It has been less than a week since a shooter killed college students at a community college in Oregon. Already I’ve seen not only numerous posts on social media about both gun control and gun rights, but also numerous posts about the inability of social media debates to affect any positive change. The argument is that we should leave such issues off of social media altogether, that we should limit ourselves to in-person conversations about divisive topics, because social media itself won’t allow conversations, only division and diatribe.
We’ve Always been Divided
To assert that somehow the widespread use of the internet has created divisions among us is to be ignorant of the past. Not long after the invention of the printing press, the medium was turned toward salacious gossip and vitriolic attacks. Even in the United States, over three centuries after the invention of the printing press, print was used to defame, attack, and undermine. About the sitting President, John Adams, one paper wrote that he was a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”1 That paper happened to be bankrolled by his opponent one Thomas Jefferson.
Within the tradition of the Churches of Christ, print has treated us no better. The bitter disputes between various parties and factions played out on the public stage of periodicals such as The Gospel Advocate, and The Millennial Harbinger. None of that was caused by the internet, nor social media, but by the people involved in the debates.
However, it would be disingenuous to use two examples to characterize the entirety of print dialog as unhelpful. Despite the attacks, lies, and mischaracterizations that occurred in print, we have been able to sort through the piles of text to move forward, to have a conversation, and to make a difference.
Things are Getting Better
Despite how it might seem — and how the world might be portrayed in the media — things are getting better. Around the world and in the United States there is less poverty, less disease, and less violence that at any time in human history.2
The first president of the United States led nearly 13,000 troops — personally — to put down a rebellion.3 In the post Civil War era (not even mentioning the fact that we fought a war against each other), there were nearly 4,000 African-Americans lynched.4 Today we’re fighting over what amounts to far fewer deaths, far less rebellion, and far less division. We’ve made progress. We’ve reduced violence and poverty, we’ve changed the terrain of race and gender inequality, we’ve done so much (though there is still much more to do).
Within the Churches of Christ we have made additional strides, we are more racially integrated, more gender inclusive, less condemning, and less isolationist.
We didn’t make this progress despite the use of the printing press, but because of it. We learned about other views, other ideas, and other cultures. We argued, we fought, and we discussed. We learned and grew together through letters to the editor, opinion columns, books, and articles that defined the debate and moved us forward. The movement was slow. It took years and decades to make perceptible progress, but that progress has been made. Things got better. Things can continue to get better.
New-ish Technology and Our Brains
Our brains are plastic. No, I don’t mean that the stuff in our heads is made of the material we call plastic, but that the attribute of plasticity — or ability to change — is a part of our neural makeup. You may have heard that things are hard-wired into people’s personalities. That’s just not true.
Our brains don’t work like computers, they work more like paths through a field. The first trail is blazed by someone knocking down the grass and brush. As more people walk down the path it becomes worn in. If enough people walk on it, the grass and plants will die, the earth will pack hard, and, eventually, someone might pave it over. But all it takes to start a new path is someone willing to blaze a new trail and the process can start all over again.
The internet started being used by a significant number of people around twenty years ago. On the scale of human technology that’s an incredibly short amount of time, but we’re already seeing the effects on our brains. As we use technology, we’re walking down a path in a field, and the more we use it, the more defined that path gets. Things like the internet and social media create pathways in our brains that can be reinforced or abandoned based on the amount we use them.
We are responsible for the way that social media affects us, not the other way around. We can choose which neural pathways to reinforce and which to abandon. And, through our examples, we can help others to make similar choices.
A Cowardly New World
It’s easy enough to sit behind a keyboard (yes I get the irony of what I’m writing) and fire off words into the ether. The internet is more responsive and more reactionary than the printing press could ever be. The best we were able to do with print media is to get stories out via a newspaper within a day or so. Today we can get stories within minutes and begin reacting to those stories while the events are still going on. That means our responses are coming from our initial emotional reactions. We’re often not taking time to stop and think through something before we respond. I’ve done this. I’m sure you have too. I’ll see something about something and disagree, angrily. My fingers are moving on the keyboard before my brain has the chance to engage. The other person is… (fill in the blank with whatever attack you normally come up with).
When we don’t have to see someone, when we don’t have to recognize that they are a human being made in the image of God and beloved by him, we can say things that we wouldn’t otherwise say. That’s not the fault of social media, it’s the fault of the people using social media.
I am a coward. I have fired off hateful, hurtful words to the neighbors and enemies that Jesus told me to love. Not because I was, in that moment, intentionally rejecting the command of Jesus to love them, but because I was ignoring the fact that they are my neighbors and enemies, they are people. If I were to stand face to face with someone who thinks differently than I do about gun control or gay marriage or abortion, if I had to look them in the eye and disagree with them in person, I wouldn’t dare say such things. I wouldn’t dare because I would be, quite literally, face-to-face with their humanity.
Neighbors and Enemies
I believe that we cannot abrogate our role in this world by either allowing our debates to devolve into attacks or by disengaging from these vital conversations altogether. Those are the binary options that many people represent. Either we give up on engaging in meaningful dialog through social media, or we will become embroiled in endless arguments with no resolution. Every time Jesus was offered a binary option, he offered another way. We can be engaged in social media, but not enamored by the methods of social media. We can be in the world but not of it.5
When you’re tempted to fight back, stop. Take a moment. Imagine the person to whom you’re responding. Imagine their family, their smile, and their friends. Remember that they are made in God’s image.
When you’re tempted to check out, stop. Take a moment. Imagine a world without the light and love of Jesus. Imagine if Christians had stopped engaging in the debate about slavery or racism. Remember that though change is slow, it is happening.
Remember that we are commanded, as followers of Christ, to love our neighbors and our enemies. That doesn’t mean we stop disagreeing, it doesn’t mean we give up, it means we refuse to stop engaging the important issues and we refuse to stop loving the people on either side of those issues.