Ann Brenoff’s “On The Fly” is a weekly column about navigating growing older.
An interesting thing happened on the way to the proverbial Thanksgiving table: It seems that some people on Facebook have become just like our Crazy Uncle Harry ― the relative who offends everyone with his fringe politics ― and nobody is sure how to handle it.
My friend Lauren Beale, a retired Los Angeles Times editor and author of Newcomer: The St. Cross Choir Series, Book 1, just ran into the problem head-on.
Lauren likes to sing in her church choir. She’s done it for years, and it has consistently brought her much joy ― unlike, say, her brief stint as a volunteer in one of the city’s high-kill animal shelters. Lauren honestly believes that if everyone would just talk through things and try and see them from a different perspective, everything would work out. It didn’t work that way at the animal shelter when owners brought in their certain-to-be-put down pets, and now it’s not working that way on Facebook.
Her Facebook problem began when the church choir director sent her a friend request. She accepted it because, well, they are acquaintances, and she figured “why not?”
Now, she’s asking something more along the lines of, “What is social media etiquette when you discover that someone you thought you knew is a rabid espouser of craziness once a keyboard is put in range of his thumbs?” We’ve all been there: Should you unfriend them, or would that be like not inviting Crazy Uncle Harry to Thanksgiving? And then it gets all awkward and weird, and you feel bad.
Lauren loves music and all was good in the beginning of her Facebook relationship with the choir director. Then, in the course of just one week, he posted three stories about the Las Vegas shooting reportage, calling it “a huge cover-up.” The real story, he believes, was that there were multiple shooters, and the mainstream media ― of which Lauren has been a part her entire working life ― knows this, but is intentionally hiding the truth.
“Real conspiracy theory stuff,” Lauren told me, admitting that her first instinct was just to quit the choir and stop showing up. “It honestly frightened me that he could believe this stuff. I figured I could also change church services, too, and totally avoid him.”
“Not very mature of me,” she concluded.
So, she put on her adult face and responded to his posts with this: “I see you have three posts on a Vegas coverup by mainstream media. At first I thought perhaps you had been hacked. This conspiracy theory unravels on so many levels I am stunned to see it repeated. To be true, the FBI, local police and politicians would have to be in on it too. To what end? I am at a loss here.”
No, it didn’t end with that. He defended his belief in a media conspiracy and insisted that he was determined that the truth should and would come out.
She provided him with links to Snopes and kept her Facebook tone reasonable.
He offered no response. Dead silence. Discussion over.
Here is what she is really worried about, and it applies to Crazy Uncle Harry, too:
“As opinions have gotten more polarized across the U.S., so have mine. A couple years back I would have told you that I am very tolerant of diverse opinions. The reality is that I’m not anymore. I am not tolerant of racism or sexism or lack of gun control or endless attacks on the media,” she said.
“But if I leave the table, how can I possibly hope to change anyone’s mind? It would seem a kind of giving up.”
So Crazy Uncle Harry, Thanksgiving dinner starts at 3 p.m. Just bring yourself.
But for those who can’t stand the thought of swallowing their pumpkin pie while Harry espouses his views at the table ― or who now have unfriended more people on Facebook than they can count ― we have these suggestions:
Declare a ceasefire day.
If wars can be paused for Christmas, certainly you can declare the Thanksgiving table a “politics-free zone.” A 2016 report by the Pew Research Center found 62 percent of social media users get news from those platforms, up from 49 percent four years earlier. Try collecting all phones at the door and maybe nobody will get hurt.
Seat the conflict-averse away from the conflict-thrivers.
One man’s spirited discussion is another’s argument. Yes, some people actually enjoy being disagreeable. In a 2016 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, University of California, Davis, researcher Roberta Schriber said contemptuousness is dispositional, meaning it’s a personality thing. Everybody gets angry, but not everybody has hotheaded, road-raging dispositional anger, she wrote.
The easiest solution is to physically steer clear of the venon-spewer. At Thanksgiving, we call it the kids’ table.
There are no combat medals awarded for putting up with idiocy. Spend the day feeding the homeless instead of with your family. And if your lack of attendance would cause too many problems, remember that somebody has to be the first to leave ― and why shouldn’t that somebody be you?
This works for Facebook, too: Not everyone has or should have Lauren’s endless well of patience. If you find the Crazy Uncle Harrys of Facebook are affecting your emotional health, well, that’s why there is an unfriend feature. Use it generously.