In the run-up to 2018, I wore out the delete key. I erased old addresses, unsubscribed from email lists, and deleted contact info for people who are toxic or whom I no longer know. Then I deleted myself, my whole account, from Facebook.
This obsession with the delete key, and my decision to leave Facebook altogether, started at my niece’s wedding in a refurbished old barn. Before the dancing started, my dad pushed back his metal folding chair and said, “Hey kid, come on outside for a sec.”
At 52, I am no kid, but until today my dad and I have not seen nor spoken to each other in almost two years. So I got right up, a little bit afraid, and trailed him out the door.
Our falling out happened in February 2016 when my dad posted a Facebook meme of the Ku Klux Klan, following weeks of posts where he’d posited that President Obama was born a Kenyan monkey, that Planned Parenthood dissected and sold baby parts, and that he was waiting, still, for black people to thank white men for freeing them from slavery. Then came the KKK.
I’d had enough. I demanded he take the post down. He first responded with a string of question marks (what? who? me?) then he simply went silent. And the next time I tried to pull up his Facebook page, I discovered I’d been blocked. Unfriended. Deleted.
I’ve always assumed my dad to be a conservative — he owns guns, listens to Rush Limbaugh, watches FOX News — but I do not recall him ever talking about his political or religious beliefs. I could not tell you if he has ever voted. I have never once seen him, with the exception of weddings and funerals, in a church. But a dyed-in-the-wool racist?
Yet once Donald J. Trump threw his red, Make America Great Again hat into the presidential ring, it was like my dad had joined some insular, political cult. And that cult’s name, with pages like “God Emperor Trump,” was on Facebook.
If you think calling Facebook the c-word sounds too strong, consider some simple questions:
Do you feel angry, personally offended, when a friend disagrees with one of your posts?
Do you feel pressure to hit the “like” button, whether you like a post or not, to prove your loyalty?
Have you ever logged off or deactivated your Facebook account, thinking you might need a break? How many days did you last? How many hours?
Do you sometimes wake with a panic in the night, worried you’ve made a post or comment you’ll regret, hoping you can delete it before your “friends” see it?
If you need proof we’ve become more cult-like, more tribal, look no further than your own carefully-curated Facebook page, where everyone is your “friend” and “like” every word you say.
Still not convinced? How many friends have you stopped following, or have stopped following you, since the 2016 election?
We ridicule colleges for creating so-called safe spaces so students do not have to experience differing views, but what is your Facebook account if not the ultimate safe space?
There is the cliche that Facebook displays the phony perfection of our lives, not unlike Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Woebegone, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” But there are stories of real misery, too. A good friend has not spoken to her very close family in over a year because they all voted for Trump. Another friend no longer invites those who disagree politically to Thanksgiving dinner. One person I know unfriends everyone who does not “like” his posts because he feels hurt, certain he is being singled-out, punished, purposefully ignored.
Facebook can be light and fun, but it can also put you one-click away from breaking your own heart.
In her famous essay “Why I Write,” Joan Didion wrote, “there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”
On Facebook, we are all writers. On Facebook, we are all secret bullies. On Facebook, I tried to impose my sensibilities and bully my dad into submission, and lost.
Outside the barn door of my niece’s wedding reception, between a row of trucks and under flood lights, my dad lit a cigarette, and I waited for him, frankly, to lie: to blame me, to call me a snowflake, to question why I haven’t called in so long, to rib me about how great President Trump is doing and how thankful I should be that he hasn’t put Crooked Hillary in prison where, by God, she belongs.
Instead, he took one long drag and paused long enough for me to worry. “Oh man,” I said. “You’re going to tell me something really bad, aren’t you?”
He half-chuckled before spinning out the latest family gossip. Had I heard that so-and-so is splitting up after 25 years of marriage? Did I know this one is having an affair with a married woman at work, or that that one has gotten some old gal pregnant down in Alabama? With twins!
Through the walls of the reception hall, we could hear the music start. Newlyweds’ first dance. Mother-son dance. Father-daughter dance. And the longer my dad talked, the longer he pretended like two years had not passed in punishing silence, my plan to let him have it in-person—to challenge his every racist, misogynistic, hateful post — faded, for the moment anyway, like the smoke from his cigarette under the bright flood lights.
As our family and the wedding party celebrated inside without us, the band’s music muted by the barn’s old wood wall, my dad lit another cigarette. And I chose to simply stand there and listen, to see if I recognized us anymore without our Facebook masks, without the cult. To stop being a bully long enough to let him be my dad.