When I realized that I wanted to be a rape researcher, I thought about deactivating my Facebook account -- or at least unfriending many of my Facebook friends. It felt as though every time that I posted anything relating to my work on sexual violence, someone appeared to fight with me about it.
There was the guy I went to high school with who wanted to debate the accuracy of statistics on campus sexual assault. And there was the former teacher who left comments on my wall that blamed victims for drinking too much or dressing provocatively. Even my mom chimed in, wondering whether my new interest in sexual assault was an overreaction, reflective of an emerging hatred toward men. I frequently received unsolicited messages from friends who wanted to debate me on all of these issues privately in the name of keeping me from becoming an extremist or in the spirit of an intellectual debate where they could “play devil’s advocate.”
I am far from alone. For scholars whose academic work touches on contentious issues in the public eye, the internet can become a battleground where our contributions, and those of our respected colleagues, come under fire. In those moments, our aggressors do not treat us like experts in our field, but instead like the old friend, grandchild or relative stranger they know us to be. That is especially true for women and people of color, and especially true when our work has some relationship to the marginalized identities that we hold.
In the online world, people presume that all opinions are equal, regardless of how much thought someone has or hasn’t put into forming them. There is also little recognition that an issue one person views as an interesting story that just popped up on the nightly news is another person’s life’s work.
For those reasons, Facebook debates can be hurtful and exhausting, but there is reason to believe they are worth the time and effort. For every critic we face, there are plenty of people who appreciate the articles we post and who learn from the disagreements that unfold -- and sometimes the critics are among their numbers.
Facebook can be an effective medium to introduce our friends and families to our academic work and to make social change more generally. But for these interactions to be successful, especially in the face of disagreement, we must break away from the common approaches employed in hostile online arguments. Below, I share nine tactics that I’ve developed to ensure that my online engagement with friends and family remains civil and meaningful.
1. Be kind -- even in the face of hateful comments. It is easy to get sucked into the vitriol of internet trolls, but never forget that they get just as put off by your insults as you are by theirs. Obviously, some comments, such as violent threats, do not deserve a response at all, but if you are going to respond, make sure that you focus on setting a polite and educational tone. Plus, a little respect for someone with whom you disagree goes a long way toward opening them up to your ideas.
2. Empathize. We have all made ignorant comments, but academics have had the privilege of formal education to redirect us to more scientifically defensible or inclusive beliefs. Remember how you developed the ideologies that you have, and use your own learning experiences to bring someone along a similar path. The things that changed your mind-set might open someone else’s eyes.
3. Validate. When whoever you are engaging with hits on something you agree with, point it out. You can use those moments as a jumping-off point for the stuff on which you disagree. This is especially effective when you both feel aggrieved by something but disagree on the cause of the harm. For example, I share the belief held by most men’s rights activists that it’s terrible to punish someone falsely accused of rape. But instead of immediately arguing about the prevalence of false accusations, that shared belief can be a jumping-off point for how important it is to make victims feel comfortable during sexual assault investigations to make it easier for investigators to get the story straight. (And then we can have a whole conversation about victim blaming that will still tackle factually inaccurate beliefs about false accusation rates!)
4. Respect the other side’s intelligence. A Ph.D. alone is not enough to demonstrate that you are always right and that everyone else who disagrees with you is stupid. If you treat others that way, they may dig their heels in. Instead, treat the discussion like a topic you are learning together. It should be a shared intellectual challenge rather than an intellectual showdown.
5. Embrace subjectivity. As academics, it is tempting to stick to the facts, but in the era of partisan think tanks and Google, a back-and-forth battle of statistics misses the point. You have a distinct perspective -- as do your “opponents” -- and using it just makes sense. Combine that personal perspective with all those facts and data you learned in your graduate program.
6. Embrace vulnerability. If someone says something that hurts you, calmly explain why. People are generally empathetic folk who do not want to hurt others. Explaining how someone (probably unintentionally) caused you harm can be a powerful teaching moment and does wonders to save a friendship or ease tensions on the next family holiday.
7. Play the long game. You do not need to change someone’s mind immediately and probably can’t, even if you try. When dealing with friends in particular, you can post an article on the same issue you debated a week ago and they will likely read it, especially if you were kind and give them a nudge like, “After our conversation last week, I thought this might interest you.”
8. Pick your battles. Since you are playing a long game, do not feel pressured to respond to everything that riles you up. Sometimes it feels too personal and sometimes you are too tired, and that is OK. I have been known to respond to requests for my professional opinion on contentious issues with, “You know, this line of work is hard, and I’m just too tired today.” I also have more general rules, like, “I don’t argue about false reporting rates. I’ll tell you which study I recommend and why, but I’m stopping there.” Your mental well-being matters more than any single Facebook argument, and you should get to choose when you engage.
9. Lean on your allies. Not all Facebook altercations will lead to a rewarding resolution. Identify friends with whom you can talk about especially tough conversations, or ask them to chime in when you need backup. Your allies will help you heal from any harsh words that are exchanged and remind you that you have a strong support system that values your work.
Our online interactions have the potential to strengthen our support networks for our work -- and change some minds along the way -- but only if we are thoughtful about how we treat disagreement.
Nicole Bedera is a graduate student in the sociology department at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality with an emphasis on sexual violence and masculinity.
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