Recently, I broke my cardinal rule to avoid joining political debates, especially in social media. Just before heading out to see a movie with a friend—like a real, actual human in the flesh—I went online and checked my Twitter account.
And there it was: A provocative political comment at the top of my feed, beckoning me to respond. Such comments are my kryptonite, my greatest danger. They often come across as punchy and irrefutable to those who agree, but shallow and half-baked to those who don’t – and they tempt me to respond with some quick, off-the-cuff remark which I immediately regret. So I am constantly on the alert to ignore them. But this comment was especially hard to ignore; it was one of those that seemed ripe for a ready-made zinger.
Usually, I type out my zinger and then delete it when my better judgement convinces me to let it go. But this time, my better judgement was late to the party and I clicked send. True to form, immediately I regretted it and tried to delete my reply, but the poster had already seen it and had sent me a direct question.
Like an idiot, I took a shot at an answer. The next thing I knew, we were locked in a pointless spiral of “thrust and parry” which went on for at least an hour. Fortunately, I came to my senses and bowed out. But I still felt like crap the rest of the day.
Believe me, I have opinions on culture and politics. They’re pretty strong and can be uttered with great—I daresay uncontrollable—passion (see the “Zealot” chapter in my book, Losers Like Us). But experience has taught me two things about getting myself into any debate on political topics: 1) Nothing good ever comes out of it, and 2) I feel incredibly icky afterward.
I have yet to come across an exception.
Thus, my cardinal rule to avoid such debates.
My original reason for making this rule was not simply to stick my head in the sand, away from the stresses of politics (although that is a wonderful side benefit), but to keep my relationships peaceful. As a broken person who has experienced the need for healing myself, I want to spend my time healing others, not debating them. I want to listen and help, instead of trading jabs which diminish and divide us.
But diminishment and division is exactly what happened in my ill-advised Twitter debate.
The truth is, our society has changed. In the age of social media, debate isn’t what it used to be.
So below, I share my rationale for seeking to remain as apolitical as possible, especially in online forums,
Social media has changed the goal of debate. There was a time when debate was used as a tool to change hearts and minds regarding worthy causes. For example, after the Revolutionary War, robust debate was used at America’s Constitutional Convention to persuade adamantly opposed conventioneers that the new nation needed a Constitution. The persuasion was successful, and the Constitution was adopted. Similarly, in England, William Wilberforce used tireless debate to convince adamantly opposed parliamentarians to end slavery. Again, the effort was successful.
But in social media, the goal is for the poster to shout down all opponents with brute insults, just to get “likes” or “retweets” from those who already agree with him or her. Changing hearts and minds is the least-considered objective.
Social media has also changed the strategy of debate. The strategy of official competitive debate is to start with a stated premise and examine its legitimacies and fallacies with critical thinking. But in social media, the strategy is simply to throw out an inflammatory statement, fishing for a response. When someone takes the bait and challenges that statement, the initial poster often asks a question. This is a good strategy; however, in social media it’s used not to understand others, but to sideswipe them. Asking a question casts the poster into the role of superior, nuanced teacher, and the responder into the role of defensive, inferior student who must try to give a complex answer in a short sentence or two. (Note – if you can’t think of a question, a good default is “What do you mean by ________?”)
Social media limits our words, and therefore our thinking. Great thinkers have written volumes of books debating complex political issues—yet in social media, somehow we think we can reduce these issues to 140 characters on Twitter. That’s about the length of the sentence you just read. And Facebook and other forums aren’t much better. Everything is abbreviated. No matter how hard we try, social media can never capture the essence of a person’s knowledge and experience, or the contextual nuances of her perspective.
So we shoot back a reply based on one sentence, launching a quibble-fest that devolves into simplistic arguments and ridiculous name-calling until one or both parties grows tired and leaves the discussion. No one wins; yet each side typically claims victory.
Social media eliminates face-to-face contact, and thus a bit of our humanity. Online, we are reduced to little more than avatars, making it easy for us to stereotype one another. But we forget that behind every avatar and every zinger is a real human being for whom Christ died. And if that human being believes in Christ, we will be sharing the Great Feast in heaven, no matter how much we disagree here on earth.
Occasionally, a poster will try to sound more humane by calling the opposition something like, “my progressive friends” or “my conservative friends” – but this phrase usually masks subtle mockery of, rather than true respect for, that opposing group. If the insulting stance is called out, the poster generally feigns innocence, like Miss Piggy: “Who—moi?” The truth is, when people are face-to-face, most would be too ashamed—and rightly so—to use the scathing language which is commonly used online.
Political debate tends to divide the body of Christ. Last week, when a shooter killed nine prayer warriors at the historic Emanuel AME (“Mother Emanuel”) church in Charleston, South Carolina, believers glorified Jesus in a very dark situation. Supported in spirit by the body of Christ across the country (see onechurchliturgy.com), the victims’ families faced the killer and told him they forgave him. From those saints and from the solidarity of churches nationwide, I learned more about forgiveness and grace that week than in all of my years at seminary. In social media, some have tried to divide the body by politicizing the shooting—but such efforts have largely fallen flat due to the unity of the churches.
The kingdom of God is about showing Christ’s light. It is about his followers caring for the poor, the sick, and the oppressed (instead of trying to get the government to do it for us—that’s just laziness). We have the resources to represent God’s kingdom on earth, but we cannot do it unless factions of believers stop bashing each other and recognize that we are part of his kingdom first, even though we may disagree on some issues.
Debate is healthy. It stimulates thought and drives the democratic process. But we are Christ-followers first. Our mission is to lift up Jesus, not a political party, candidate, or referendum. None of these can perfectly embody the kingdom of God. Cramming God’s kingdom into a political party (as if we could) makes the kingdom subservient to the party.
John 3:17 (NIV) says: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” If you are a Christ-follower who feels called into the area of politics or political debate on some level, then prayerfully follow that call. But no Christian is called to mudslinging. Instead, we are called to reflect Christ’s salvation throughout cyberspace and to the ends of the earth.
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