In 1916, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and Franz Rosenzweig, two prominent German intellectuals with differing religious beliefs, engaged in a spirited exchange of letters about the place of Judaism and Christianity within the broader trajectory of history. Written from the trenches of WWI, the letters are rich with allusions to theological debates between Judaism and Christianity and lively with passionate defenses of their particular religious tradition. Though the two friends were in disagreement, the letters showed a deep engagement with the substance of the other’s ideas; the positions are defended eruditely and each man is forced to engage with a position deeply different from his own.
Trying to imagine the 2012 equivalent of this exchange-played out with Twitter @’s or Facebook likes-is dispiriting. Has the brevity and extemporaneous nature of social media flattened the richness of well-reasoned argument? Has it allowed us to brazenly post articles accompanied by ten-word taglines in lieu of developing substantive positions on important issues? Do the posted words of a Huffington Post blogger become a substitute for our own ideas? Abortion and contraception are just some of the issues that have ignited Facebook statuses and Twitter feeds over the past few weeks. Statuses loudly condemn Rick Santorum’s objections to abortion as those of a religious zealot or decry Catholic input into contraception as a vast overreaching of the Church’s power. People make brazen and potentially offensive proclamations that they would perhaps frame in more nuanced tones over a dining hall discussion or in a conversation with an acquaintance, settings where they would be forced to offer a reasoned argument for their position. In this sense, it is far too easy for Facebook to become a tool of self-validation, where you post an article with a bold proclamation of your position, your circle of friends who share your opinion “like” it, and you feel validated that your view is well reasoned. These Facebook posts offer little to no opportunity to explore knotty and nuanced questions about the interplay between private moral convictions and public political candidacy, the role of religiously motivated nonprofits in civil society, or other interesting questions of our time.
We advocate safe and open spaces at Stanford, where respect for different opinions and lifestyles is emphasized, yet often Facebook turns into a hostile space where flippant proclamations are posted that dismiss the opposing position in five words or fewer. These flippant Facebook statuses become a conversation-stopper-few of us want to become mired in a public “comment war”-and in the absence of someone sitting across the dinner table or a friend to challenge your view, opinions are left half-formed, unexplained and often unchallenged. Of course, Facebook can be used to quickly raise awareness and spread information, which makes it an important complement to face-to-face or well-written moral and political debates. The support expressed following Stanford graduate and activist Fadi Quran’s arrest is a perfect example of this, where Facebook posters, perhaps sensing that the campus is more divided on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than it is on other issues, offered more well-reasoned descriptions and defenses of his protest actions. Occasionally, Facebook is also used as a forum for productive discussion about a topic-for example, the lively debate about Ezra Klein’s Wall Street recruitment column published in Bloomberg News-but the negative connotation surrounding the term “comment war” to describe a back-and-forth disagreement on Facebook suggests that on the whole, we do not see Facebook as a forum for spirited disagreement.
Facebook and Twitter, according to some, have become valuable tools of self-expression, but it is important that we do not let one-line proclamations and two-line rebuttals serve as replacements for deep and complex engagement with the substance of each other’s ideas. What is lost in these abbreviated proclamations and stilted rebuttals is more than a fascinating exchange of ideas; we lose the opportunity to have our opinions challenged and shaped by lively argument. The ways in which we use Facebook and Twitter often make these would-be arguments either nonexistent or shallow and ineffectual.
Because more and more of our public discourse plays out on these online media, we ought to use them in a way that does not suppress discussion regarding controversial political views. So perhaps rather than posting comments that ridicule certain political or ideological beliefs, thereby closing the door for an effective dialogue, we should frame our posts in a way that respects those with whom we disagree. We should attempt to forge a more productive public discourse, both on these forums and outside of them, and avoid the polarization that stems from brazen one-line pronouncements and angry three-word rebuttals.