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Politics, Tragedy, and the Unfriending of America

Politics, Tragedy, and the Unfriending of America The election, the 100-year storm with the deceptively cutesy moniker, an (alleged) war on Christmas, and now, yet another tragic mass shooting have further heightened the intensity of perceived alliances and divisions within e-friendships. It has led this temperamentally wary shrink to wonder, “who is ‘e-friend’ vs. -foe?’”

Our postings in the ether expose our true feelings to an extent far beyond what we might normally reveal. Facebook (and other social media) leads us to disclose things that we might not otherwise share freely. It creates a paradoxical sense of privacy that dissipates as soon as we click “post.”

Although postings enable us to connect with others we might not otherwise, highly charged public events incite us to share sentiments that are intensely emotional and potentially very divisive.

I was a latecomer to the Facebook game, only signing up a few years ago because my brother had refused to email anyone the pictures of his kids, saying it was too labor intensive. Instead, he uploaded them once, making them available for loved ones as well as for the e-masses.

Originally, I had no intention of posting anything at all, particularly since my profession has advocated a “tabula rasa” (blank slate, in English) stance since it began over 100 years ago. I am private by nature, and at the time could not conceive of posting my more uncensored, and sometimes provocative thoughts on politics, societal trends, and electrically charged current events — particularly to a large group of “friends,” many of whom I only knew in a pleasantly superficial way.

Initially, I friended few. And each invitation I accepted increased my anxiety about the whole thing, prompting me to consider editing my photo albums (though tame, by any standard). Over time, however, I relaxed my guard, and the “community” felt more like an actual rather than a virtual one.

I became genuinely curious about how some “friends” were doing, what they thought about current events, and the like. I got to “e-know” cousins I had met only a handful of times and in rare cases, I would now have a difficult time identifying on the street, so infrequent were our interactions. My great-uncle friended me, and I was unusually touched by this. Colleagues, former professors, spouses of friends, and people I hadn’t seen since the late ‘80s were now part of my network.

In an effort to maintain some semblance of healthy boundaries, I adjusted my privacy settings to make me difficult (although not impossible, I soon discovered) to find. I blocked others in an effort to maintain what I considered healthy boundaries. Initially, I rarely posted, and what I said was generally nice and not particularly personal.

With the Blackberry, and later, the iPhone, came the Facebook app, however, and I soon slipped into a false sense of “okayness” with regard to my posts, which became both more frequent and more frank. I could now rant about such inane but exasperating things as the Jerseylicious woman who cut the morning bus line and the maniac who refused to obey the “yield to pedestrians” sign near my apartment. With each, I felt a little release, a guilty pleasure.

As I became more relaxed, I reflexively “liked” posts that were congruent with my political and social views, initially not realizing these were more than just affirmations of my particular points of view. Nor did I realize that some of my “friends” would vehemently disagree with the positions I naively assumed to be beyond questioning. And I grew to know the political and other leanings of (real) friends, relatives, and colleagues, often to my significant discomfort. I would never again be able to see someone at a family gathering or dinner party without their “status” superimposed on them. Red state-er or blue? Pro guns or pro choice? Happy Holidays or Merry Christmas?

Facebook forced me, with mounting discomfort, to have to integrate new ideas and feelings with my existing ones about people with whom I am close, as well as those I would not ordinarily think much about at all. And it forced me to take a closer look at myself. Who was I willing to piss off with my honesty, my indignation, my zeal for what I considered “justice?”

I have never actually unfriended anyone, but on rare occasions, I have blocked others’ posts from my feed in an effort to self-regulate. I have fantasized about who was probably now blocking mine, in this Facebook nation of Us vs. Them. Would I continue to patronize a store if the owner’s posts were unduly polemical? Were family and friends “tsk-tsk-ing” and head-shaking as I revealed myself to be more than the bland but polite niece/cousin/colleague?

An in-person friend recently revealed to me that in an effort to reduce her growing antipathy toward an in-law, she had blocked her completely after the in-law posted one too many pictures of her pristine McMansion and her morning mimosas in the immediate wake of Hurricane Sandy. Both the friend and I live in areas that were hard hit by Sandy, and I found the relative’s oblivion insensitive to the point of enraging. I commiserated with my friend, as I too had contemplated a mass purging shortly prior to the election. I attempted, sometime unsuccessfully, to guard against the tendency to diagnose people based on “crazy,” polarizing, and perseverative rants.

Today, just a week or so after the shooting in Connecticut that claimed the lives of 27 people, most of whom were children, I looked on my phone app to find e-pleading for stricter gun laws, and greater awareness of mental health issues. There were also impassioned challenges resembling Charlton Heston-esque threats against anyone “trying to take my guns!” My response this time, save for a few “likes” of posts that encourage sane dialogue has been to indulge in a Facebook semi-fast.

Forgiving by nature, I am aware that my feelings about this person or that one may shift with the next major issue or catastrophe, and some I have mentally pigeonholed may in fact surprise and enlighten me. At present, however, I remain curious and uncertain about who has passively or privately moved me from the “friend” into the “foe” category.

Politics, Tragedy, and the Unfriending of America

Traci Stein, PhD, MPH

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APA Reference
Stein, T. (2018). Politics, Tragedy, and the Unfriending of America. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 24 Dec 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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