Social Media and the Death of Nuance

Social Media and the Death of Nuance February 8, 2018

I really dislike the majority of theological interaction over social media platforms. This probably sounds odd coming from me, because that is precisely what I do with a large portion of my time. As one who engages in the theological task, this is just the way that ideas spread in contemporary society, so it is a simple necessity. We are not gathering around university halls to hear a lengthy disputation over points of doctrine, nor can a theologian make a large impact by printing pamphlets on disputed topics which make a splash in society at large. Instead, ideas are thrown around in memes and tweets, with the impact of one’s thoughts being judged by how witty the tweet was, or how funny the image in the meme is. It truly is the death of nuanced dialogue in society today.

I have a friend who refers to a certain brand of Lutheran thought as “sloganeering Lutheranism,” which I think is a rather appropriate designation. This could be applied to nearly any school of thought within any subject as well. It just so happens that Lutheran theology is my own area of expertise. We would rather think by way of slogans rather than actually having a nuanced conversation and seeking to understand a point of view that we are either espousing or opposing.

Here is an example. In Confessional Lutheranism, there is a movement that everyone seems to despise today called “Pietism.” The term is thrown around mostly as an insult, or a way to simply dismiss someone’s argument without actually engaging with the ideas presented. In a recent discussion on a facebook group, someone asked for a definition of Pietism. Responses were typical: “Salvation by works,” “trusting in yourself instead of Christ,” and my favorite “a cancer.” Now, I am not a Pietist, to be clear. However, I have actually read the writings of Pietists as well as every book written on the subject available in English (to be honest, there is not all that much). And while accusations of legalism are not all that far off, none of the early Pietist leaders would have said that they believed in salvation based on one’s own moral striving. In fact, they insisted quite the opposite. I also have yet to find any scholar of Pietism to define the movement as “a cancer.” Curious. When I tried to inject an actual historical definition of the movement into this conversation, the response was–as expected–that I am a dirty Pietist.

My point is not to berate those involved in that particular conversation, nor to gain sympathy for myself because of baseless insults. This is merely an illustration of something that basically defines conversation on social media platforms today. We want quick and easy definitions and refutations of ideas, because we simply do not have the attention span to actually sit and read or think through an idea with any kind of nuance. It is much easier to memorize a few lines that define our position, and then spew those words out when confronted with an opposing idea.

Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation is another excellent example of this. Now, let me first say that I do not have a problem with this text. In fact, I have a poster of the theses above my desk as I am currently typing this. However, the way in which these particular theses have been used today is a travesty. In these theses, Luther distinguishes between a “theologian of the cross,” and a “theologian of glory.” Luther uses this point to argue for the superiority of the former over the latter, which he believes has dominated much of late medieval thought. Today, that phrase “theology of glory,” is thrown around, like Pietism, as a term to immediately dismiss someone’s argument. Perhaps that’s because it fits so well into a tweet. However, let us think about how Luther actually uses that idea. He proposes this thesis, not as a meme, but a point to be disputed. Luther stood and defended each point in this Disputation at length publicly. Unfortunately, I don’t see such happening today, and I think Luther would be ashamed of how his major theological points have simply become slogans thrown around without much thought or engagement.

This same type of sloganeering happens in our broader cultural landscape. If one adopts a view of morality that differs from whatever the current cultural trends are, they are immediately labeled “intolerant,” or “bigoted.” These terms are a way to dismiss actual conversation and the difficulty of having to grapple with people who disagree. Do not just think this only applies to liberals either; conservatives use labels like “Marxist” or “snowflake,” or whatever the current dismissive title is. When someone like Ben Shapiro gives a speech on some topic, the Youtube views reflect that rather than the actual speech in context, people would rather watch a mere two minute clip labeled something like “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Liberals in One Sentence!” Were Luther speaking today, I think his exegetical arguments would largely be ignored, while his clever insults would get a bit of social media attention.

So what do we do about this problem? I confess that I do not really know. But I do know that the problem exists, and that it is hurting nearly every area of intellectual discourse in our society. The least we can do is recognize that this is a problem, and actually try to be people with a little bit of nuance.

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