Engaging People


Yesterday, something awful happened in France. Bombs and gunfire ended the lives of over 100 French civilians and, seemingly, the few people who carried out the atrocity as well. These people have ties to a group that Wikipedia describes as "a Wahhabi/Salafi jihadist extremist militant group and self-proclaimed Islamic state and caliphate, which is led by and mainly composed of Sunni Arabs from Iraq and Syria" and that group took responsibility. I don't care to use the name.

I'm also not going to dwell on the particulars about what happened in France or how to deal with these kinds of issues. I have nothing to really offer. The issues are complicated and well outside of anything I know. My feeling is that anything that can be described as an "Islamaphobic backlash" is exactly what these types of groups want, that any military action short of deciding to become a modern Roman Empire isn't going to work, and that probably the best way forward is to figure out how to undo the diplomacy issues between us and the middle east.

What I want to talk about, instead, are some of the reactions I'm seeing on Facebook. A number of people are changing their profile pictures to have the French flag. Some have expressed that their thoughts or prayers are with the French. Someone on my feed calls President Obama a coward for not immediately declaring war and jumping to the aide of one of our oldest allies.

Another apparently wants to wage a war on all "prayer" and "religion", misquotes Richard Dawkins, and is upset at the ignorance of all religious people. Even though I'm not really a religious person anymore, this topic is pretty firmly in my wheelhouse. I could engage him. I might be able to persuade him. I could at least dispense with the bad arguments he's giving and give him some better ones.

Instead, I just unfollowed him. And, honestly, I've got mixed feelings about it.

This guy's pretty far off my social radar. We don't converse. We played soccer together for 2 years over 15 years ago during high school and don't keep up. I don't need to know or really care that much about what's going on in his life -- I hope he's doing well and everything's great, but I can't think of many people I don't wish that about.

Beyond that, a good amount of what he posts seems to me to be fairly rude, psuedo-intellectual tripe. Almost all of it carries an air of, "I'm so much smarter than everyone else," without delivering on the promise. So, I'm not really interested in reading much of what he has to say.

And then there's the no-win situation from engaging. There's not likely going to be an argument that will convince him that religion isn't the problem or that religious people, on the whole, aren't dumber than he is. I don't think that's something he's psychologically open to.

But, I feel like it's not just this guy and that silence (and silencing) are problematic. It's easy to agree with myself and to surround myself with people that agree with me. It's easy to ignore or dismiss arguments that fall outside of that bubble. Moreover, silence tends to be taken as tacit agreement. I seem just as happy to complain about the loud minority as I am to stay silent.

It's also easier to not engage. Beyond the laziness accomplished by not having to make a solid argument and digest real discourse, it's safer to not disrupt my social life with any fallout from it. I've had friends that literally could not have a conversation on a set of topics with the opposing viewpoint without getting angry. And I'm not perfect here either. I've misspoken. I've said dumb things I had to backtrack. And I've been wrong. Sometimes I do the social calculus and take a risk. Sometimes, I don't even bother trying to figure out whether I should bother.

These days, when I do talk about these kinds of things in person, I lean towards trying to present all of the sides of the argument. Maybe I'll try and talk about the history of an idea. Or ask non-leading questions I don't follow up on in a very un-Socratic way. On the internet, I'm a little more brazen and will peridiocally take a stab at something (and usually regret it later).

I dunno.