Like your friends, but not their politics?

With the U.S. Presidential Election drawing ever near, I am certain Miss Manners is diligently ignoring her Facebook and Twitter accounts, if she hasn’t closed both of them altogether. Once upon a time there was an etiquette rule banning casual social discussions of politics. After all, it’s hard to get political without upsetting at least a few friends.

But this is an era of (over)sharing. Social media networks are the modern day soapbox, the equivalent of someone with a loudspeaker blasting their opinions on a busy street.

I am unabashedly guilty of this just as much (if not more) as anyone. I have been personally and professionally active in politics most of my adult life, and my politics are a big part of my identity. And frankly, between the irresponsible things that our legislators say and the incomprehensibly tragic things that people do, it’s nearly impossible to be apolitical these days.

Social media, as a facilitator of self-expression and the ability to “connect” with others, can be a powerful tool for sharing information and having generative discussions about current events and politics. In fact, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms arguably play an important role in the democratic process. However, like the proverbial soapbox, these tools are easy to abuse because unlike a group of friends sitting together at a dinner table or those in close personal contact at a party, people often feel like they are “safe” behind their computer screens, cell phones or ithings. The amount of civility in our discourse, which might otherwise be employed, ceases to exist.

Instead of civil dialogue and debate, indiscriminate denunciations and personal insults are all too common. This, of course, calls to mind another old saying, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.”

It is increasingly common to see or hear comments from people who are fed up. They are blocking friends on account of their political views or absconding from social media altogether.

I appreciate the opportunities that social media provides to share information as long as it is not hurtful. And that’s the heart of this post. We live in an increasingly polarizing world coupled with extraordinary opportunities to exchange ideas and information. We ought not squander the resources available to us. To paraphrase the Gospel According to Luke, Voltaire or Uncle Ben (Spiderman) – “to whom much is given, much is expected.”

This is not a call to repress opinions, but rather a request that we exercise a bit of civility and humility before clicking “like” on something offensive or posting a spiteful comment.

Let’s not forget that many of our virtual followers and friends are also our real friends. Well, at least they were before we started insulting them online for the entire world to see.

After U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others were shot there was a lot of talk about civility. During a memorial service for the victims, President Obama said, “… I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.  I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.”

Discourse is important and political dissent is a liberty Americans are fortunate to enjoy, but let’s not forget that the things we say online have real consequences. Relationships are affected. Feelings are hurt. Young people are even killing themselves because of things that are done and said online.

Civility is the best social media policy. Thank you, and be kind.

P.S. Don’t forget in between all of the liking, tweeting and tumbling that your vote is your voice. The importance and privilege of voting cannot be overstated.