In most conflicts that I’ve mediated the first challenge is to tone it down, cool it off, coax, convince, beguile, even trick people into listening to each other. Nine out of ten times conversation begins and leads to agreement. Wouldn’t it be a blessing if someone could do this for political conflict on social media, in town hall meetings, on television and radio, and on the streets?
Global warming is a distant and vague threat compared to the way our political climate has overheated and continues to boil into despair, hatred, violence and murder. Trump’s campaign didn’t start it by any means, but he became the voice and the hammer of people whose anger had been simmering and ignored for years.
Few people can resist answering Trump’s talk in kind and trying to go him one better—to win on his grounds by his rules. I offer an astute journalist’s recent observation:
“I want to note the words spoken by Kathy Griffin, the holder of the severed head. In a tearful news conference she said of the president, ‘He broke me.’ She was roundly mocked for this. Oh, the big bad president’s supporters were mean to you after you held up his bloody effigy. But she was exactly right. He did break her. He robbed her of her sense of restraint and limits, of her judgment. He broke her, but not in the way she thinks, and he is breaking more than her. We have been seeing a generation of media figures cratering under the historical pressure of Donald Trump. He really is powerful.”
Let historians try to apportion blame. As we say in mediation, we can’t change the past, only the future. I’ve heard a lot of people say they know their rage and their obviously one sided memes won’t change anyone’s opinion. They want to vent. That could be called egotistical or exhibitionist, but understandable. The problem is that this kind of rage destabilizes the fringes.
People with little self control lose it. They go out in the street looking for a fight. They smash windows, burn buildings, attack people who don’t fit in, and they start shooting the “enemy.”
What do we do? Back to the first requirement of mediation—cool it. The journalist I quoted says what media figures need to do, and I suggest that everyone on social media is also a media figure.
“So many of our media figures need at this point to be reminded: You belong to something. It’s called: us. Do your part, take it down some notches, cool it. We have responsibilities to each other.”
[The journalist is writer Peggy Noonan]
If FaceBook pages could scream, I’d be deaf. When I look at what friends have posted and reposted every day, most of what I see are screaming, undocumented, divisive, demonizing, dehumanizing, ignorant, gloomy and divisive memes. Most of them play free with the facts or are fact free.
I have good friends and family who are liberals, conservatives and almost every one of them is posting these screaming memes. I can’t think of any one of these people as evil or nasty or shallow or mean spirited in person. Yet they post these really nasty and shallow memes. It’s like watching boils erupt on healthy skin. It’s like watching a whole community suddenly having a bad drug trip and attacking each other.
As one friend who posts lots of memes recently said, they are not supposed to be dialogue and will change no one’s mind. So what are they for? Perhaps they are self-cleansing cries of anger and pain? If so, why are they almost always direct or implied attacks on someone else?
I’ve mediated hundreds of conflicts in the courts and in private, and almost all of them start this way—with one or both sides demonizing or dehumanizing or vilifying the other. The challenge for any mediator is to get both sides to listen TO each other rather than shouting AT each other.
Would that someone could mediate this national discussion, these FaceBook conflicts. Would that they could get good people to come out from behind their memes and talk to each other. Maybe it would be sufficient to ask if the memes people post don’t say more about the person posting than about the subject of the meme. Are people really as nasty and shallow as the stuff they post?