When your Facebook friends make sexist comments


Photo: Getty

This week I wrote a blog post about a California school that has implemented a dress code that prohibits girls from wearing leggings and yoga pants. Such garments, school officials say, "distract" adolescent boys. Such rules, I say, are utter bullshit, a way of reinforcing a culture that makes women and girls responsible for the behaviour – well, the misbehaviour – of men and boys.

A friend of mine posted my piece on his Facebook page, and asked his Facebook friends what they thought of the policy and of school dress codes generally. Before long, the comments were flying, and my friend was clashing with a member of his own family.

He wasn't the only one of my real-life friends to experience digital drama with a family member who is also a Facebook friend. A few months ago, my friend Annabeth sat on my couch in tears recounting a similar online clash with one of her own clan.

"I can't believe I have to invite this guy to my wedding," she told me. That guy was her relative, a distant cousin, and his offence was posting a comment on her Facebook wall. Specifically, in response to Annabeth's link to One Billion Rising, an event designed to call attention to global violence against women, her cousin had commented, "maybe you should start carrying a gun".


She was livid, enraged that he had so completely missed the point. It didn't help this was right after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Of course, she couldn't disinvite him to her wedding. She couldn't even block him on Facebook. Because he's family. And you can't unfriend your family.

The challenge of playing nice – but not doormat-nice – with family members whose political opinions differ from your own is nothing new. In the book It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments, feminist firebrand Amanda Marcotte writes that "if you come from conservative stock and drift away into the realm of feminism", there will come a time when you'll be called to account for it to your family." Marcotte advises her readers to resist the urge to fight, and says that you can even use your "controversial" beliefs to fend off annoying questions.

"Don't want to answer questions about when you're having children? Tell them you have to reach your abortion quota before you even consider giving birth to a live one," she quips. That's all well and good, if you only see your family a few times a year. But what if you "see" each other online every day.

One option for those of us whose family members have irksome political views is to block those people's status updates. After all, one of the aims that Mark Zuckerberg emphasised when he revealed Facebook's new news feed layout last month was to build your own "personalised newspaper". Annabeth's personalised newspaper doesn't have to include the views of a man who thinks that the best way to end rape is for every woman to carry a gun.

In the past week alone, there's been no shortage of divisive political, cultural, and totally shareable Facebook stories to drive a wedge between you and your own flesh and blood. There was the death of Baroness Thatcher, the release of Accidental Racist, Brad Paisley's collaboration with LL Cool J, and now, a fresh round of anti-asylum seeker invective, thanks to Tony Abbott's talk of the government's "surrender". This week, surely more than a few of us have hovered our mouses over the "unfriend" or "unfollow" buttons. I can only imagine what that feels like when it's family.

For Erin, a 26-year-old writer who lives in Atlanta, being Facebook friends with her family made it clear to her just how extreme their views really were. They're from a rural farming community in the South, so "it's not as if their conservative politics were ever a secret", she says. "Many of them have also served in the military or are regular hunters, so there is definitely gun culture buy-in."

But since the Newtown massacre, and in response to nationwide calls for gun law reform, she says there's been "a huge uptick in posts about how the government is trying to steal their guns, how Hitler disarmed the German people before the Holocaust, that kind of thing". Even though she only sees them in person a couple of times a year, and even though they're perfectly sweet in person, "I don't know how I'm supposed to interact with them in person now that this is what I see of them on a daily basis."

For some users, that daily barrage can be enough to drive them away from Facebook. Mychal Denzel Smith, a 26-year-old writer from Virginia Beach, hasn't unfriended those family members who post the arch-conservative political opinions that he finds offensive – he just doesn't use Facebook as often. "I'm used to being exposed to it at family reunions and such, but those are intermittent experiences," he says. "Facebook, at one point, was part of my daily internet diet, so being exposed to that on a daily basis from people you're attached to by blood grows tiring."

Annabeth will still invite that cousin to her wedding. For some families, though, these online interactions can widen pre-existing rifts, often beyond repair. Lauren, a 27-year-old graduate student in women's and gender studies, already knew that she and her aunt, a newly-converted Catholic, didn't see eye to eye about many things. But after repeated online clashes – her aunt posted graphic photos of aborted foetuses on Lauren's boyfriend's wall, and said she believed Lauren was endorsing murder – they're not Facebook friends and they're not speaking in real life.

As we spend more and more of our time online, and reveal more and more of ourselves through the sharing nature of social media, perhaps the unwritten but closely observed rules of Facebook interaction will evolve: In addition to starting fights, we should be able to resolve them, too. Digital pecan pie, so to speak, at this weird online Christmas lunch table. For now – until Facebook offers some new mediation tool – we're still stuck negotiating the awkward, uncharted middle ground between the digital and the real. We're stuck inviting people who "liked" Sexism to our IRL (in real life) events.

Perhaps the solution for all these people, and for any other users who don't want to clash with family members online, is to simply block or hide or unfriend them. But this seems to miss the point of social media, which is supposedly to bring people closer together, to connect them. Social media allows you to curate your online life, to amplify the voices you want to hear and cut out the ones you don't. But online as in the real world, there's something terribly sad about cutting yourself off from your family. Is the only solution really to simply choose not to hear each other?