I’m a protestor, and I believe in the Black Lives Matter movement wholeheartedly, but this blog isn’t about that. It’s about my friend Ricky. Ricky (whose name I’ve changed for the sake of anonymity, although I’d like to think that he’d be just fine with everything I’m about to say) isn’t my friend in the true sense; we met on Facebook, have no mutual friends, and have never met in person. More particularly, we met on Facebook right after the protests against institutionalized racism and police brutality fueled up once again here in St. Louis, after the Jason Stockley/Anthony Lamar Smith case was brought back to light. I posted about my disdain for the police reaction to the first round of protests in the Central West End, and Ricky commented. We’d never met before, and he was from the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, far away from my world. He was very clearly against the BLM movement and believed that I was very wrong for siding with the protesters.
Here’s where the magic happened. I didn’t tell him to get the $&#* of my page. I didn’t call him names or curse at him or throw insults. Ricky hadn’t cursed at me or called me dumb; he was legitimately arguing my point because it mattered to him and he believed that I was misguided. He and I spent the whole day commenting back and forth on my initial post. We never hurled an insult, and we never stopped the civil discourse. As this was unfolding, I had several of my liberal-minded friends message me privately. The overall question was “who the hell is this guy?!” followed by “you have SO much patience, I don’t think I’d be able to be so polite.” I responded that we all need to remember to be civil and thoughtful when replying, and that I would not abide any name-calling or insults from my own liberal friends either, even if I essentially agreed with them. After all, it’s easy to tell someone to kick rocks when they don’t agree with you; it’s a lot harder to really talk to them and break down your beliefs in a way that requires you to question and validate them yourself.
My liberal friends were all onboard—this would not devolve into mudslinging. Ricky and I never really agreed on most of our points, and we probably never will. But we did manage to come to a few agreements, such as that people have the right to protest through the First Amendment. Maybe he didn’t agree with what I was doing, but he agreed I had the right to do it. And to me, that was a big step. I learned a lot about his perspective too. He told me about his background growing up and how it had influenced the way he views people throughout his life. Now Ricky wasn’t just some troll to me; he was a person. And I think he felt the same way about me—I wasn’t just some Social Justice Warrior snowflake anymore.
Over the next few months, Ricky would often comment on my political posts, and he never agreed. But we continued to talk to each other, and in fact I often welcomed his posts because it made me really think deeply about what I believe and served as a good inner check and balance. And hopefully, I also had an impact on him and changed his perspective just a little bit on black rights and the BLM movement. Even though we will never see eye-to-eye on a lot of matters, we understand a lot more about the other side of the argument and about the issue as a whole than we would’ve if either of us had not put in the hard work of talking through controversial and complex issues with someone who doesn’t think like us. In fact, one day after exchanging comments, Ricky messaged me privately, and showed me a beautiful photo of his children and their mixed grandchildren. I showed him a photo of me (a white woman) with my boyfriend at the time, who is black, and his mixed daughter. We told each other that if the other person is ever in town, that we’d be happy to host their family for dinner. And we meant it.
So what does all this have to do with media literacy? Well, everything. This to me is possibly the #1 most important reason that keeps me talking about and teaching media literacy. What Ricky and I fought through is cognitive dissonance. When he saw my very first post, it didn’t jibe with his understanding of reality. He could’ve just kept scrolling. He could’ve hopped on my page, said something rude that his conservative friends could chuckle at, and run off. But he didn’t. When I saw his comment, it didn’t agree with my understanding of reality. But I didn’t tell him to kick rocks. We both fought through that feeling of cognitive dissonance. When your brain reacts to a piece of information that goes against your understanding of reality, it reacts defensively. It’ll come up with all the reasons why the concept you just heard can’t possibly be right. It turns out the best way to fight cognitive dissonance is through storytelling. If I tell you a bunch of facts as to why you’re wrong, your brain will put up a wall to deflect those facts. If I tell you my story, that wall will not come up, and we all have the chance to learn.
I’m not saying that every online interaction is like mine and Ricky’s. Every troll who posts on your feed is not there to have a meaningful conversation with you, and there might not be much to learn from them. But the online relationship that Ricky and I have formed doesn’t have to be the illusive white whale. We can all work harder at it together, and in fact, I’d say we have to. It may be the only way that we as a society can stop the animosity and start working together toward improving our community. So the next time someone hops on your page with an opposing view, think about what kind of reply will make the biggest impact on their life, and on yours. It might not be as instantly cathartic as saying “girl, bye.” But it will be so much more rewarding in the long run.