Bonfire of the Proprieties: Winning Friends and Influencing People in 2018

Photo by Connor Jalbert on Unsplash

So this is where we are, America. Polarized. It’s Us versus Them in a battle royale, and we’re fighting tooth and nail over just about every imaginable topic. Few people are interested in finding common ground as a starting place to facilitate healing for our nation, or more importantly, its citizenry. But if you’re not raging at either end of spectrum, there’s a path to higher middleground.

The New C-Word

The public’s disdain for the lost art of compromise spans the country from sea to shining sea. Folks who will proudly apply the full weight of their jackbooted conviction on their opponents’ necks until they concede that their worldview is the one true vision for national salvation can now be found not only at both ends of spectrums once relegated as the playground of extremists, but they are also showing up in increasing numbers in spaces once occupied by moderates.

This jackboot-on-the-neck strategy has never worked for me. And not because I weigh in at 120 pounds.

Whether in face-to-face interactions or in online chats and posts, these tactics have much the same overall effect as a flamethrower in that the commentary is a controlled, accusatory, and passive-aggressive torching of others and their opinions, all under the guise of “adding their two cents to the conversation.”

Cases in Point

Case 1  A while back, I visited a friend of mine who was in the midst of having her kitchen remodeled. She and I chatted over coffee as the carpenter secured the cabinet boxes into place. Al Sharpton appeared on TV and gave an empassioned commentary about something or other.

The carpenter — a white guy — came to a dead stop, turned to us and said, “I can’t stand that guy. He’s a shit stirrer,” then calmly returned to installing the kitchen cabinets.

We both stood there gobsmacked.

Since when did the causes Sharpton regularly addresses — civil rights, gay rights, the rights of immigrants, or the rights of the marginalized — get downgraded to the level of “shit” whose raison d’etre was to be stirred to inflame the comfortable and coddled? I missed that newsflash.

Just so you know, both my friend and I are black, just like Al Sharpton. In all fairness, the carpenter had reliable vision. So he was fully aware that both my friend and I were black, just like Al Sharpton. Now, regardless of the carpenter’s opinions of Al Sharpton or his political, social, or religious leanings, it seems to me that the reasonable thing for the carpenter to do would have been to keep his opinions to himself out of respect for his black employer and her black friend.

Call it being unaware or socially inept. Or both.

This is the world we live in.

Case 2  I enjoy meeting different people. Learning the stories about the events and relations that have shaped them into who they are fascinates me to no end. In order for people to share their stories with anyone, it’s important for them to know that they are respected and will not be judged. I’ve found it’s good to treat everyone that way.

My Facebook Friends List reflects my affinity in that it consists of people from various walks of life of assorted ages, professions, ethnicities, nationalities, and religious affiliations. There’s even a few Nones and Dones also in the mix. So, it’s only natural that I strive to treat people in that same way.

My Facebook updates are meant to inform, amuse, and/or introduce friends to points of view they otherwise might overlook. My hope is to foster public dialog, but that seldom happens. I’m content having one-on-one discussions about topics. There is one ground rule as to what people post in the comments: treat others with respect and care. I can’t control what people think or how they act online, but I am the king of my Facebook page and I have the final say-so as to what gets posted there. My kingdom, my rules.

The first time a friend berates another friend of mine in a comment on my page, I don’t publicly call them out. I reach out to them privately via Messenger or send them a text message explaining the house rules and point out the specifics of how what they posted doesn’t fit with the environment I’m trying to create and we talk it out. I don’t ask them to remove their comment, I prefer that they come to that decision on their own. Usually, the person relents and 99% of them usually remove their comment, and we’re good.

No harm. No foul. No body count. And it’s never an issue again.


But on those rare occasions when people choose to test me to see if I really mean what I say or they feel that my Facebook page, by virtue of its very existence, is an open drop-off point for them to leave incendiary comments despite my requests to the contrary … all under the premise of the pretense of “the marketplace of ideas” or “adding their two cents” … well, I’ll put it this way: it’s never pretty.

To address anyone in written or spoken word with a comment that opens with, “I don’t see how anyone could join that [insert your least favorite political or social or religious group]” or its equivalent to a person of that group is condescending, dismissive, and outright rude. That is not representative of the marketplace of ideas concept. It is talking down to someone without giving them the respect they deserve as a human being. It is an attack on who that person is much the same way as the carpenter’s “He’s a shit stirrer” comment.

For the other person to react in a manner in the vicinity of disrespected is not unfathomable, unreasonable, unfounded, or weak. It is human.

Oops, I Did it Again

Don’t think for a moment that I sit from a self-righteous perch banging out the post thinking I’ve never been a player on Team Scorched Earth. I’ve scorched and torched more times than I care to admit. We all have. But I make it a point to try and repair the breach, and try to not let it happen again. Christ requires it of me. (I’m a work in progress, so bear with me dammit.)

Most of the times a heartfelt mea culpa works and the relationship proceeds all the stronger. But there are those occasions when an apology won’t suffice and the only thing that will rectify the situation for the offended is a swift unfriending. I’ve done it. And it’s been done to me. In those instances, I’ve found the best thing to do is accept their decision and move on.


Telltale Signs

How do you know if you’ve crossed the line? It’s not a matter of “if,” but when. Unless you’re living in someone else’s head, it’s inevitable that you’re going to cross the line … hopefully, it’s inadvertently. If you’re engaging someone with these types of comments, you’ve crossed the line in my book.

  • Accusatory
  • Baiting
  • Closed-minded
  • Dismissive
  • Elevating your own point of view
  • Judgmental

Don’t fool yourself. These types of comments do not invite others into a respectful space for productive conversation. Remarks of this nature immediately put people on the defensive much like hitting someone in the face with a brick. To dismiss someone’s beliefs as stupid is a sure-fire way to set yourself up as uninformed and irrelevant.

The Take-Away

Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always believed in the adage that “you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar” or its variant “you’ll catch more ants with sugar than salt.” The meaning of either maxim is clear—

You’ll wield more influence with people if you’re pleasant as opposed to abrasive.

Yes, it’s disturbing to come to grips with the reality that our democratic process was tampered with. Yes, it’s disturbing to accept the fact that our friends, our loved ones, and even our selves — as well as the flames of more than a couple of fears — were not just fanned but stoked to become bonfires of suspicion and hatred directed at our fellow citizens. And the residual effects of those bonfires are only beginning.

If you genuinely have a desire to win people over to your point of view, engage the moderates, they’re willing to at least talk about things. Leave the hand-to-hand mortal combat to the extremists.

Love one another.