How friendships can survive in the Age of Offence

NOVEMBER 2 — There are three certainties in life: Death, taxes and being offended on social media.

Nowadays that third category is even more ubiquitous than the grim reaper.

Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have made it universally easier for all of us to get “triggered” or be just supremely pissed off within a nano-second over a reply we didn’t approve of, over a national costume a celebrity wasn’t supposed to wear, over Trump’s tweets, over James Bond being a black woman, over a white radio host’s greeting a Chinese woman in Chinese, over bak kut teh originating from Singapore (I personally found this very offensive).

And precisely because opinions vary, clashes over a million points of view are inevitable. One major casualty of this situation? Relationships.

Friendships worth more than the need to be right

Human bonding is precious as heck. Ask any super-rich person surrounded 99 per cent of the time by boot-lickers. Ask the new kid in class who has trouble making friends. Ask those in old folks’ homes. Ask the outcast.

Your friendships are more important than socio-political narratives news media like CNN, MSNBC and Fox News have spent millions of dollars and hours “shaping”, fine-tuning and manipulating so people like you and your friend will think and feel exactly how they want you to feel.

Your relationships matter more than one or two tweets by a famous person neither you nor your good friend of many years know personally (or probably want to).

It’s astonishing that this has to be said, but it’s happened so often it bears affirming: Value your friendships more than a difference in opinion or belief.

The whole thing looks even more foolish when we consider how childish, disproportionate and hypocritical so many of these “debates” are.

It’s like, I simply cannot let this tweet from my rich “privileged” cousin from the UK complaining about nasi lemak go unanswered — I mean, dammit, how can she insult my national dish? — but a few minutes later I’m blowing a few nasi lemaks’ worth of cash on some trivial plastic crap from Lazada. 

I’m gonna tell everyone about him right now!

Or I’m filled with cosmic fury because my aunt dared to share her blatantly racist views about “Black Lives Matter” while every day I privately conclude that anyone who doesn’t share my exact views about religion, sexuality and politics is a misinformed bigot who’s responsible for destroying humanity. 

I’m not gonna visit her house ever again!

C’mon, folks. It’s stupid.

We can even imagine a dystopian scenario where someone wins every argument she joins but is socially struck off all her (former) friends’ list. I mean, who’d want to yum cha with an arrogant know-it-all? It’s the Twitter version of reigning in hell.

But once you put relationships as the #1 priority over demonstrating the superiority of your grasp of the Trump-Biden contest, things become clear. 

When someone you care about goes “hot” about a topic you know will result in a defeat for both no matter who wins, you back off. 

  • You ignore that shared article the person believes seals his perspective
  • You talk about something else
  • You drop a cute gif to lighten the situation
  • You ask about the other person’s family
  • You talk about sports
  • You share a movie review
  • You say, “Hey I found an old wefie of us”
  • You can also — surprise surprise — log off.

Essentially you accept Jaron Lanier’s third argument for deleting all our social media accounts (see note 1): They’re turning us into assholes.

And you care enough about your friend not to encourage him or her to continue behaving like one.

But what if, as is more likely the case, we don’t know the person at the other end? And what if that individual has the audacity to (gasp!) insult  your intelligence with his stupid, bigoted and accomplice-to-evil remark about black people, cultural appropriation or life in the womb?

In such cases, I’ve found it helpful to make a decision at the outset: Is said person serious about the truth of the matter? Or does he or she just want to “win”? In 90 per cent of the cases, it’ll be the latter.

Given the tribe mentality of online debates, it’s rare to meet someone who a) is informed about a subject beyond a few Google searches and b) is genuinely interested in exploring a topic as opposed to expanding their argumentative territory.

If you find such a person, say a prayer and proceed to make a new friend.

Identifying people who are NOT interested in dialogue and learning is easy. Simply perform a temp-gun scan for hysteria, smugness, demonisation of opponents, conspiratorial thinking plus the usual cartloads of ad hominems.

These are the usual defenses against cognitive dissonance i.e. that dread slash fear of being wrong and having one’s universe collapse.

The best thing to do in such cases is move on. Block. Unfollow. Mute. “Snooze for 3,000 years.” Whatever.

In the end, if you allow such folks to roam rent-free in your head (or own your phone) then that’s all on you.

* Note 1: For the other nine, check out Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (New York: Henry Holt & Co, 2018).

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

Related Articles