It is OK to ‘unfriend’ that bigot in your timeline

Over the past two years, I have unfriended several acquaintances on Facebook. We didn’t have real life arguments, or any sort of falling out. Rather, they held ideas or prejudices that I found abhorrent, which were revealed through the magic of social media.

It’s happened to most of us. We’ll be flicking idly through Facebook, and discover our cheerful Auntie Mary has posted a transphobic comment under a post about Caitlin Jenner.

Yes, it is okay to unfriend a bigot on social media.Credit:Shutterstock

Or, we’ll read a news story about immigration, and see that our old friend Pete has commented that Muslims are terrorists and we should ban them from the country. Or come across a dodgy column about how feminism is toxic, posted by the husband of one of our best friends.

People we assumed to be decent, or thoughtful, or kind, turn out to be raging homophobes, or racists, or white supremacists, or all three.

So what do we do when we come across this vitriol? How do we deal with those who spout hate in real life and on social media?

There are two main considerations in determining how to proceed: how emotionally robust you currently feel, and how likely the person is to change their views.

Expressions of bigotry are a form of assault. Many of us find expressions of hate to be distressing and/or triggering, and rightly so. It’s tough living in today’s climate, amidst Trumpism and terror attacks and revelations of sexual assault and the ever-rising threat of white supremacy. Your primary responsibility must always be to your mental health, and if someone’s attitudes threaten to derail you, then you must steer clear.

On the other hand, expressions of bigotry can also be an opportunity. There may be a chance you can educate the person with thoughtful engagement and discussion. Steven King famously advocated this path, advising his followers to ‘stay friendly’ with the Trump supporters in their lives to help change their minds.

"Each time Trump tweets some of his bullshit, just tell them 'That's a lie,' and explain why," he tweeted.

If you do try to engage with a bigot, remember that public shaming is the least effective path. Calling out racism or sexism or white privilege may feel deeply satisfying, but it is likely to encourage the person to dig in their heels and defend their position, rather than reconsider. As challenging as it is, try to speak to the person quietly and carefully, preferably away from social media, or, at very least, in private messages. Attitudes of extreme hatred are usually based in fear, and understanding this fear can help us to find a way in to a conversation.

Amnesty Australia offers several suggestions about how to challenge racism. Their recommendations include using "I" statements to convey how the behaviour is affecting you, asking them to clarify their position (which may help them to recognise their own bigotry), encouraging empathy by asking them to imagine the hated group’s experience, and staying calm and reasonable.

Realistically, however, you can’t always change people’s minds. I have taken on the task several times myself, and, on occasion, I’ve succeeded. Many times, however, I have failed to make a difference, and in those cases I block and delete. I recognise a brick wall when I see it, and my sanity is too precious to waste on intractable bigots.

If you’ve tried and failed to change someone’s mind, and sense there is no hope, you may wish to unfriend, in real life or virtually. If you worry about causing offence by unfriending – though you probably shouldn’t worry about offending an offender – then you can simply mute them, and they’ll never know.

Bear in mind, however, that if you are important to the bigoted person – if you are a beloved family member, or a cherished friend – you have a certain power. As relationship podcaster Dan Savage frequently advises, your continued presence in their lives is your currency. You can say, “Dad/Aunt Betty/Mate, I can’t be around you if you express views like those. If you speak like in front of me, I will stay away.”

It may not change their mind, but it can certainly change their behaviour. And if it doesn’t? In life, and online, you are entitled to walk away.

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