Several years ago, I posted a link to an article about mental health on Facebook, saying that "this is worth considering." It called into question the validity of the biomedical model ("chemical imbalance") theory and suggested that promoting mental illness as a biological disease added to rather than detracted from stigma. Consequently, three people, all of whom I had known for years, unfriended me (both in real life and online) and we haven't spoken since.
Perhaps they felt accused or judged for taking medication. Perhaps they felt I was blaming them for something not in their control. The point is, because I was simply unfriended without any further discussion, I have no idea what really happened. My efforts at communication have been ignored. Their actions felt retaliatory (one friend sent me a private message that simply said, "This is for that article" and another commented on the post, "yeah, bye").
I hadn't said, "Unfriend me if you disagree," but the use of friendship-threatening commentary preceding social media posts is exponential. "Unfriend me if you disagree" is the tagline many use when stating almost any opinion, especially if it's strongly worded, controversial or intentionally offensive. I'm definitely against censorship and having to walk on eggshells; I don't think unpopular or alternative ideas should be suppressed. But "unfriend me if you disagree" is the new "I'm just being honest" — you're basically excusing yourself for being a jerk. And you're attempting to protect yourself from any legitimate pushback you might get.
"Unfriend me if you disagree" is placing a higher priority on yourself and the right to assert your own opinion than it is on connection, open dialogue and challenging your own inherently biased thoughts.
Bones, bacteria and bricks all get stronger when pushed against in some way. Having to face resistance triggers the need to get stronger. It's an annoying cliche, but it truly is when you have to fight back that you really know and develop who you are. When you unfriend someone or invite them to unfriend you if they disagree, you are insulating yourself from the necessary resistance it takes to find and keep that strong sense of self. It may seem like positive reinforcement to only be surrounded by like-minded people, but it's boring and unrealistic. The world is a diverse place, and is so for a reason. Monocrop cultures produce far sparser yields and for fewer harvest seasons than varied-species growing systems.
Separating into politically, culturally or socially homogeneous clumps not only weakens one's sense about one's self, but simultaneously creates the illusion that the whole world agrees with your views. This is the perfect petri dish for dangerous polarization, like our country is in the midst of politically right now. When you stop talking to the other, you stop knowing how to talk to the other, creating a mob-mentality environment in which the only thing left is, for example, Trump tactics: brute-force threats and grade-school mockery. Consensus, even the appearance of such, is a powerful silencer of dissent and, in your flight for freedom from disagreements, you end up creating a prison.
Something else happens when you unfriend those who are offensive or tell people to unfriend you if they don't like what you're posting. Besides indicating that you're not interested in being challenged or hearing perspectives other than those comfortably similar to your own, you're unable to bridge the gap between you and others.
This isn't just about warm fuzzies. Relationships are integral to personal and communal well-being, but beyond that, when you cut yourself off from someone you may not want to have a relationship with anyway, you can't change their mind. If you, for example, unfriend every Trump-supporting friend you've got, then you're leaving them to marinate in hatred and bigotry without contrary voices, leaving them to their illusions. "Unfriend me" isn't just an immature response to paradigm challenges; it's a dangerous one — for others and for yourself.
Obviously, there has to be some kind of balance. If you care about what everyone thinks, you have no ability for authenticity; if you care about what no one thinks, though, you have no capacity for connection. And you start to look like the very guy you're probably unfriending people for supporting.
But there are other choices beside doormat and stonewall. Let's value each other enough to be willing to not leave the table the moment a dish we happen to not prefer is served and reserve the unfriending for serious infractions, not differing points of view. Good friends and supportive relationships are hard enough to find; let's look for ways to build bridges rather than single-material fortresses with only one way in and fewer ways out.