The problem with muting your friends

I tuned out my friend's online rants. I deeply regret it.

A man and a laptop.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Don't feed the trolls, we're told. Mute your crazy uncle. But who benefits most when we disengage online?

Over the past few months, an old and dear friend of mine has become increasingly pugnacious on social media. He'd always been right of center, and he'd never been exactly shy with his opinions. But now his Facebook feed was dedicated largely to spreading questionable right-wing news sources, and to venting his spleen at left-wing liars, saboteurs, and outright traitors.

Frankly, I got tired of it. I don't generally engage with that kind of thing, and I mostly avoided doing so with him, but I didn't even like seeing that kind of activity coming from a friend of mine. So I tuned out his Facebook feed. In tuning out his online presence, though, I tuned him out as well. I didn't think about him — or when I did, it was his online identity I thought about, and how I didn't want to deal with it. As the months wore on, I began to fret that, if I made contact, I'd have to explain why I'd been out of touch — which was another reason not to call.

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Around Thanksgiving, I finally reached out, and learned that I'd missed a few things during my absence. Happily, he'd become a grandfather for the first time. Much less happily, he'd fought a battle with cancer, one that he appeared to have won but which left him weak and speaking only with difficulty. I hadn't been there to share his real-life joy or his real-life suffering, because I didn't want to deal with his virtual identity online. And I felt deeply regretful and ashamed — ashamed for having confused the man with his avatar, for having forgotten that I knew the person of whom that avatar was a consciously constructed, distorted, and insubstantial shadow.

It could have been worse, of course. I could have been Greg Lukianoff, whose friend, Mike Adams, committed suicide after being forced from his teaching position for his provocative online identity. Lukianoff had spoken to him only days before his death, to talk to him about his legal options. The guilt he feels now — not because he'd done anything wrong, but just because he felt like he'd missed an opportunity to help — is orders of magnitude greater than what I feel, but it's a difference of degree, not kind. I'd never heard of Adams before his death, but his published columns aren't any more or less outrageous than the stuff my friend regularly read and shared. If I had known him, been his friend, would I have kept up our friendship despite being irritated or even outraged by his online avatar on a regular basis? Quite possibly not.

The easy lessons to draw from stories like Adams' are the ones we hear all the time. On the one hand, we as a society have become far too ready to shame, harass, disown, expel, and otherwise punish people who transgress lines that often didn't exist until the moment the mob attacks. On the other hand, our provocateurs themselves are far too ready to get high on their own supply, indifferent to whether they are actually provoking thought in those they see as complacent or oblivious, or whether they are just making those who already agree with them less thoughtful, less worthy of anyone's time and respect.

I say those lessons are easy because they're delivered by those of us who harbor pretensions to being better than that, to being precisely the sorts of people who don't enjoy the gladiatorial combat of what my colleague Damon Linker called the “anti-social media” and who have deliberately avoided getting on the hedonic treadmill of outrage that my colleague Bonnie Kristian warned about. They are, in other words, lessons about how all you people out there need to do better.

But we who flatter ourselves that we're better, we need to do better, too. We need to be clear to ourselves that our disengagement is something we're doing for ourselves, and not for any greater good, much less for the people we're disengaging from. Just as those hurling insults at their enemies are deluding themselves that they are making a difference rather than just getting their adrenaline rush, those of us who just stand back and stand by, as it were, should admit we're doing so to protect ourselves from discomfort, and not for any noble reason. Indeed, if we're really honest, we're just sparing ourselves the work of listening, and speaking, and drawing people back into a communion from which they may be starting to stray.

That's no way to be a friend. And it's no way to be a citizen either.

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Noah Millman

Noah Millman is a screenwriter and filmmaker, a political columnist and a critic. From 2012 through 2017 he was a senior editor and featured blogger at The American Conservative. His work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Politico, USA Today, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, Foreign Policy, Modern Age, First Things, and the Jewish Review of Books, among other publications. Noah lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.