I was asked a brilliant question the other day. The questioner explained that they have friends on social media who they really struggle with, they find their regular comments about immigration hard to stomach and often there is an undercurrent of racism. For balance, they observed that they find some of the Black Lives Matter postings equally troubling. Their question was “Do I need to keep being their friend.” So often they had felt like unfriending and unfollowing people.
Before I respond to the specific question, can I appeal to people to look at what they are writing and saying. It is easy to excuse our own prejudice because we have friends who are black. Remember, you never met a sexist who didn’t have some female friends! It is possible to develop personal one to one friendships with a few people from other races whilst harbouring racism in our hearts. This is partly because human inconsistency means that we can compartmentalise those relations (“they are different to the others”) and partly because if we look carefully at those friendships then we might discover that they are not equal partnerships. It is one thing to have a loving concern for the refugee and help them financially. It is another thing entirely to vote for them to join the church leadership team.
Now, in answer to my friend’s question, you will have guessed from the title that I was happy to advise them that they did not need to continue following/being a friend on social media. My reasoning is as follows.
First of all, it is possible to connect with people on social media who are not really our friends. It is possible, very quickly to build up over 500 connections. Among them will be distant relatives, friends of friends, people you have heard of and people you have conversed with on social media but never met in real life. That Facebook refers to such people as “friends” rather than “connections” is unhelpful language. So, I should not feel under pressure to remain connected on Facebook or Instagram with a passing acquaintance.
Secondly, if they truly are friends then I should be able to have a conversation with them about how their comments, opinions and attitudes affect me. A real friend will listen and even if they don’t agree with my perception will want to put my needs first rather than pushing their right to free expression at my expenses.
Thirdly, just as I have lots of connections on social media who are in fact, not truly friends because I do not know them, I equally have plenty of friends in real life who are not my friends or followers on social media. Now, in some cases, that’s because they are not on social media or because we’ve not found each other yet. However in other cases they are on Facebook and twitter. However, there are people who have chosen not to connect on social media because they are not interested in the type of content I share or because they don’t like the style in which I engage in debate with others. And similarly, there are people who I have nothing against and would happily talk to in other settings but who I would struggle to be “Facebook friends” with. It’s not that there is anything wrong with what either of us are saying. It’s a matter of personal taste. And that’s okay.
You see, I would not make you read the same book that I’m reading or attend the same church because we are friends. I would not expect you to come to every Bradford City game with me just because we can sit and chat for ours about the latest box-set that we both love. So, whilst the language on Facebook of “unfriending” is a bit harsh and unhelpful, it is in my opinion, okay, reasonable and indeed potentially beneficial to your friendship for you to say that you don’t want to connect on social media.