As everyone knows, Facebook is a social networking site with over 175 million active users. And as every Facebook user knows, you only have to be on Facebook for about 15 seconds before people you haven't spoken to in years find you again. As a rule, I'm pretty liberal about who I accept as "friends" on Facebook. My general parameters for deciding whether or not to accept a friend request is just whether or not I actually know the person (would I recognize him or her on the street? could I tell you something about him or her besides their name? have we ever had a real conversation?). If you've lived in more than one town, attended more than one school, worked at more than one job, or if you're a teacher, you find that "friends" accumulate very quickly. Some of them, inevitably, will be people that you knew back-in-the-day when you had something or another in common, but who in the intervening years have taken life-roads that widely diverge from yours, often in ways that you cannot possibly know. All that is just to say that many of us have Facebook "friends" that we may not count as "friends" in our average-everyday sense of that term.
Recently, I posted a link on my Facebook page to Senator Patrick Leahy's petition to create a truth and reconciliation commission to address the abuses (including torture) of the Bush administration. Shortly after I posted the link, the comments section to my link got some action. Here's a snapshot of the beginning of the conversation. I've blacked out the names for anonymity's sake. (You can click on the picture below to see a clearer image.):
If I were being completely honest, I would have to admit that my very first thought upon reading this exchange was that I was utterly embarrassed to have Friend #1 as a "friend," and for about a second I considered simply deleting his comments from my page. Then, my inner professor kicked in, and I decided that it was better to see this as what folks in my profession call a "teachable moment." Maybe I could enlighten what was obviously (to me) a matter of gross misinformation, so I posted several links verifying the fact that torture DID take place under the watch of the Bush administration, including a link to the excellent documentary (which you can watch online) Torturing Democracy. But I cannot say in good faith that I didn't really want to just write-off Friend #1 as an ignorant and ignorantly partisan representative of everything that is wrong with this country. I mean, who really thinks that? Is it even worth the wasted breath to have this conversation out? Is there even a conversation to be had there?
Alas, but there I go authenticating exactly the stereotype of Ivory Tower academics that I hate so very much. And there's the rub. The truth is that I hardly ever run into anyone who would say out loud that torture is justifiable. Maybe people don't say that to me because they all agree with me, maybe they don't say that because they already know where I stand on the issue and they don't want to bother disagreeing with me... but, either way, I think it's safe to say that ALL of the "social networks" that I run in are, in fact, echo-chambers of deafening consensus on this issue. That should seem odd to me, given that the moral and political permissability of torture is one of the hot-button issues in American public discourse right now. And it ought to seem odd to me, I suspect, that I can so easily avoid ever having exchanges like the one taking place on my Facebook page right now.
Anyone who has ever taught an intro-level course knows the challenge of confronting opinions and positions that are dogmatic and uninformed, which always require an extra measure of clarity, patience, generosity and respect. Of course, those virtues are easier to summon in the classroom, because (as a teacher) one already enjoys the privilege and confidence of the "authority" position. This is harder to do in conversations that occur in relationships with less structural asymmetry. Unfortunately, we academics too quickly excuse ourselves from conversations with what we too haughtily consider the hoi polloi, which amounts to avoiding the most difficult tests of our (presumed) skills. I'm going to work harder on resisting that temptation.
Thanks, Friend #2, for the healthy reminder that we owe it to ourselves and our profession to keep entering the fray.