A shift has happened in social media. Everyone who spends time online has noticed it. A few are openly talking about it. Scot McKnight calls it “crowdpounding.” An odd name, but descriptive enough to convey his thought. Regardless of what you think of the name, the idea is what many have observed: social media hasn’t been very social. Or civil. It’s become the peepshow to fulfill our lustful desires to be right and make others wrong. Some have rightly called the desire for the cheap thrill of creating a villain to rage against “outrage porn.”
More than once I’ve been tempted to withdraw completely from he online public square. There’s a limit to how much outrage a soul can be exposed to before it begins to wither. But I haven’t. I likely won’t. While there’s a lot of outrage, I also acknowledge there is a lot worth being outraged over. Those legitimate situations deserve my time. They deserve my thought. More than that, the people who are outraged deserve to be listened to.
So I’m sticking around, but not without some concerns.
One of the things I love about social media is being able to get multiple perspectives on an issue in real time. Learning from my black brothers and sisters has been invaluable to me. It’s changed how I think about systemic justice, race, and faith. Having honest conversations with LGBT Christians has been extremely encouraging. While we disagree on core beliefs, learning how to talk to one another with grace and kindness gives me hope as the Church continues to wrestle with pertinent issues like same-sex marriage. Only on social media can I interact with a congregation member, a world-renowned theologian, and a female pastor in New York all in the same day.
And yet, it seems social media has become less about connecting and more about activism. Where it once was a place to talk about an issue, it has become a place where definitive statements are demanded. Where it once was about connecting with people, it has become about changing people’s minds. Where it once was about the exchange of ideas, it has become a place to enforce conformity.
I’m convinced the speed of the information is having a dramatic impact on our ability to have meaningful conversations around what’s most important. Sandra Bland, Planned Parenthood’s dehumanizing treatment of babies, the killing of four marines, immigration issues raised by popular Christian voices – all in the course of days. Humans weren’t meant to process information like its candy. Study after study reveals we aren’t good at multitasking even simple activities like walking and texting, why do we think we can simultaneously handle numerous stories that require careful, nuanced, and informed attention?
But the information keeps coming. And you have to respond when it comes, or so its implied. Not speaking on an issue quickly enough can get you shamed and dragged out into the virtual public square; never mind that, while being strung up for not speaking promptly, you may actually be involved in real-life, analog activities like playing with your child, having coffee with a friend, or even, dare I say, reading a book. For the first time in history people can be publicly crucified while taking a nap.
(No wonder we feel a pull to be online constantly. As much as we go there to be informed about the events of the day, we go there to watch the vulnerable back of our reputation.)
Most of us, if we are being honest, would likely admit our first response to an emotionally charged situation isn’t usually our best. They are emotional, raw, and unfiltered reactions, not thoughtful reflections. In some cases, that’s okay. But many of these conversations deserve our best, most thoughtful selves. They are too important to be given only our soundbites.
Nor do our soundbites help. The increasing polarization of our country is not news. Conservatives are pulling back farther into their conservative camps while progressives go farther into theirs. This phenomenon isn’t relegated to politics, the church is also experiencing this kind of polarization. The loudest voices tend to be shouted from the deepest extremes. Which doesn’t draw the opposing camp closer so that they might better hear what is being said. It simply results in people going farther in to the camp they already identify with.
A recent example: I’ll be honest, when the Caitlyn Jenner magazine cover flooded the internet, as a writer on the internet with a platform and as a pastor I felt an immense amount of pressure to make a statement. But here’s the deal. I’ve spent my whole life living in relatively small midwestern towns. Do you know how many transgender individuals I have relationships with? Zero. Maybe I’ve been living under a rock (very likely) but the movement for transgender equality came faster than I was (am) ready for. I haven’t thought much about it. I haven’t built relationships. I haven’t crossed that boundary yet. Speaking about such things, things that matter and involve actual human beings, deserves careful thought.
Human beings are slow to change their minds. Change is scary. Change is hard. Once we’ve landed on a set of beliefs and a worldview that helps us make sense of our experience, we rarely deviate from it. It is incredibly hard to get someone to consider that their worldview doesn’t explain everything. And yet, it seems we expect people’s minds to change at the same rate as technology. Demanding statements, forcing someone to get on board, shaming people who need time to think and process and possibly change a belief not only stunts the actual process of changing one’s mind, it’s likely counterproductive to the whole endeavor.
The social pressure to make a statement, decision, or stand is a form of mob coercion. I believe that under such pressure, people react instead of reflect. Reactions are rarely well developed, or well delivered for that matter, and tend to be shallow. Nuance is replaced with cliche. Talking points trump dialogue. As the volume rises in the back and forth of talking points, social pressure continues to boil. The consequence is not a more informed populace, but a public square filled with people who haven’t adequately thought through an issue, are more deeply entrenched in their ideology, and when called upon to talk about an issue have only buzzwords, platitudes, and shibboleth. Indignant rightness, then, becomes a shield that protects us from having to show compassion, empathy, and doing the hard work to understand.
Look at Facebook. Click on any post where a person brings up a contentious social issue. The thread that follows likely contains people regurgitating talking points from the idealogical tribe they identify with rather than a meaningful conversation working towards understanding. If we want change, if we want real justice to be served, then we have to change the way we have these conversations.
My point isn’t that we shouldn’t be outraged. It isn’t to say that outrage is bad, or even unhelpful. Outrage got the Confederate flag taken down. That should be celebrated. But it should also be noted that the work isn’t over. Outrage may get the symbol removed. Outrage has the ability to wake us up to the injustice we had previously been able to ignore. But outrage won’t change the system.
Let me be clear, I am not putting the onus on victims of oppression and injustice to change how they react. The outrage our black brothers and sisters display at the systemic racism being illuminated through social media is not ideological, it’s personal. That matters. But for the rest of us, it isn’t personal. We need to listen to that outrage, and then be careful how we engage from there.
So let us engage with compassion. May we create space for thought, reflection, and discourse. May we be quick to listen, slow to speak, and honoring of one another as we do the work of understanding.