IT HAPPENS to the best of us.
You post something with a social justice bent on Facebook, and that bigoted guy on your friends list pops out of the woodwork to come and tell you everything that’s great about Donald Trump and how #AllLivesMatter. Your fight-or-flight instinct kicks in, and you have to decide whether to engage this person or ignore him in hopes that the conversation dies quietly.
I’ve been on both sides of this. Somewhere on my old laptop hard drive, I saved a large photo of a single — now deleted — Facebook conversation in which I was accused of being everything from brainwashed to anti-American, all because I pointed out that the Bible, in the original Hebrew and Greek, supports marriage equality.
I’ve also swiftly deleted people who showed themselves to be whackadoodles — including rape apologists, Sandy Hook truthers, and those who think homeschoolers are “the future” — just because I didn’t want to deal with the psychological toll of seeing their nonsense on my feed.
In the years since that first major Facebook blowout, I’ve mostly figured out when to turn away from a social justice argument. Yes, calling out others on their hateful and hurtful positions is important, but sometimes self-care needs to take precedent. The next time you’re faced with a potential social justice argument, consider walking away if it meets one of the following five criteria.
When the Commenter Is an Obvious Troll
Facebook trolls are all connected, and they aren’t difficult to spot. They’re friends with each other. They often use fake profile pictures and names, such as cartoon characters, memes, and celebrities; I’ve even seen one circle of trolls that used pictures of old folks and elderly-sounding names to share brutally-racist material.
On Twitter, you must also beware the dreaded egg accounts. And on Reddit… let’s not go there.
Look, if the commenter is a troll, you’re better off deleting or ignoring their comments and moving on with your life. Your argument won’t do anything but drain you. Speaking of which…
When You Don’t Have the Time or the Energy
Social justice arguments take a lot out of you. If you’re passionate about what’s right, you’re going to feel the debate on a deep level. Once it’s over, you’re spent. Your energy levels will replenish themselves, but that takes a while.
Recovery isn’t the only thing that takes time. Formulating a good argument — refuting misinformation, calling out prejudices, etc. — can cost hours. You can’t dive into an argument when you’re on your way out the door, because it’s going to last for a while. Your phone will ping throughout the day, distracting you from what’s important.
If you don’t have the time or energy to finish a social justice argument, it’s OK to not start one.
When You Don’t Have Backup
Once upon a time, back before marriage equality became the law of the land, a couple of friends and I formed an impromptu posse to shoot down the homophobes who commented on a local news article about gay couples in our state. Because we backed one another up, no one got dogpiled. It was great.
Unfortunately, that isn’t how things usually go. The anonymity of the Internet brings out the absolute worst in people, and folks who deeply oppose something are more likely to comment than those who support it. Being in a situation where everyone else is focused on taking you down isn’t pretty, and it isn’t good for your emotional well-being. So just walk away.
When There’s Too Much to Correct
You know the ones I mean. Not only does this chucklehead have his history wrong, but he’s also a racist conspiracy theorist who thinks the NRA works for blue-collar guys like himself. Yeah, that guy.
Look, there’s a good chance that the person you’re up against in a social justice argument won’t read what you write, especially if you talk about more than one issue at a time. When you see a comment that resembles the one above, it’s better to move on.
When It’s In Person
A co-worker once got me involved in an uncomfortable conversation with a former employee. He outed me as a liberal feminist, which brought up a whole slew of questions about my religious beliefs. At the time, I wasn’t a strong-enough person to flatly state: “I’m not going to talk to you about this in my workplace.” Now I am.
If you’re confronted with an in-person social justice argument, it’s probably better to avoid it, if you can. You might have a great chance to educate someone on the realities of institutional racism, but you’re more likely going to create tension in your workplace or at home. Find a better time and place to talk about the issues. Over private emails or text messages, perhaps.