Somewhere around 2003/2004 I remember my aunt coming to visit. The reason I specifically remember that visit is because that was around the time of the Bush/Kerry election and my aunt - a proud Liberal - joined us for dinner at my sister's house where many margaritas were consumed and she and my brother-in-law - a proud Republican - got into a heated debate.
Some of this conversation centered around America's post-9/11 defense (or offense, depending on how you look at it) and I watched my late husband, a former Air Force captain who still worked in the defense industry, sit silently as the argument played out.
"Why didn't you say anything?" I asked him on the way home. "You know more about that stuff than anyone."
"Because I wouldn't have changed their minds," he said. And that was it.
I've thought about that conversation so many times in the last 15 years - especially recently. That my husband knew more about what was happening, but had the presence of mind to just calmly sit there and let the argument play out has been a huge lesson to me. Things were heated and the only thing everyone else was concentrating on was showcasing their own knowledge. No one was really listening to anyone else.
Kind of makes me think of the current political climate.
That election was pre-social media and before our email inboxes were out of control. Conversations happened in person or on the phone. You didn't have in-depth political discussions with people you'd never met before in a forum that kept you anonymous or at least out of reach. And you didn't have the confusing situation of trying to reconcile who you believed someone to be with what they were posting on a digital platform.
I never thought I'd look back on the Bush/Kerry election with fondness...but I do sometimes miss those simpler times.
It's quite easy for me to unfollow or unfriend people I've never met before because of what they're posting on social media - and it's not just the people I don't agree with. Even people I share similar views with sometimes get out of control and give me a headache when all I was looking for was a good dessert recipe.
I've pretty much stopped accepting friend requests unless it's someone I actually know. You being friends with someone I've only interacted with virtually just doesn't cut it anymore. I'm not trying to collect friends - I leave trying to build an audience to public pages. My personal social media is getting more and more refined so that I don't cringe every time I open it. Recently, I had someone pop up on my feed who I didn't even recognize and was so offensive I asked myself, "Now, how did she sneak in here?" and realized it was some friend of a friend I'd said "yes" to.
The more difficult situations are when it's someone I've known and, in some cases, I've known almost my entire life. People I've experienced to be kind and thoughtful and I've always thought shared the same values will suddenly post something that seems so out-of-character for who I've always known them to be. It's jarring. It's like one person has split into two and that's hard for me to wrap my brain around.
That's, I think, the biggest disservice social media has contributed. If I had a conversation with someone in person - like my family members did in 2004 - my mind would have to comprehend that who that person is and what they believe are one and the same. But this contradiction of remembering someone for all the kindnesses and laughter they've brought to my life with a random meme that seems outright vicious (and something I would unfriend a lesser-known friend for) is constantly hard for me to digest.
Like some people out there, I'm pretty quiet on social media when it comes to much of what's going on these days. I don't argue with people in comments, I don't post articles (most of the time because I don't know who to trust and don't want to promote false news), and even when someone posts something that makes me want to scream into my pillow...I don't say anything.
I do, however, have conversations with people in person or over the phone and even if they express a view I don't agree with, I'm always grateful and learn something from the interaction. In person, you get a better sense of intent and whether or not the person is open to a back-and-forth interaction. If they're not, then you know where you stand. If they are (and you are - remember it goes both ways), you might have a life-changing exchange.
Or if you've had a pitcher of margaritas, you might make a decision like my husband did and just let it go.