Why I refuse to shame people for social media silence

A few days ago, a friend of mine expressed disappointment that a preacher many of us follow had not written anything about the situation in Ferguson in social media since he’s in Missouri. This particular preacher had counseled me a few weeks before to be “contemplative” instead of “reactive” in my activism. I’m not sure how well I’ve followed his advice in terms of my social media output. I’ve been a retweeting machine first about Gaza and then about Ferguson. I’m perpetually conflicted about my own mixture of legitimate responsibility and ulterior motives in my social media posturing as a privileged person with a platform. So I’ve concluded that, at the very least, I’m not going to attack other people for appearing to be silent about things that I feel called to speak out about. Here’s why.

1) I don’t know their context or calling

Not everybody is called to be a radical, in-your-face prophet for the church. Just as we shouldn’t denigrate prophets for being “divisive,” we shouldn’t denigrate people who aren’t called to prophecy for not being prophets. Additionally, people who aren’t pastors of congregations have a lot more leeway in what they share or post on social media. Don’t ridicule pastors for “people-pleasing” if you’ve never had that kind of responsibility yourself. Most congregational pastors are engaged in delicate, long-term processes of trust-building with their congregations. A single misinterpreted social media post can sabotage this trust, while the same educational purpose can be accomplished in direct personal conversation, as a part of a Bible study group, or through creative subtleties in preaching. There are many pastors who are every bit as passionate about social justice as people blowing up the #ferguson hashtag on twitter who just happen to be in pastoral contexts where it is most productive for them to be strategic and delicate in how they use their public persona.

2) Some people take time to speak wisely

I have not yet acquired the discipline to be more contemplative than reactive in how I respond to the world. What I mean by being contemplative instead of reactive is to be grounded in a place of love and peace while I’m speaking truth to power so that Satan can’t bait me into lashing out at my ideological opponents in ways that are easy to ridicule and dismiss because of my lack of spiritual groundedness. Being contemplative does not amount to creating a moral higher ground from which I can look down on “angry” activists and marginalized people, but conversely preparing my heart to empathize more fully with their struggle. The purpose of contemplation is to cultivate a posture of radical hospitality to the other. Part of the discipline of contemplation may involve being silent in social media until one’s thoughts are collected enough to say one truly wise thing that actually helps people (rather than launching dozens of cheap and easy zingers like I do).

3) I do not trust my motives for speaking out

As a progressive white male, I am constantly tempted to justify myself and earn brownie points by heaping scorn on my fellow white males. Every time I write or share something about Ferguson or Gaza or whatever else is going on in the world, I am constantly interrogating my motives for doing so. It’s when I start laying into other progressive white men for not being as radical as I am that I suspect myself the most of jockeying to score points. I don’t think it’s wrong to critique other white men per se. In fact, I should take responsibility for backing up marginalized people when they call out problematic power dynamics in a conversation where white men are behaving oppressively. But it is a tremendously precarious tightrope to walk, calling out my fellow dudebros when they’re out of line without turning it into one-up-man-ship. White men like me are notorious for hijacking our “solidarity” with marginalized people into our personal campaign to be the world’s next messiah. To avoid making it all about me, I must always speak as though I am the greatest sinner in the room, and any critique I offer to other white men should always come from that place of fear and trembling. Policing other peoples’ silence is more responsibility than I can handle responsibly. For many dudebros, being silent is the best contribution they can possibly make to a conversation.

4) We should not be making twitter the center of our universe

Twitter should not be the center of the universe. That’s not healthy for anybody. Idolizing twitter is analogous to idolizing the capitalist free market and every bit as demonic. Instead of a landscape of semi-anonymous 140 character spats with strangers, what should be the center of the universe are conversations that take place between real human beings in real physical space in our communities (and just so I don’t get Jesus-juked by somebody, obviously the center of the center for me is Eucharist itself). Our addiction to social media is part of the social fragmentation that is making the world more racist as time goes on. People feel safer being bigots now because we don’t have to look other people in the face anymore when we say hurtful things about them. We just blast our rage out on a keyboard and click enter. So demanding that “white Christian twitter” say the right things about Ferguson the right number of times seems to me to promote the demonic worship of the twittersphere and perpetuate the social fragmentation that ends up increasing racism, thus defeating the purpose. Now don’t read any of this as criticism for the positive use of twitter in building solidarity for struggles that take place in real communities who need to hear that others have their back. I’m just saying if “white Christian twitter” is ignoring something, screw them, farewell them, unfollow them if you need to, but don’t make it your campaign to grant them a relevance they don’t deserve. “White Christian twitter” includes many individual people who are worth talking to in different contexts, but as a grotesque social amoeba, it is a demonic entity that should be ignored rather than fed by making its stamp of approval the gold medal to be sought.

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  • Steve

    Excellent article.

  • morgan, i get where you’re coming from to a certain extent. i also am extremely frustrated by the sorts of pressures folks wield about how “everybody should speak!” or “everybody should shut up!” we are different, we process differently, and yeah, social media is hardly the only or best proving ground for expressing concern (although when people of color, queer people, women, and survivors express pain at mainstream/dominant silence, we’d do well to treat their lament with considerably more compassion). but this reads a bit like another “everybody shut up and be contemplative” thing, which doesn’t seem to serve your thesis (and it’s pretty dang shame-y in the opposite direction). folks will use social media differently than you, and there is room for that. there’s no reason that a distrust for your own motives ought to extend to others’, particularly those who are marginalized and personally harmed by disinterest and inaction.

    also, unhelpful “everybody must speak out to prove they love jesus/black people/justice!” exhortations are a million miles removed from expressing disappointment that a popuar peace pastor from MO with a brand new book about anti-empire peacemaking and a consistent twitter presence about peacemaking hadn’t address the racialized state violence happening in real time in his own state and playing out in historically unprecedented ways on twitter.

    if social media brings out the worst in some racist trolls, that’s hardly the whole truth. social media is an incredible tool for education, organizing, and relationship, and the only reason any of us know what’s happening in ferguson is because twitter took us there and exposed the sort of white supremacy many white folks presumed ended decades ago. i don’t know what you’re getting at with the whole “white christian twitter is a demonic entity that should be ignored”. it’s/that’s you and me, morgan. we can ignore our own whiteness, but it sure as hell won’t dismantle white supremacy or bring about racial healing or justice.

    • Thanks for your pushback. I would hardly be the one to say shut up and be contemplative. Insofar as I do that, I’m preaching to myself, because that’s not what I do at all. The main thing I’m frustrated by is dudebro allies (like me) one-upping each other by trying to leverage whatever seems to be the most politically correct higher ground to dis each other from. It’s so easy to get sucked into self-justification as an ally. I do it all the time. Re: white Christian twitter, I’m not saying we should ignore our whiteness. I’m saying that the demigods of white Christian twitter should not be the validation stamp of the interwebs. I appreciate your points. This piece probably isn’t as tight as it could be. And maybe Brian Zahnd is a little bit too much of my own personal Yoder idol. Which is itself part of the idolatrous structure of “white Christian twitter.”

      • i saw luke engage zahnd about this, and i’ve admired the way he’s engaged justice and peacemaking issues online. i don’t think it’s fair or true to project that his advocacy comes from a place of shaming, “self-justification”, or one-upping. i realize you’re not naming names, but vague indictments have a way of coloring the narrative and throwing folks under the bus anyway. just wanted to chime in that i’ve deeply appreciated his friendship and work on justice, race, gender, and sexuality. i think we can disagree with people’s opinions or strategies without assuming that they’re rooted in a selfish or malicious place.

        • I tried to be very cautious in what I wrote here to say that these are the problematic qualities I find in myself which define the choices I make about how to engage other people who are doing things differently. Luke would make the same observations I’m making about the dangerous tendencies that white male allies have in general. None of what I’ve said about our temptations should be construed as presumptions about where Luke was coming from in that one particular example. I’m not trying to make veiled, passive-aggressive accusations of others. I’m trying to share my own process of self-reflection so that others can compare notes and decide whether or not they resonate.

          • i hear you. but referencing folks’ displeasure with zahnd to make a point about how you refuse to shame people reads pretty clearly as an indictment of those who’d engage differently. shaming and attack are decidedly loaded words which get employed pretty loosely (and unevenly). your fourth point is written in “we” language, and i just don’t want to be counted there. i’m apt to agree with @glassdimly:disqus that we get to discern for ourselves if we are engaging faithfully or not. nothing against you personally, but i’m weary of white guys setting themselves up as arbiters of what kind of advocacy/solidarity is positive (or speaking life, worthwhile, etc).

          • Again, thanks for giving me things to think about.

    • Howdy @somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter:disqus and @MorganGuyton:disqus !

      A few thoughts that don’t connect precisely to the dialog being referenced here, but instead connect more broadly. Got a little long as I thought through it.

      I didn’t read Morgan’s post as a shut-up-and-be-contemplative post. But I generally dismiss people of that opinion because it’s just more weight for a status quo that eats people and shits money. How would they know my prayer life? I am of the opinion that in most cases, the reflex should be solidarity that stems from a life lived in prayer and action for the marginalized. But for people with little experience in solidarity, speaking out seems like a lack of contemplation, perhaps because if they spoke out it would be rootless.

      So pushing the rootless to speak out? I may have done that. Though I don’t really know who is rootless and who isn’t based on their Twitter timeline. What we need is action-rooted formation from a life lived. Speaking out comes from that.

      I can’t really speak to anybody’s silences or noises here. Some communities push people to be silent, and some push people to speak out. I feel pushed by my community and my conscience to speak out.

      I myself go through long periods of dropping out, and I feel guilty for not keeping up and being informed and engaged. But that’s largely because I’m involved in long-term projects I hope will make the world will be a better place. Those things are my primary responsibility. Others keep up on Twitter and that’s a part of their mission and call. Mostly my influence on Twitter is an illusion. I hope to contribute to the dialog with my book, when I’m finished, but I don’t have the constitution for being plugged in all the time.

      I also resonate with Morgan re: trying to earn points by piling on the latest dudebro offender to prove I’m not a dudebro myself.

      It’s easy to critique the (dudebro) right, especially right Christianity. It doesn’t seem worthwhile to me because it’s too obvious. I consider people like Driscoll to be involved in a religion that is not Christianity. Mainly one piles on them so that secular folks and insiders in Driscoll’s church realize there’s a rift in the faith.

      Then there’s piling on friends (read: Zach Hoag) that screw up and reveal some distinctly not-social-justice stream within their consciousness. Calling out is needed, and I think the process can reveal whether or not talking about race or queer politics is posturing for status or legit.

      At the same time Twitter does have a culture of calling-out that’s something of a cottage industry. Calling out is how people climb up over people to moral superiority.

      But at the same time a silence can be pregnant as well. Many white folks will not speak against racism because they don’t believe it exists. For many, a silence is meaningful. And if you push, you can see.

      To call out or not to call out. That is the question. Sometimes it’s needed, sometimes it’s posturing. Sometimes a silence is pregnant with racism, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes it’s a phallic reference meant to degrade women. I think the discernment must lie with the caller-outer.

      I also recall a time where Micah and I piled on Peter Rollins for not speaking out for Occupy (or any politics) while living in NY, being involved in street theater, and having written “Insurrection.” Oh, and for writing a book that treats belief in God like a safety blanket (prophets, anyone?).

      I did feel good about critiquing “Idolatry of God.” I read that book thoroughly and I knew what it said. It needed unmasking because its intent is hostile to faith while garbing itself in Christianity.

      But as a US-citizen living abroad, I’ve wondered if he just didn’t feel connected to US politics and Occupy. Maybe we weren’t fair on that count.

      All the same, I’d rather err on the side of solidarity. The conversation shook out and proved its own merit.

      • One last. I also believe that we’re not called to “speak out” on all social justice issues. That’s just following the news cycle and the progressive issue mill. We can’t all be rooted in all issues. We have to choose something and become deep, live in a community, and live a life. We have to focus. But I also think expressing solidarity is important, especially if my friends are involved in it. On a lot of issues, I have more listening to do, probably in relationships, before I really feel comfortable expressing an opinion that’s more than a statement of solidarity.

  • This is a judicious post, and since I myself have a “slow” temperament, I can relate to those who like to muster their resources before responding to an event. Twitter is not designed for folks like me. But it can be a powerful tool for social change in the right hands.

    All that being said – I think with regard to Ferguson, that there is a danger in waiting too long to speak out. I would say, in the case of what’s happening, that I have no choice but to give voice to others. It’s not about self-aggrandizement, but rather about saying: “Look, I’m in a privileged position here, and I see things that are wrong and people not being heard, and I for one hear them and want you to hear their stories too.”

    I don’t mind leaders staying silent for a period to digest things, so long as they *DON’T* say things that are, in this context, minimizing the real pain and considerable grievances of others. So for example, some bad word choices I’ve heard: “Let’s not all rush to judgment” or “Let’s not get angry” are *NOT* helpful – such words condescendingly imply that a judgment is not possible at this point and that being angry about the situation is an irrational response. When, in fact, the opposite is true. The more we learn about the Michael Brown case, and the more we see the justice system’s systematic racial discrimination being played out in plain sight, the more it is obvious that folks *should* be angry and that the correct response is to say something. . . and do something. The question is not if, but when. If being temporarily deliberative and cautious turns into a way to play it safe and cover for injustice, that’s a problem.

    • Oh I definitely agree with the patronizing ugliness of saying “Let’s not get angry,” etc. It’s very easy for people of privilege to play that game. Thanks for these thoughts.

  • WilmRoget

    Not everyone is called to speak on every subject. I would rather people speak authentically on what they know, then shoot from the hip about things they don’t know.

  • ryan

    I don’t know Morgan, I can definitely see the other side of things, especially on the last part of your post. Let me say that I totally get the always interrogating your social media motives as a privileged and prideful person (me too!) and I dig the honesty with which you analyze your action online. I can’t question or doubt your own personal experience. I also understand the not responding to every social media incident, especially in pastoral contexts. I wish I knew more about this myself, for I have the tendency to go off without thinking at times on my pages. (I appreciate as well how you insisted we cannot call a prophet divisive. I’ve seen that happen far too many times.)

    At the end of this post you talk about how everything we do should be rooted in incarnational living, and in the Eucharist. I can dig it. Yet while maybe there is some truth to idolizing Twitter and virtual over physical with some folks, I also think you’re also really failing to see that Twitter is where communities and people of color often actually have a voice and an actual community, especially when that incarnational physical element isn’t practical or possible. It can in some ways be a microphone for the little guy, a microscope on bigger injustices that often go ignored in White Christian America.

    I’ve seen Twitter be a unique echo chamber that, unlike Facebook, doesn’t as easily segregate our social media personas into nice little protected niche virtual suburbs. I for one appreciate this. We wouldn’t hear these marginalized voices otherwise, which is why I think you’re fundamentally failing to understand where they (we?) come from on this. Also, I’m not sure there’s a need to put “white Christian twitter” in quotes. It’s a testament to the fact that we need to use and respect/recognize that term when folks hear “Christian Twitter” and the faces and voices they first think of are almost all exclusively white. I guess what I’m saying is I was with you for most of this post, but point 4) came off very hard like someone from the outside was trying to weigh in on how the other can use the limited power they’re allotted. My suspicion is that you won’t hear a lot of LGBT or POC voices saying those things. Just my two cents, brother!

  • Bruce Wright

    that are cowardly and will not speak truth to power or stand for Social
    justice are “people pleasers”. I am a minister and not just on the
    streets. I am carry ordinations in the Southern Baptist Church, Assembly
    of God, and as a Deacon in the
    Ecumenical Catholic Communion. Furthermore, I have been a minister in
    United Methodist and Episcopalian Churches as a Youth Minister. I have
    never hestitated to speak truth to power, engage in Civil Disobediance,
    face arrest. I have been arrested for justice and have been teared
    gased, pepper sprayed, victimized by LRAD, and mistreated by Cops. I am
    in federal court with a lawsuit around violation of 1st amendment rights
    by the City of St. Pete. and it’s Police Department. I have been
    targeted by the Secret Service and anti-terrorism cops. My car was been
    mysteriously blown up a few years ago. And, yes I have paid the price.
    And, yes I am a simple, but educated preacher. I am not perfect and have
    made mistakes and fallen from time to time. But, I would never and will
    never back down and bow to Caeser, with God’s grace and help. And, I
    will never succumb to the worry of what other people, let alone church
    members, et al. think. Also, the past Bishop of the Ecumenical Catholic
    Communion, Chuck Leigh has been criminalized and mistreated by the Cops
    numerous times and has been in prison for standing up to power. And,
    the Priest when I was Youth minister at the Episcopal Church and myself
    were both fired for civil disobediance at the 2000 IMF/WORLD BANK
    protests. I simply do not buy either historically or Biblically the
    justification that “I am not called” to speak truth to power!

  • Matt Cumings

    Silence from everyone, including White Christian Twitter, is at the very core of what allows structural racism to perpetuate. Just as we should be focused on our local communities Twitter users should work to create space for dialogue about white supremacy in the US and the Church’s complicity in it.