Friday, April 3, 2020

Low-Fat Love 101: Facebook during Challenging Times

Facebook has become a meaningful part of my life. Years ago I wouldn’t have predicted that, but the world has changed, and personally, my life has as well. After more than a decade as a college professor I left academia to be an independent researcher and author. Since I now work from home, Facebook is a way that I connect with people daily. Beyond touching base with childhood friends and feeling less alone during tough times, as an educator and author, it is a vehicle for sharing my ideas and learning from others. It’s also a way of learning about what is going on in the world and how people are feeling. I am amazed by how much I learn from those in my Facebook community. It’s invaluable.

I use the word community in a serious way. I am a part of a close-knit, formidable Facebook community filled with people from all walks of life as well as many educators and artists. I think of people in this online community as my colleagues and friends. I value these folks. When someone goes MIA for a while, they will likely get a private message from me making sure they are OK. There are people I have not met in the flesh, but whom I know through their personal struggles and triumphs or professional identities. I cheer them on and often look to them for inspiration. I have contacted Facebook friends that although I haven’t met in person, I have asked to co-author with me, at times in response to a pressing social issue. Their posts over the years connected us as allies. I have been fortunate to meet some of my Facebook friends at conferences and other professional events, and it is always joyous. I have even met some of my closest friends through Facebook, with whom I have embodied relationships. For example, one of my closest girlfriends with whom I am now co-authoring a book was a long-time Facebook friend. She sent me a private message one day about my work and politics, all of which I echoed back to her. Fair to say, she is now one of my besties and has vacationed at my home with my family.

All of this is by way of explaining how deeply I value the people in my Facebook community. So it isn’t easy to let people go– the dreaded “unfriending”– nor is it easy when online debates happen and real feelings are hurt. This is made all the more difficult when balancing my desire to use Facebook as a teaching platform and my need to self-protect.

Recent events have made this struggle more pronounced. I have posted many responses to events including the non-indictments in the cases of Mike Brown (Ferguson) and Eric Garner (NY choke hold). I have also posted responses to world events in Israel/Palestine. Chris Rock and other comedians have been putting out jokes like, “Want to find out which of your friends is racist? There’s an app for that. It’s called Facebook.” Well, this has been my dilemma. I have certain lines in the sand– sexism, homophobia, racism– and those lines can’t be crossed.

Over the past few weeks I have had several Facebook discussions that I have had to cut off– saying that I am pulling out of the conversation. Worse, I have had to “unfriend” some folks, both those I have never met in person and someone I have known for over 20 years. A Facebook friend asked me in a very thoughtful way about whether there is potential to teach these people, if I allow them to continue to see my posts. It’s a question I have grappled with, especially recently, so perhaps others are too.

I have decided that for my own self-care, I need to create certain boundaries. I need to first take responsibility for myself. On an airplane we are told to put on our own oxygen masks before assisting another. That must be hard to have to do, but there is a reason we have to do it. If I wasn’t impacted by negative exchanges perhaps it would be different, but I am impacted. Whether it is anger, frustration or sadness, it is a negative use of energy that I can’t spare. There is only so much energy, and I choose to put it in those interactions and pursuits with the greatest payoff.

How do I know when I need to disengage or “unfriend”? I try to be in tune with my own feelings. If I feel like my blood pressure is rising, it’s a sign the interaction is toxic. Often these encounters have a somewhat ambiguous aspect because commenting online, like emailing, is tone deaf. So I typically respond once or twice to clarify for myself if someone is open to new learning or if they are simply trying to bait me, bully, hijack my post or spew hate. I have never unfriended someone without a warning either during that interaction, or more often, through a private message letting them know that they are offending me or hijacking my page. I try to embrace the teaching moment, but once it is clear to me that the interaction is going to be disruptive to my well-being, that it is going to deplete my energy, I end it.

I have had some “successes” in these situations. For example, one of my Facebook friends is a woman with a very different way of looking at the world than I have. Without divulging details, her religious beliefs take her in different directions than my feminist belief system takes me. We “know” each other because we both participated in a charity event about sexual assault. That’s a powerful way to “meet” and is one of the ways I have connected with people who are very different than I am and would likely not meet any other way. A while back I saw a post on her page about a transgendered contestant in a beauty pageant. Suffice it to say, her comments disturbed me. Here is the dreaded situation many of us face: do we pretend we didn’t see it, or do we respond? I felt compelled to respond. I wrote a comment as thoughtfully and respectfully as I could; suggesting she reconsider her point of view and offering a reason why. Then the next dread: waiting. I was genuinely afraid of what I would get back, and then the logical next steps. But instead I received the most wonderful comment back that she had not thought of it the way I presented the issue. She thanked me for my comment. It isn’t easy to be open to seeing things differently and to do so when put on the spot in a public forum. I respect this woman.

I love how we can use Facebook as a platform for healthy dialogue, debate, exchanging ideas and as a platform for social justice and artistic pursuits. I try to embrace the teaching moments. Self-care is important too though, and one mustn’t diminish the power of negative interactions to impact one’s well-being, whether those interactions are virtual or embodied.


Thank you to my Facebook friend John J. Guiney Yallop for inspiring this blog!

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