In my line of work, I get to move through a lot of different spaces. Not only geographically, but socio-economically as well. I spend time with folks who are quite wealthy, and folks who are extremely poor, people of various skin tones, political persuasions, identities, nationalities, orientations, abilities, and challenges. I treasure that, and I learn a lot from those people.
And when I come home to my little house in Black Mountain, a diverse group of folks hangs out in my living room, as well. It’s a small living room — just two small chairs, a love seat, a big bookshelf and a small wood stove. Cozy for up to four people, and a bit tight for any more than that. My father-in-law lives just around the corner and comes for dinner most nights. He’s family, and I am so grateful that we get to have him living nearby, at a time when he is up against some health challenges. His vote will probably cancel out mine, and there are plenty of things that we see quite differently, and I like having him around. Yesterday, a millionaire was in my living room, and so was a neighbor who just got out of jail for assault, borrowing five bucks.
My digital living room attracts an even more diverse group of what Facebook calls ‘friends,’ some of whom I have never met, but who have intersected with my music or books along the way and wanted to stay in touch, and some of whom are dear to me as people I know well in three-dimensional space. Some are even blood family. They are all welcome in my living room, digital or virtual, at least as a starting place.
There are some significant differences between my digital living room and my physical one. For starters, while my physical living room comfortably holds about four people, my Facebook page has 5,000 friends and nearly 2,000 more following it. My public page has nearly another 1,000. Assuming some overlap there, let’s call that 7,500 people. That’s a lot of lemonade, were I to pass some around.
In my real living room, if someone says something offensive, something that may be hurtful to someone else I care about, such as a racist comment, I can decide among options for how to confront that. The truth is that shouting someone down, in person or virtually, is almost never an effective way to shift their perspective, and though we have a responsibility to challenge bigotry and other forms of bullying and meanness, there are more options for how to do that when we are talking in person.
On Facebook, though, there are no tones of voice, no facial expressions, and, often, no personal history of connection or personal context to draw on. So we have to find other ways to be in community together and hold each other accountable.
So how can I be hospitable in my own virtual living room like I am in my own physical living room, and still foster the accountability that is essential for building community? What does hospitality look like in a digital living room?
Henri Nouwen wrote, “hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”
I like that definition of hospitality. It’s a good template for creating spaces where we can learn from each other and grow. But it doesn’t really address how to set boundaries when one guest is harming another. How do we make sure that guests are safe?
To be clear, I don’t mean being protected from having one’s ideas challenged. That’s an essential part of productive conversation. But if you’re in my house, you should feel safe — safe from insult and other forms of harm, so that means that I need to draw boundaries that establish ways to confront destructive behavior.
I described my physical living room above. Here’s what my digital living room looks like: It has 7500 people in it. They are each holding a picture up in front of their faces, sometimes of themselves. They can’t hear tone of voice through a terrible sound system. Most of them don’t know each other, and there is a wide diversity of perspective and life experience. People from various countries, of various sexual identities and orientations, political persuasions, skin tones, faith perspectives, etc. And each of them is holding a live microphone.
It’s hard to imagine a worse context in which to learn from each other and have productive conversation, including disagreement.
So, in order to maintain a safe space in my digital living room, I’ve decided on some rules for it. In my real living room, if one friend says something mean or hateful to another, I will confront them. If they say something that unintentionally hurts someone else, or that comes across to me differently from how I think they intended it, I’ll try to let them know. If they aren’t willing to stop hurting other folks, I will ask them to leave. In my digital living room, this blog is an effort to set similar boundaries. If you feel a need to set similar boundaries and want to share this blog as a means of explanation, feel free to do so.
To clarify, hateful is different from angry. There’s a place for anger in a respectful conversation, and anger can be a motivator for working for justice. Hate means wishing someone harm. That’s different. I can be angry with people I love, but I don’t wish them harm. So here are the rules I’ve come up with for my digital living room:
• Broad generalizations/stereotypes. It’s sloppy thinking, it’s offensive, and it’s unproductive.
• Profanity. The truth is that I’m not at all offended by profanity in one-on-one conversation. I just don’t care. I love words, and sometimes the ones that aren’t allowed in polite company are the most effective for getting the point across. If you’re cussing up a storm in front of my mom, though, that’s not only really poor taste, it’s not helping you get your point across to her. Cut it out. My mom reads my Facebook page.
• Falsehood. There’s plenty of that out there. I may choose to contest it, but in some cases, I may simply choose to delete it.
• Insults. Yep, that means insulting people I disagree with, or even dislike, as well as people I like and agree with. There is plenty of cynicism on the internet. I’m staking out my Facebook page as a place to build instead of tear down.
• Long posts. If I have a friend over in my real living room and they take to bloviating and dominating the conversation… well, that’s rude, and I’m going to interrupt at some point. It not only talks over everyone else in the common space of conversation, it also marks you as someone who doesn’t listen effectively. And, frankly, I’ve found that people who aren’t good at listening don’t generally have much enlightening to say.
Try to break it down. Make one point at a time and give others a chance to respond. Then move on to your next point. Otherwise, you’re presuming a lot of people’s time and energy. Conversation should be interactive, and Facebook is primarily a medium for conversation.
If you find that you have more to say than the conversation allows respectful space for, then go write a blog about it (like this one!), or write a long post on your own page and share a link. That’s kind of like recommending a book or article in the midst of a conversation with a friend. That’s reasonable, and completely different from pulling out the book and reading out loud for twenty minutes.
Of course, another difference between the two living rooms is that in my real living room, I can’t simply delete the comment. In the virtual living room, I can, and there is a time to do so.
Deleting someone’s comment is not infringing upon their freedom of speech. They have their own Facebook page where they can speak all day long. Deleting someone’s comment means declining to amplify their words when I consider them to be hurtful. I welcome disagreement, and I’m happy to learn from other folks (I have no question that I have plenty to learn), but I won’t amplify comments that are hateful or insulting, no matter who is being insulted, or who is doing the insulting, or whether the insult is intentional or accidental.
From now on, I’ll be deleting comments that fall in the categories above. When I do, I’ll post a link to this blog as explanation. If your comment is deleted, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in your perspective or that you are being disrespected. I warmly invite you to try again if you still want to be a part of the conversation. It just means that I’m trying to create a space where conversation is constructive rather than destructive.
And, if these boundaries are too restrictive to you, there are plenty of places on the internet where the boundaries are wider. Just not in my living room.
Sit down, feel safe, make yourself at home.
Can I get you some lemonade?