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We have all heard the old adage, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But in recent times the world of Facebook has caused me to ponder what could become a kind of corollary adage: the friend of my friend may just be my enemy. Or at the very least the friend of my friend seems to be very often no friend of mine.
In the last year or so I have had several experiences like the one I had last week. I commented on a friend’s Facebook link to an article promoting a revisionist history conference in London in which the lead speaker is going to make the case that Jesus never existed but was a phantasm invented by the Romans to quiet the messianic expectations of the Jewish population. Nothing new there, really, so I made a comment about how this looks to be of a piece with other efforts to concoct conspiracy theories (like Holocaust deniers or those who think the government brought down the Twin Towers on 9/11) that blithely fly in the face of mountains of evidence that point a different direction.
Within hours I was attacked by friends of my friend and I was foolish enough to counter-comment a bit, finally getting to the point of defending my belief in what some called the “far-fetched” claims of Jesus’ rising from the dead and such. I said that if embracing that far-fetched stuff as part of my faith made me a fool in some people’s eyes, I’d gladly accept the title. This led one friend of my friend to assure me that I was indeed a fool and that only his (faux) politeness kept him from assigning to me the title he thought would be a better fit for one such as I.
But here’s the thing: the friends of my friend don’t know me nor do I know them. Not even a little bit. If we did know each other, we’d address one another in very different ways. I am quite certain that is true. There’d be a little love in the mix, a little deference, a willingness to extend one another a line of moral credit (as friends tend to do). Lacking that, the postings on Facebook rapidly devolve into the kinds of Reader Comments that you can see under any article on most any website (and if you’ve ever looked at those, then you know that they tend to disintegrate pretty quickly into all kinds of back-and-forth name-calling and just general nastiness, replete with foul language at times). There seems to be a directly proportional relationship between the web’s providing everyone with a forum in which to sound off their opinions and a decline in basic civility.
Actually there is one website that recently unplugged its Comments section and that is Popular Science. According to news articles, in addition to growing weary of ignorant and rude comments left by readers, the editors determined that there are people out there who troll websites in order to leave comments on various articles that advance a certain agenda. In the case of this magazine/website, the trolls were out to trash science and/or certain scientific claims in order to advance some other point of view. Being a scientific journal, they also investigated studies that showed how Reader Comments of a certain tone retrospectively skew people’s opinions of the original article—those who had been positively disposed toward an article can be flipped in case Reader Comments are shrill or harsh enough. Rather than allow the Reader Comments to trump the cause of Popular Science (which is in part to promulgate a proper and accurate understanding of science), the editors no longer allow comments at all.
One wonders if this will become a trend with other websites—if so, it would be a trend I’d cheer on. Probably when it comes to Facebook there is no way to keep the friends of a friend from glomming on to comment and render opinions on the posts of people they do not personally know. I just know that since life is too short to be bandying opinions with people who neither know me nor care for me (and who apparently do not care what their harsher comments may mean to me emotionally), I am increasingly less likely to comment on much of anything. It actually makes me wonder how long I’ll stick with Facebook but there’s still enough good news and vital updates I get from people—not to mention some really funny videos I’d never see otherwise—that I will likely stay on board for now.
I just won’t comment much because the friend of my friend . . .