My Turn: From online toxicity to listening

For the Monitor
Published: 4/21/2019 12:25:16 AM

I imagine there will be reactions both positive and negative to the Concord Monitor’s decision to cease publishing online comments. My own experience with online behavior over the past two years has convinced me that interactions regarding any topic where there’s disagreement are fruitless and destructive.

I’ve published opinion pieces in the Monitor over the past two years covering topics from rape culture to the inappropriate display of Confederate flags at agricultural fairs to the trauma that survivors of sexual violence experienced during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.

While some of the comments on my columns were thoughtful, the majority were hateful. Often the commenter asserted arguments to points I hadn’t even made or ignored documented facts. That’s not surprising, because the point was never to engage in meaningful dialogue; the majority of comments were seemingly written only to attack, demean and discredit me and whatever I said. Or what commenters who agreed with me said.

About a year into writing pieces for the Monitor I stopped reading comments. After listening to me sputter and complain about comments I viewed as deceitful during a family weekend, my daughter finally said, “Mom, you can’t read the comments. They’re trolls. Let it go.”

So I have, and have counseled other writers to do the same when dismayed by the rudeness and lack of civility in response to essays they publish.

Still, I let the toxicity of Facebook affect me last fall when my husband ran for state representative. His seat (which he won, the first Democrat ever elected to state office from Northwood) represents our small town. The town Facebook page that allows political discussion (there’s only one of the many town pages that does, because of the exact problem the Concord Monitor is trying to correct) is one of the few sources townspeople access for information about candidates.

Early on a resident attacked my husband’s call for reasoned discussion of gun ownership policies as an extremist position. Misrepresenting his views as published in columns in this paper, the attacker posted lies on Facebook and twisted my husband’s published statements to support the claim that he would take away everyone’s guns if elected. By mid-October my husband and I had to close comments on his campaign Facebook page because of crude and distorting statements. The emoji of a finger gun pointing at the comment of a supporter was the last straw.

The online attacks on the Northwood News Facebook page continued. One of my own Concord Monitor columns was quoted to prove my husband wasn’t really running to represent our town, but had been manipulated into running by me. Increasingly I found myself opening Facebook with a knot in my stomach that would flush me with dread when I saw another unfair post. Thankfully there were many supporters in town who patiently rebutted the misrepresentations and stood up for the reasonableness of my husband’s positions.

But what was most surprising was the attacker’s behavior toward my husband and me once the campaign was over. In-person interactions since have been cordial. Early in the campaign my husband had talked at some length to this person, debating gun issues. That had been civil. But once online, this neighbor went far beyond disagreeing to being disagreeable.

I’m convinced the only way to change the dynamic of online attacks is to take away the screen that lets people hide from those they attack, and from their own behavior. That’s what the Concord Monitor is doing.

Want to do more yourself? Want to be face to face with people who don’t agree with you and listen to what they have to say? The Open Discussion Project, being hosted by Gibson’s Bookstore, offers a chance to do that.

Sponsored by the National Coalition Against Censorship, the National Institute of Civil Discourse and the American Booksellers Association, the project is designed to encourage in-person dialogue among people with different political viewpoints. Gibson’s is one of six bookstores around the country participating in the pilot phase of this project. If the results are positive, the project will roll out in more cities.

After three meetings of the project, I think this idea is going to spread. It’s a book club with a political focus. Each month a book is chosen with a purposely hot-button political topic – immigration, race and guns so far. The meetings to discuss the book are facilitated (by me and a colleague) and aimed at getting people to listen to each other. The ground rules for the discussions encourage curiosity, listening and learning.

A range of political views have been expressed so far, and guess what? No one has been attacked or belittled. In fact, there has been little challenging of stated opinions and when it’s happened, it’s been respectful and kind. Mostly, people listen to each other. Participants openly state opinions they would likely be reamed for online unless they’re careful to stay in their own social media bubbles.

The first meeting of the Open Discussion Project in February brought out 85 people. Toward the end I asked who had come to hear from people who don’t think the way they do. Nearly everyone raised their hands. When I asked who considered themselves liberal, most hands went up. Far fewer hands were raised when I asked who was conservative. But when one of the men who’d identified as conservative asked who considered themselves an American, everyone raised their hands.

Every meeting has brought an increase in conservative opinions, a success for the project and for those participating.

If you want to return to the days of face-to-face discussion, come join us. The meetings are the second Monday of the month at Gibson’s Bookstore. The conversation will be enriched by more diverse voices.

(Grace Mattern is a poet and writer who lives in Northwood.)


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