In the wake of nearly every contemporary presidential election, our nation seems to bring itself to the brink of a civil war waged on the battlegrounds of social media. Donald Trump’s poll-defying, expectation-shattering victory on Tuesday, Nov. 8 was no exception to this trend, as Facebook and Twitter flooded with political speech spanning all perspectives following the results of the vote.
Some Trump supporters celebrated the success of their candidate while either warding off, or outrightly ignoring, an onslaught of opposition from dissenting opinions. Many brokenhearted liberals mourned the defeat of a highly experienced female candidate at the hand of a man who has never once held public office. Both denouncements and defenses of third party voters were easy to come across, as were calls for reform to the Democratic National Committee and the electoral college system. Yet it appeared that for every politically charged post there were at least two statements in its tracks calling for a neutralization of such messages.
Plenty of people have long complained about seeing politics on social media, and it’s not hard to see why. On Wednesday, Nov. 9, there were insults being hurled in all directions, quarrels based on widely-spread false news articles, many accusations of racism, sexism and homophobia and many undeniable examples of racism, sexism and homophobia. Facebook and Twitter were largely volatile, ugly places following the election, but you don’t need me to tell you that. You’ve likely all witnessed it yourselves.
However, without a trained eye for recognizing the difference between rhetoric and reasoning, there’s something you might have missed. Looking past the sweeping generalizations, past all the ignorant, baseless remarks from all political affiliations, there was something beautiful in the making: Across social media, in small pockets, the seeds of public discourse were taking root in hostile soil. And that’s important, because it is in these sanctuaries, where opinions face criticism on the merit of their logical foundations rather than on how popular they are, that an effective democracy can find a glimmer of hope.
The freedom of speech in America is among the most crucial yet underutilized tools of democracy at our disposal. It gives us the right to civil argument. It allows us to hear something we disagree with and say, “Hey! That’s not right and here’s why.” The inclusion of a “here’s why” is the difference between reasoning and rhetoric; it’s also the difference between fixing a problem and suppressing it.
The full utility of free speech is powerful, yet masses of citizens of all political affiliations have opted to lock themselves away from it. Many conservatives have admittedly gone into hiding on college campuses and beyond in response to the strategy of political correctness-shaming long used by liberal movements. The problem with this approach is that a belief in hiding can’t be swayed because it can’t be addressed. If we want change, we need to bring all the players to the table and approach issues through logical argumentation, not rhetorical preaching.
Now, more than ever, we have all the tools to make it happen, too. Despite the modern taboo against discussing politics, especially online, social media ironically exists as perhaps the greatest technology of our time for holding political discussion—so long as we don’t use it to hide ourselves entirely behind like-minded beliefs. It takes action, though. We have the ability to communicate our ideas with anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time and still most of us are too afraid to truly argue for what we believe in, probably because we’re afraid we won’t be able to reach a full justification for our own beliefs and will be pressured to change.
This fear is what I believe underlies the movement, expressed in the photo included in this article, towards shying away from the full responsibilities of being a voting citizen. Advocating that people just “get out and vote” for “whoever” they want doesn’t reflect the gravity of the decision that’s being made by casting a vote.
If a person does not believe in a decision enough to advocate for it, they should probably reconsider that decision. We must recognize that forming a political opinion entails a responsibility to defend it, whether we like it or not. When we sweep critical thinking and rational criticism under the rug, we sweep progress along with it, and that hurts us all, whether we admit it or not.
While it is difficult to find a silver lining in Trump’s presidency that is not grossly overshadowed by his denial of climate change and proposed appointment of climate-change denier Myron Ebell as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, I believe we can at least find hope in the possibility that healthy civil discourse will become more common as the widespread sentiment for Trump’s rhetoric continues to rise to the surface where it can be begin to be dismantled.
It is time for citizens of all political affiliations to shed their fear of rational reflection and arm themselves well with the knowledge needed to make a stand for what they believe in. A civil war is brewing, but it need not be more than a battle of ideas.
Bryce Detweiler is a fourth-year student majoring in philosophy. He can be reached at BD846487@wcupa.edu.