Social Media and Toxic (Non-)Dialogue


A few weeks ago I decided to leave Facebook… mostly. I still have a few activities that require me to pop in there for at least brief moments. However, I am pretty sure that my time there will continue to decline and not return to its past.

It started in a minor way. A friend of mine on FB had shared a rather silly little cut-and-paste that humorously sought a “divorce” of “real” Americans from various people in news and entertainment (mostly) who tended to trigger political conservatives. It was mildly humorous, but overall I found it a bit annoying. I have become increasingly concerned with tribalism in US religion and politics where there is a tendency to demonize people who hold other views rather than see value in diverse perspectives.

I would have let it go but most of the comments were unabashedly positive not merely to the questionable entertainment value of the post, but the actual idea espoused underlying the humor.

There were a few comments that were less positive, and so I decided to respond in a way that was not at all supportive of the post. I stated that I disagreed with pretty much every sentence in the post (probably an exaggeration), and felt that diverse views were a healthy part of society.

One guy (I will call him “Jay”) seemed really bothered by this response and suggested that I should not talk. I gave some vague response to this. I don’t even remember what I wrote now. He responded, that I should keep my opinions to my self, and then instead of addressing it to me, “Bob,” he addressed it to “Philippines.”

Okay, I felt like I got it. Jay felt that because I lived in the Philippines I really should not share my opinions on US politics. Strangely, I actually get that. I have Filipino friends over here that will, occasionally, express opinions about American politics that in my mind are so out of touch with what is actually going on— often reading or hearing the worst of US op-eds. Several times, I had felt tempted to tell my Filipino friends to stay out of what they don’t really understand. Thankfully, I refrained from it because I really do believe that we learn from each other. But I get the temptation to ignore people who don’t have a direct investment in a situation.

I responded to Jay that I am a US citizen and Virginia resident and serve as a missionary in the Philippines. Jay responded something about me being some liberal socialist something or other who would cause “Virginia Regulars to be rolling over in their graves.” Politically, I am rather eclectic (somewhere in the Conservative-Moderate-Libertarian range of things_. I don’t think my views would fit into the liberal or socialist side of things, but it is true that I have never tried to limit my views to any oneside of any political spectrum.

I got especially annoyed about the Virginia Regulars and their cemetery tumblings. Virginia Regulars were Confederate military. I am not an expert on the political beliefs of CSA military, but I generally thought that would be considered a good thing today to hold views that would decidedly out of synch with the Confederacy.

I wrote some smartass response somewhat clarifying my political stance and insulting Jay for jumping to yet another assumption. (It seems to be his thing.) But after about five minutes I went back on and deleted that post.

That is when I figured out a few things. These things I already knew but I got reminded.

  1. It was a bit foolish of me to make a vague sweeping response to the initial post. I was raised in a church that was part of the Fundamentalist and Separatist movements in the US. That church had (and has) many good qualities. Many people get bothered by the term “Fundamentalist” and picture all sorts of horrible things. However, for me, the FAR bigger concern is actually “Separatism.” It is a tribalizing philosophy and squelches dialogue. It is missiologically suspect and Biblically weak. I would even suggest that Separatism as a secular movement within American society is destructive to democracy. However, given a vague blanket statement actually triggers a separatist response. And of course it would. I someone responds to this post with the statement— “I disagree with pretty much every statement in this post” —- I would not take the writer seriously. It doesn’t feed dialogue, it squelches it.
  2. FB doesn’t really support healthy dialogue. It is not much better than Twitter to discuss important issues. Important issues can’t be handled with one or two or three sentences— or with a GIF or a like or a frowny face. It promotes a stereotyping of views. Also, short bursts of text done in the moment often get misunderstood and feelings get hurt and eventually people move into little echo chambers of mutual admiration societies each trying to one-up each other in greater extremes of view and attacks on others who don’t share those views.
  3. It sucks to not be understood. I remember taking our young child to the emergency room because of a bout of asthma. The nurse essentially accuses us of smoking around our child. It got us mad, especially my wife who was a nurse, because we don’t smoke, had not smoked, have no people in our house who smoke, and have never even had visitors come into our home and smoke. It is annoying to have someone come to a conclusion based on very limited information and act like they figured you out. But it is tempting to do that. Consider Jay for a minute. It is quite tempting for me to make guesses about him. He seemed to be annoyed that I was an Asian sharing opinions about America. When he found out that I am actually a (white) US citizen, he suggested that my Confederate ancestors (of whom I have none) would be horrified by my politics. It is pretty easy for me to GUESS that he is a raging racist MAWA (“make America white again”). But that would only be a guess. If I don’t like having Jay guess (extremely poorly) about my views, I should avoid doing that with him and others.

So I have decided to step away from FB. Not merely because of this rather mundane little conversation but because of years of these silly little problems.

But I do have to recognize the irony. I want healthy dialogue between different groups. I think Separatism is flawed. Yet I am separating myself off by stepping away from Facebook. I am still trying to work this out. I do believe that dialogue is valuable, but some formats don’t promote healthy dialogue. I don’t see FB as a place that promotes healthy dialogue… generally at least.

Not all formats support growth through dialogue. I recently read an article in a Jewish publication that questioned having interviews of Anti-Semites published in their Jewish papers. The reason for publishing these was to help Jews understand the perspective of those with very different views. However, I would agree with those who have expressed concern. While dialogue is a good thing, giving a soapbox for Anti-Semitic “hate speech” may not be a very effective way to promote mutual trust and growth.

Still trying to figure this out. Maybe we just have to accept the limitations of social media. In the end, most all of us really want to be understood— understood in our beliefs and values, and understood in our fears and hopes. It may be too much to expect to be understood on an media platform— at least until we learn to TRY to understand others in a similar way. But I think there is hope.

Back in the 1960s, the Evangelicals separated missiologically from the World Council of Churches. Each started meeting as separate entities. Both groups embraced some views that were pretty messed up, in my opinion. The Conciliar missions tended to reject the uniqueness of the message of Christ and moved from a ministry of evangelism to a ministry of presence. The Evangelicals embraced evangelism but did so by rejecting much of Jesus’s social ministry. Both sides were deeply flawed. Thankfully, there were a few (John Stott being perhaps the most well known of these) who maintained involvement and dialogue in both groups. By the 1970s the worst excesses of these groups were eroded. Both groups accepted that evangelism and social ministry are part of Christ’s call to the church. I can’t help but think that those who kept dialogue going had a role in this.

But if FB and Twitter and Reddit and other social media platforms existed back then would dialogue have improved? Not convinced. I am still trying to figure it out.

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