Social Media: Where Charity Goes to Die

Social Media: Where Charity Goes to Die July 15, 2016
"Saint François de Sales donnant à sainte Jeanne de Chantal la règle de l'ordre de la Visitation," Noël Hallé, 18th century. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License).
“Saint François de Sales donnant à sainte Jeanne de Chantal la règle de l’ordre de la Visitation,” Noël Hallé, 18th century. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons License).

My intensifying dalliance with social-media criticism is no secret. I’ve blogged about it before, and, if you know me in real life, you know my issues with the quality of much digital communication run deep—sometimes, some might say, to the point of condemnation.

Yet, I find myself asking—how constructive have I been? Aside from counseling abstinence, what have I contributed?

Well, to some extent, I think frustration, mistrust, and derision are endemic to the platform—how can people overcome a lack of body language, difference in written clarity, and the shield of anonymity en masse to treat one another with respect?

What I can do, however, is offer small things—behaviors, tonal shifts—that have helped me better operate within the world of social media. In fact, these changes, while small, have (when I successfully execute them!) made me a better Christian, insofar as I treat others on the internet with more respect and kindness; in turn, strangers and acquaintances are more likely to listen, to find common ground, even to admit changes of opinion.

That said, consider any of this advice a capitulation to the ubiquitous status of social media; the best thing is still increasing critical distance—that is, moderation.

First, then, there is the passive-aggressive like (or favorite), as my girlfriend often calls it: the scourge of mutually-respectful debate. When having a conversation with someone, blood pressure rises when you feel ganged up on, even if only in the meaningless “points” of social media. I’ll give you a brief example:

I’m in a Facebook group that has nothing to do with religion, though occasionally the topic comes up. I found myself talking with someone about a topic that, while far from religious, cannot help but carry its tinge—pornography. The issue arose not with the discussion itself, but with the feeling of shouting into a void. I made a non-statistical point, explaining why the numbers presented by the other party did not bear upon the case I was making—I received no response. Yet, his statistically-based article received a couple of likes before I even responded. They just sat there; I never got a response, even though everyone should have been receiving notifications about my new post.

It was as if my argument was simply ignored, the “points” tallied up, and the field abandoned.

And it’s a bad feeling—that knowledge that debate has been cut short, the tenor of the discussion left unknown, and this sense of “defeat,” before anything has really started. To pop in and like one comment or tweet to the detriment of another can be fine, but in the context of a debate in which you’re not taking part—not presenting your own opinion, why or to what extent you agree—it doesn’t really contribute much, especially if you do it with every comment a person posts. It turns discussion into rallying mobs of competing, voiceless plebs—and who’s that good for?

In brief: if you aren’t going to contribute why or to what extent you agree with someone, don’t sit there liking every comment from one side in a debate (and I am very guilty of this). You’re just driving up someone’s blood pressure, not changing his or her mind.

My second and final point is brief: assume your comments can be misread; assume someone will try to pick you apart. In other words, read and write charitably.

People are easily offended, and we are not—as readers and writers—created equal. That’s really one of the biggest shifts, surrounding social media: people who write next to nothing otherwise, whose knack is clearly not the written word, dialogue on the same platform as those whose lives are spent in the world of communication (like bloggers, or English PhD students!). And, frankly, some people are just out for blood.

Allow me another example: the other day someone commented on a Facebook post sharing one of my blog pieces. The comment was not constructive—really just a simple joke, and clearly not germane to the question at hand. I found myself accused of heterodoxy very quickly after responding, and was told such charges were being levelled for the sake of charity. Personally, I can’t imagine a scenario in which blithely joking, followed by accusations of heterodoxy is an effective way to convert a heart. The commenter seemed to me to be both willfully misreading the post and willfully writing his response in a challenging and inflammatory way, even as I tried to respond level-headedly.

So, take care exactly how you write, and never read assuming you know the exact thoughts in another person’s head.

Okay, light subject matter for a slow Friday: social media. But as light as the subject matter is, I do think we concretize our love for God in treating His creation (people included) with charity and care, always delivering disagreement and rebukes with an eye to conversion, not provocation or scandal. And with the “echo chamber” such a danger (see my first point about passive-aggressive likes), patient disagreement is as important as ever. I am reminded of an epistle:

[P]roclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths. But you, be self-possessed in all circumstances; put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:2-5)

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