didn’t actually matter. I’m a straight white male with decent financial security on the path to obtaining a graduate degree. For the most part, the public policy issues I was so staunchly defending wouldn’t change my life.
I took a step back and asked who it was I was fighting for, if not myself, and if what I was doing was honestly helping those people. The answer was no. Arguing about race on Facebook wasn’t doing anything to stop black men from being unjustly gunned down by police. Arguing about the economic consequences of single-payer health care wasn’t doing anything to save a sick, uninsured person’s life. And arguing about the Biblical ethics of homosexuality wasn’t doing anything to help LGBTQ youth struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.
I’m not advocating for silence, by any means. There are still plenty of instances when I think it’s appropriate to stand up, to use my assortment of privileges to help stop the mistreatment of disenfranchised groups, and to speak truth to power, but that’s not what I was doing. I was just arguing, and it was never for the good of others.
Now I’ve decided that whenever I see someone on social media disparaging a cause I care about, instead of arguing about it, I’ll donate to the organization I think does the most good for that cause. Based on my Facebook feed, this means supporting organizations like Planned Parenthood, the Trevor Project, and the Patient Access Network Foundation. For you, it could be any of the thousands of charities and nonprofits that advocate for people and policy issues (many of which, I’m sure, are the politically controversial subjects I wasted so much time arguing about on social media).
Recently, I shared on Facebook that I’d donated to Planned Parenthood (not to start anything, but to remind like-minded people that if they’re willing and able, they should too). I immediately received some criticism from a relative. I entertained the dialogue for two or three comments, mostly to answer a question she’d asked about my beliefs. Unfortunately, the conversation quickly derailed. The explanation I offered apparently prompted her to reply with an extremely long comment that touched on several different aspects of this issue before ending with talk of murdering babies.
I promptly ended the conversation.
A year ago, I would have responded with what I considered to be a slam-dunk argument. It would have quickly gotten personal. But now, I didn’t feel the need. By making a donation, I felt I’d succeeded in promoting the cause I believe in—more so than I would have by “annihilating” my relative’s arguments. And I certainly felt that what I’d done was much more likely to result in women having access to affordable reproductive health care (which is the real goal of my policy position, after all). I also saved time, spared myself (and my relative) the negativity that often accompanies these kinds of arguments, and was much more politically productive.
I realize not everyone is in a position to donate. But if you are, imagine what real, tangible change we could affect in this world if we all stopped shouting at each other and started putting our money where our mouths are.
(Therin Alrik writes about culture and personal finance. Current MFA student in Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Posted most recently at Medium.com)