NextDoor: a lesson on how to disagree online

“My heart does not bleed,” wrote a neighbor on NextDoor, a social media network that connects communities. He wrote this in response to a recent crime reported on the site, one of several, both petty and violent, happening in our neighborhood as of late. Other neighbors chimed in, saying their hearts also did not bleed for those who, and I quote, “have no respect for the law, don’t take school seriously, or frankly don’t want to be a part of a productive society.” The main takeaway from the thread was that anyone who commits a crime deserves no sympathy nor compassion.

The responses started coming in like rapid fire and everyone towed the line that criminals suck as people, end of story. My neighbors were giving each other virtual high fives by sharing their hearts did not bleed. To me, it felt like a sad and misguided celebration of closing off any attempt to understand why one might commit a crime. It felt like my neighbors were celebrating that they did not recognize a criminal as a human being who comes with their own life story and circumstances.

Clearly, I disagree with my neighbors due to my own worldview and understanding, which includes education around our country’s flawed and racist criminal justice system. But this sort of monolithic online chatter represents the norm not the exception. I’ve written before about my decision to not defriend people from Facebook who share different political or religious ideologies from my own. This population, however, is admittedly teeny tiny.

On my Facebook feed any given Sunday, I’m not conversing with people I disagree with. Instead, I’m “liking” posts that resonate with me or inserting a quick comment to a friend who makes a statement I support. Communicating about complex topics such as crime, gender, politics and race online is tough. Thus, I tend to join groups and engage with folks I agree with to keep it safe and comfortable.

NextDoor presents a unique challenge because what connects me to users is the proximity of our homes, not our education, professions, personal interests or any of the other ways I’ve developed my online social networks over the years. Georgia is a red state and even though Atlanta tends to lean blue, there are plenty of conservative people, especially in my predominately white and affluent neighborhood. NextDoor constantly exposes me to ideologies I don’t just disagree with, but adamantly and passionately oppose.

As I read each “my heart doesn’t bleed” comment, my blood pressure began to rise and my instinct was to type in all caps, “WELL MY HEART DOES BLEED, YOU ASSHOLES!” to let my neighbors know that at the very least, not everyone agreed with them. I typed and deleted. Typed and deleted.

While I was trying to collect my emotions, another person chimed in saying, and I’m paraphrasing, we’re better served as a community to address the root causes of crime versus villanizing and dehumanizing criminals. I exhaled. I was so thankful to this neighbor because he expressed my viewpoint in a way that was removed from passion or expletives. He disrupted the flow of the conversation and shifted the dialogue from anger, which my comment would have only inflamed, towards solution-oriented thinking. It served as a reminder that if I can move past my knee-jerk, visceral reactions to statements I disagree with, I have a better chance to engage in dialogues that are meaningful, and that it’s possible online.

I want to develop better strategies for engaging online and luckily, there are others hoping to do the same. EmbraceRace, founded by husband and wife team Andrew Grant-Thomas and Melissa Giraud, is a recently launched online community for parents who want to talk about race in the context of their kids. The intention is for the space to be multi-racial as well as multicultural. Andrew and Melissa are not trying to build a monolithic environment, thus difficult conversations are bound to happen. On Monday, Andrew published a piece detailing a thread that somewhat devolved on EmbraceRace. He suggests people “listen first, listen generously, then judge. Consider it a key thread in the ethical fabric we call the Golden Rule.” This is especially true when the topic at hand brings up a lot of intense, visceral reactions. Listening while suspending judgement is no doubt a difficult practice, but serves as the foundation and tone for EmbraceRace.

Reflecting back, I’m glad I didn’t call my neighbors assholes that day as it would not have contributed to anything close to healthy dialogue. If I’m going to engage online, whether on NextDoor or otherwise, it would be wise to practice Andrew’s advice and suspend judgement as much as possible. I don’t need to attack or be snarky in order to disagree. In fact, the only way I’m going to have a shot at a productive conversation is to stay rooted in thought versus emotion. As a highly emotional person, this will be a difficult.

I don’t expect to change overnight, but I’m hopeful spaces like EmbraceRace can help me hone these skills. You can join the conversation at EmbraceRace here and here.

What do you think? Is it possible to have dissenting yet productive conversations about hot button topics online? What are your experiences?

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