Tofu on the Facebook Pizza

I unfriended (Facebook) a family member in December over the poisonous speech of her friends in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. We’ve since re-friended (if that’s a thing), but the episode taught me something about social media and meaningful speech.

Here’s what happened:

Only hours after the shooting, the family member in question posted something to their Facebook wall that amounted to, “Don’t start talking about gun control. Guns don’t kill people . . . ” Now, no one learning the news from Connecticut was in any kind of emotional state to engage in rational conversation about it, yours truly included. I felt compelled to respond, though, so I hastily commented, “How can you defend guns right now? Seriously, how?”

The next several hours unleashed an increasingly abusive stream of comments directed at me. I was accused of insulting this family member. My Christian faith was questioned. I was told to “SHUT THE HELL UP!” All of this came from people I don’t know but who are part of my family member’s social network. As the thread of comments grew, I defended myself. Finally, though, I stopped, and I unfriended my family member. I wanted no part of this network of people.

If you insert yourself into controversial conversations on Facebook, people are going to attack you, probably with more vitriol than they would if you were in the same room. Everybody knows that. Something else has occurred to me as I’ve thought about this incident, though, and that is the notion of pizza. Facebook conversations are less like democratic exchanges of ideas and more like pizza parties.

When we share something on Facebook, whether we compose it ourselves or post it from another source, we’re offering a hot steamy pizza to our social network. Some of our friends will gobble it up, liking it and commenting, “Amen!” and “Thanks for sharing.” Others, though, won’t like it. And their comments effectively throw tofu on the pizza. And nobody likes tofu. Especially on pizza.

It’s as if I showed up to my family member’s pizza party, looked at what she was offering to her social network, and announced, “How can you eat that?!” and then tried to correct its flaws by adding healthier ingredients to it. That was a very unwelcome move to the vast majority of the network. It rendered people unable to assess the nutritional merit of the tofu I’d sprinkled on top of the pepperoni because they were so angry it was even there. I’d ruined their pizza.

I’m friends with my family member again. Only now, when she serves up one her contentious pizzas, I politely decline and move on. Her social network likes pizza that I think is unhealthy. My social network’s pizza tastes are different, and she wonders about them, “How can you eat that?!” But, for my part, I’m done trying to improve other peoples’ pizzas.

20 thoughts on “Tofu on the Facebook Pizza

  1. I do not mean to diminish the wisdom and insightfulness of your post by making this comment, but here’s my first thought: I believe we used to call that good manners. More seriously, having also occasionally entered into discussions and become an object of attack, I think you are completely right that some self-examination about entering the fray in the first place is in order. But I don’t think it completely excuses the behavior of those who attacked you, either. There is a difference between saying, “Hey, I don’t really appreciate you throwing tofu on my pizza” and picking up the pizza pan and hitting you over the head with it.

  2. Good thoughts, and I can learn from them. But there’s a balance too… Sometimes silence makes one complicit. When people post things that are racist or sexist or in other ways actively hurtful to others, so we have a responsibility to voice opposition? It’s not just pizza harmlessly sitting on a table in that case.. It becomes pizza flung out the window and hitting innocent passers by, and we ought to stand and take some of the sauce with them, maybe? Analogies are hard.

    1. Good manners are increasingly difficult in social media, as has been well documented I think. When the interent came to Grinnell and I used to lead classes on the nascient social media platforms on VMS (chat, bbs access) or even just email, we used to talk about basics like USING ALL CAPS and why emoticons actually can help convey nuance lost on the written page and such. More importantly, having the consumer of social media be aware of how they were consuming it. That self criticism seems lost on too many people….

  3. As one who obviously cares deeply for the well being of others, pastor, you need to address the question of why people who eat unhealthful pizza are unwilling to hear the truth of its potential outcome…premature death. Frankly, I think that those of you that have been profoundly blessed with intellect and the gift of rhetoric should not be shying away from any opportunity to use it. I know you’ve asked before how Jesus would use social media. He probably wouldn’t ask “how can you defend guns right now”? and he surely wouldn’t unfriend someone, but he wouldn’t avoid talking about pepperoni, fossil fuels or immigration either.

    1. Humbled, brother Randles. Humbled. Do you think Facebook is a useful means for speaking up? Is it persuasive? Has anyone ever had their mind changed by a Facebook comment or tweet? Have you? I think maybe I have. Maybe.

      1. I am always astonished at the sureness and swiftness with which people convicted of being right are able to attack those with equal conviction on the other “side”, and this characteristic of social conversations seems to be more obvious than ever in these social media conversations in which replies are by necessity brief. Whether or not I have ever changed my mind because of a FB comment (I refuse to add Twitter to my life–FB is dizzy enough for me!), I can affirm that it has contributed to my forming opinions by opened my eyes to 1) reasoned arguments that I hadn’t considered on my own, and 2) certain less rational but no less real emotional/spiritual/psychological factors present in these “intellectual” debates and that were also surprising to me on many occasions. As a recovering cynic, I find conversations and debates on sensitive issues seem mostly useless in general, no matter the platform, except where there is a visible effort to make some kind of useful bridge between those two realities of reason and emotion (to simplify what isn’t of course so simple).
        I admire the courage and skill of those who aren’t cowed by loud passions and who attempt to tease meaning (truth) out of the chaos. We need those people, the still small voices. On every “side” and in the middle especially. It’s a hard ugly place sometimes, but it’s almost always where the best working answers are to be found in the end. Or in the present, I should say perhaps, as I mean “working” answers in the sense of a working draft of a piece of writing. Today’s best answer isn’t necessarily tomorrow’s. But we live from today to today. If the Gospels are any indication, and the parables of Jesus in particular, we can probably bet that Jesus wouldn’t have tried to win every argument on FB. He might have inserted some startling and confusing story that would serve mainly to illustrate how startlingly complex the original question really is, something that might make at least one reader stop and say “Wait a minute…!” Sometimes that’s as good as it gets. And that’s good too. Please don’t be too quiet–there are enough of us out there already!

  4. People will only accept ideas from those they respect and admire. I called in to a conservative talk radio show a while back and began my objection to the host’s stance on gay marriage with “As a heterosexual Christian man….” He kept me on the line through a commercial break. You have creds that resonate with your detractors. Pose it as a question. “As a Presbyterian minister I’ve often wondered about Jesus’ view on pepperoni….”

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