When your Facebook friends make sexist comments

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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".

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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?

26 comments

  • Whats the problem? After years of enduring family get togethers with sexist, racist, small minded, bullying family members I finally decided to "unfriend" them from facebook and life. What a liberating experience it has been!

    Commenter
    liberated
    Date and time
    April 16, 2013, 9:40AM
    • Same here. They say that you can't choose your relatives, but you can sure as hell choose the level of BS you're willing to tolerate. I'm getting too old to tolerate much, having entered the "grumpy old woman" stage of my life. I've blocked all the sexist, racist and downright nasty ones, after deleting them from my friends list. Bliss!! :)

      Commenter
      Lynne
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      April 16, 2013, 3:16PM
  • I got sick of seeing people like "ban the burqa" pages and being sexist/racist/bigotted in comments. It was not so much family but it was a couple of my good friends. I don't want to know that they hate Julia Gillard for being a woman!
    So last november i deactivated my facey and rarely go on (my favourite toy has his own facebook, with a couple of friend/family) and have a quick look at particular things and then log off. It is so boring and crap and I dont miss it at all. I'd rather live my life without the performance aspect to it! I use instagram and twitter instead.

    Commenter
    Chinpy
    Date and time
    April 16, 2013, 9:43AM
    • I'm sorry, your 'favourite toy'?! Wow.

      Commenter
      Harvey K-Tel
      Date and time
      April 16, 2013, 2:35PM
  • If people on Facebook embody politics and beliefs that you find abhorrent, then it's absolutely appropriate to unfriend them even if they're family. Especially if they're insensitive or arrogant enough to post their views to your timeline as some sort of admonishment. If you think about it, you're far more likely to need to unfriend family for these sorts of reasons, as usually the friends you add will have broadly similar world-views to your own (unless you just friend randoms rather than keeping Fb for RL friends and acquaintances).

    Social media is deliberately designed to mimic our real-world social networks. If it's unacceptable for someone to harangue you in person, then it's unacceptable online. Most people would choose to spend little (or no) time with someone who is rude and obnoxious to them in person, why should it be taboo to remove yourself from their presence online?

    Commenter
    crystalsinger
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    April 16, 2013, 10:01AM
    • How funny! I just unfriended a childhood friend yesterday for a status update that made my skin crawl as - it does when someone devalues your gender to a subhuman level.

      I must admit, it is easier to cut people that aren't family out of your online life. While I certainly won't be inviting the more bigoted parts of my family to significant events in my future, I'm almost glad they expose all those sides to the internet as it gives me an opportunity to explain to other family members why those kinds of statements are problematic and often have great discussions as a result.

      Commenter
      pj
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      April 16, 2013, 10:04AM
      • Definitely unfriend them! I have deleted racist relatives on Facebook. I don't need to see that rubbish, and if they feel the need to share it with everyone, they can face the consequences and have fewer friends.

        Commenter
        BecD
        Date and time
        April 16, 2013, 10:19AM
        • I wish you had written this article with a more neutral tone. The point is a valid one, and as we curate our friends in real life we must curate our friends online.

          I get that this is a feminist POV, but it is possible to be a feminist and be for stronger border protection, or a feminist and be anti-abortion. These things aren't mutually exclusive. The spectrum of what we have to tolerate online is wide - i personally abhor those trite self-empowering posts, or the tosh about friends. I also find people spouting psuedo science in the form of life advice (routinely about diet and processed food). It seems this article confounds several political and moral issues under the banner of feminism, diluting what is a valid observation.

          Commenter
          Bushy
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          April 16, 2013, 10:30AM
          • Even if you are anti-abortion, surely you can accept that an aunty posting dead foetuses to someones facebook and calling them a murderer is worthy of condemnation?

            Commenter
            Zebba
            Date and time
            April 16, 2013, 10:54AM
          • Absolutely Zebba. But the extreme example isn't particularly illustrative in general.

            In fact, i would say posting anything political or moralising directly to someones wall un-provoked is rude. If it's follow up evidence to a friendly debate, and its left at that, then it can be a good way to maintain a discussion. Unprovoked though, it's like knocking on someones door unannounced and handing them pamphlets and prattling on about their contents. It's rude in all contexts, not just facebook.

            My point was that the observation is greater than the narrow politically left feminist prism it was squished through.

            Commenter
            Bushy
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            April 16, 2013, 1:19PM

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