I don’t know about you, but I am getting tired of having the same old conversations with people on the internet. We all know our lines, our parts in the play. We never switch it up. We just tumble around the same circles over and over. Often, we get outraged over minutiae instead of focusing on really egregious injustices. And as we react instead of respond to each other, we get more and more outraged at each other. We get hardened into our roles. We lose the ability to listen to and learn from each other.
The internet reminds me of the emotional maturity level of a preschooler. Everything is an outrage! Someone who disagrees with me isn’t just wrong about his or her idea, but is an oppressor! The person who occasionally says something stupid is given no second chances! One strike and you’re out, buddy. There’s no benefit of the doubt, no stopping for just one moment to consider where the other person may be coming from. There is just outrage.
Outrage culture is a symptom of something deep in the human heart that hungers for a cause. We all want a cause. We want to stand up for that which is right and resist that which is wrong. But when everything becomes a cause, we become “the boy who cried wolf,” and we make it difficult for people to take us seriously. Christians yell “persecution!” without checking their facts first. Women yell “male oppressor!” before getting to know the man to whom they are talking. Men yell “angry feminist!” before stopping to ask if the woman in question might have a good reason to be angry. People of different races yell at each other without stopping to consider the experience of the other.
We make it our cause to say the other guy is wrong–and not just wrong about one idea, but fundamentally evil and bereft of any good whatsoever. Once we make this move, we become just so much white noise. Our rhetoric is something the listener has heard over and over again. There’s nothing surprising, empathetic, or new in what we say. When drama is our only language, people.stop.listening.
I used to serve as a pastor in rural North Dakota. As a woman in ministry, I was conscious of the stereotypes out there, and I was determined to subvert people’s expectations. (I suppose it helped that I had “converted” from not believing in women in church leadership to believing in it. It’s hard to regard as hateful a view you used to share with your critics.) I determined I would exercise my leadership with gentleness. I would be patient with people who had doubts about women in leadership. I would not be forceful or angry. The crazy thing? This approach actually had an effect. I remember one pastor in particular who did not believe in female pastors giving me respect as a leader. I did not match his expectations for what he thought women in leadership would be like. He wouldn’t have come to this acknowledgment if I had matched his expectations. I would have been so much white noise. (I should also note that along with this success, I made plenty of mistakes as a woman in leadership. There were plenty of times I could have been more confident and more gentle. I think the principles still hold, however.)
When we speak and listen–especially on the internet–we need to subvert expectations by letting go of easy outrage. We need to surprise people. We need to save our outrage for the truly outrageous (and it does exist and we should be outraged about it). We need to give our conversation partners the benefit of the doubt and seek to understand their perspective so that we can respond instead of react. We need to change the conversation by actually listening, empathizing, and refusing to simply spout out hackneyed, easy lines. This is true within the Church…and outside of the Church.
I don’t want to be hardened into constant outrage. I want to experience the joy of living in a world that can still surprise me.
How about you? What mistakes or successes have you noticed as you interact with people on the internet? Why do you think it is so easy to get into our assigned “roles” and lose creativity and curiosity in our communication? How can we overcome this?
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Because this is a Christian blog, the things I’m talking about will obviously be topics that people feel strongly about in one direction or another. Please keep in mind that this is a place for substantive, respectful conversation. All perspectives are welcome to discuss here as long as all can treat each other with kindness and respect. Please ignore trolls, refuse to engage in personal attacks, and observe the comment policy listed on the right side of the page. Comments that violate these guidelines may be deleted. For those who clearly violate these policies repeatedly, my policy is to issue a warning which, if not regarded, may lead to blacklisting. This is not about censorship, but about creating a healthy, respectful environment for discussion.
P.S. Please also note that I am not a scientist, but a person with expertise in theology and the arts. While I am very interested in the relationship between science and faith, I do not believe I personally will be able to adequately address the many questions that inevitably come up related to science and religion. I encourage you to seek out the writings of theistic or Christian scientists to help with those discussions.