I think there is widespread concern that our media age encourages the divisive, nasty atmosphere that haunts us all. From my perspective, the 24-hour news programming and social media are major culprits. The former invites “expert” talking heads to prattle endlessly when there is nothing really new to report. Even more dramatically, news shows morphed into actual and perceived partisan propaganda mouthpieces.
I am frequently perplexed at the number of people who spend hours glued to a news outlet that reinforces the prejudices and the suspicions of the watcher. My amateur shrink suspects that somewhere in that obsessiveness is the hidden thought that “understanding what is going on” offers some illusion of control over the future. It’s a fear thing!
Then there is social media … I do Facebook and appreciate its positive aspects. I have family and friends scattered far beyond Rome and I enjoy the ease of sharing photos and communication with them through FB. I manage the garbage posts reasonably well. Yet, despite my good intentions, I have had two friendships dramatically ruptured, probably permanently, by engaging in online argumentation. It’s just too easy to write FB text that is far harsher than one would likely be in face to face conversation. I think I have learned my lesson, though realistically I must make the decision over and over to not be dragged into the slimy abyss of online attack and defend.
One evening in December, my mood was relaxed and happy after returning from a delightful wedding. Then I opened FB. A friend had shared a pro-Trump post along with “likes” from two other friends. My mood plummeted into the depths of angry despair. (To be honest, for myself and all the other argumentative folks on both sides of the issues, there is a large element of self-righteousness in that anger. How could “they” be so wrong when I am obviously so right?) I spent the better part of an hour writing my point-by point rebuttal of the claims. I would not let the post go unanswered and unchallenged!
Despite my indignation, there remained a fragment of reservation before I hit the send button to spread my detailed response out into the great FB family. I asked my wife to read my intended post. We spent another lengthy time discussing the wisdom of posting and debating what good or harm might come from indulging my knee-jerk argumentativeness. We decided that it was not wise to send, I erased the posted and grumbled off to bed.
The next time I saw the sharer and the likers — and I see them frequently — I was overwhelmingly glad I did not follow through with my post. I have no illusions that I would have changed their mind any more than my mind had been changed by the post I wanted to challenge.
I have spent a lot of time and reflection since the last election trying to understand how it is possible to see the world so very differently than do the majority of the evangelicals with whom I share a deep spiritual history. I have had some hints of insight and some glimmers of how the other side has reacted to my side’s leaders and issues. But those glimmers have not undermined my belief that evangelicals have forfeited moral authority in return for questionable allies and an exaggerated sense of victimization in the culture wars.
That belief saddens me, yet encourages me to try and build bridges rather than burn them. That same faith perspective which is locked in the turmoil of our times tells me that no one has God’s permission to be bigoted, cruel, insulting or intentionally hurtful.
I began this column with the claim that media bears much blame for our fractured society. Indeed, media stirs emotions and heightens our anxieties. But this is not a crusade against fake news or internet trolls.
In the earlier days of digital culture, we often were reminded of “Garbage In/Garbage Out” to highlight the need for taking care about the authorities we choose and the actions we take as a result of those choices. Nothing has changed to remove each of our responsibility for how we shape our lives and how we live in our community.
A puzzle remains. Because the atmosphere has been so poisoned, how does one build bridges? Sadly enough, the history of religious division and name-calling is little better than that of political division.
The old adage that warns against discussing politics or religion blocks conversations about the very things that divide us. The adage offers no help in teaching us to have civil conversations. How does one begin a conversation without seeming to be picking an argument? I really struggle with that question, especially when I know myself to be a minority opinion politically and religiously.
Clearly there are no easy answers, even though most of us want to back off from the ever present hostility.
Some risk is involved in nurturing relationships with those we are pretty sure that we don’t agree with. Some risk is involved in testing the waters to see if respectful conversations might yield the surprisingly common ground. Some risk is involved in people of faith becoming increasingly determined to practice love, patience, and acceptance more than judgment. Some very minimal risk is involved in joining those of us in One Community United whose goal and whose motto is “Let’s Talk.”
I believe those risks are worth the possible benefit.