We have all been deeply influenced by the medium of the internet. Whether or not you are a denizen of the world wide web, the digital ecosystem has affected the vast majority of people in our wider culture. So, even if you don’t use social media, don’t have a smartphone, and don’t read the news online, everyone else does. So when you talk with your family or coworkers or fellow church members, you are talking with people who have been affected by its influence, and therein you will find yourself similarly (if maybe not as deeply) influenced.
Not everything on the internet is bad, of course (you’re reading this, right?). But what I want you to consider today is how the medium of the internet (and social media in particular) influences our ability to interpret well. In our social media age we have found out that it is the loudest voices who get the most attention; outrage and self-righteousness and snarkiness win the day. But for that to work, to be outraged, you must always have something to be outraged at–so you are incentivized to always have an enemy–and you must always be providing proof of your orthodoxy to your faithful audience, so you are trigger happy to further lambast your enemy as way to earn street cred, lest you be carted off by the mob.
But when our conversations with people we disagree with are largely performative, if they are more about signaling our insider-status to a particular tribe then they are about discerning the truth, then we will never arrive at the truth, will never understand the people we disagree with, and will become more and more divided. The end result is that we become angrier, stupider, and lonelier.
How do we break out of that loop? There are a number of ways to answer that.
First: Realize that all of us have been seduced by a media platform that has fundamentally warped our critical thinking process; the algorithms of social media are not designed to lead you to what is good, true, or beautiful, but what simply garners and holds the most attention–and this is not always (or often) what is true. (For proof of this, read Chris Bail’s Breaking Out of the Social Media Prism or Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains)
Second: Use a hermeneutic of charity, not suspicion. Always interpret peoples comments in the most charitable, not skeptical, of lights. If something appears to come across as wildly off-base or offensive, give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that maybe they misspoke or you misunderstood something. “Steel man” other people’s arguments that you disagree with, don’t “straw-man” them. Try to articulate their argument and reasoning in the strongest, most persuasive way possible before you attempt to respond. If you can’t do that, you probably don’t actually understand their argument.
Third: Abandon the social media attention game. If your end goal is to build a platform and audience, you won’t be free to pursue truth.
Fourth: Avoid lumping people together. If you hear someone talking about concerns over climate change you will likely assume that they are a progressive liberal. If you hear someone talk about the second amendment you will assume they are a conservative. You will then proceed to color in the rest of their views (with what you think a “liberal” or “conservative” is) about everything and treat them accordingly. But, of course, these are total false dichotomies: conservatives can be concerned about climate change and liberals can be advocates of the second amendment. Is that rare? Sure. But be more curious than lazy. Reality is far more interesting and surprising than our stereotypical impulses.
Fifth: Don’t pretend you always know people’s motives. You rarely do. It is a simplistic life to assume that “Anyone who talks about Y must be motivated by X.” How can you be so certain that so-and-so is animated by racial animus or some sexual prejudice or some kind of godless, secular ideology? You could say to yourself: I *think* this person is motivated by X. But that will take time to eventually confirm. Further, there is a large difference between someone who is consciously aware that they are motivated by X, and someone who is unconscious of it.
So much of the accusations we see fly around today have to do with accusing someone of being something that they deny they are: I’m not a racist! I’m not a sexist! Of course, it is possible to be influenced by things that you are not consciously aware of, but before we can say we are confident that so-and-so is in the thrall of critical race theory or cultural marxism or white nationalism, we should be remarkably slow to accuse someone of it, especially if they are explicitly denying that they are. This means that we suspend judgment until we have compelling evidence that proves otherwise. But, even if someone continues to vociferously deny charges of X, and their words and actions seem to show X, we ought to strive to show them where X is showing up in their life. But this requires the context of relationship. They simply will not listen to you if you treat them like villains. They must be loved, listened to, respected, and spoken to and confronted by truth with dignity and kindness.
All in all, these points could be summarized by simply stating: love your neighbor. If love of neighbor motivates you, you won’t only become more compassionate, patient, and understanding–but you will also become wiser and more knowledgable. You will become a better interpreter. Your willingness to first listen before rushing to judgment will give you access to information that impatience, arrogance, and hatred will shut you out from. In other words, love of others will make you less stupid. It may not make you internet famous, but who cares about that anyway?
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. - Ecclesiastes 1:9