By Jonathan Six
Conversations are challenging these days, especially about important topics such as faith, politics and public policy. These topics have always brought difficulties and the need for precision and nuance. However, we live in a technologically driven world where discussions are now known as impersonal social interactions characterized by word limits, memes and “hot takes.” People no longer talk to one another. Instead, humanity talks “at” one another, but perhaps in the most impersonal ways— through the array of digital platforms or social media.
The merits of social media are all well documented. Plenty of other essays, articles and books highlight its contributions and demerits. What is most interesting is the role social media plays in creating civil unrest. In their May 26th Wall Street Journal article, Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman expose how Facebook’s algorithm contributes to polarization and civil discord. Facebook’s executives made the conscious decision to ignore the data and maintain an algorithm that promoted conflict rather than unity. In a recent interview with Chris Martin, former director of social media for Lifeway Christian Resources, Trevin Wax discussed what they termed “the downward pull” of social media. Martin and Wax note that sinful people will use social media for immoral purposes. This notion only exacerbates the difficulty of civil discourse.
Evangelical Christianity and western culture need a revival of civil discourse, recognizing that social media is not the appropriate avenue for conversations of such magnitude and, in many cases, nuanced argumentation. Social media is a tool for keeping up with family and friends, but it is not the public square. Social media deceives most users by being only a mirage of human existence. Platforms like Facebook profit from higher user interaction, and social division rather than human flourishing feeds this purpose. It, therefore, is increasingly challenging to utilize these tools contrary to its algorithm. Attempts at civil discourse often die amongst the heap of civil discord and polarizing political takes.
Rarely are provocation and sarcasm the most effective means to engage difficult conversations.
As Christians seek to have complex civil conversations, the truth must reign amid fiery rhetoric. A few key steps can help to create civil discussions and the pursuit of truth.
- Have conversations! It is surprising how difficult it is to talk with someone. Be willing to speak to someone, especially people with whom you disagree. Discussions are necessary if there will be a revival of civil discourse.
- Build relationships. Astonishingly, a tool designed to help people connect socially is now one of the enormous hurdles to building deep relationships. Strive to get to know people. If there is no relationship or investment into a person, it is easier to dehumanize them, especially if correspondence is only digital.
- Listen. Being an active listener helps you understand the complexities of arguments, human experience and personal biases. Being committed to listening prevents the danger of just talking at someone rather than speaking to them. Be committed to conversations, not monologues.
- Behave Christianly. Surprisingly, this admonition is necessary for an essay like this one. The anonymity and the perceived lack of accountability remove any social inhibitions, especially in a digital context. Work to display moral uprightness with argumentation and the presentation of facts. Seek to critique with accuracy the strengths and weakness of a position. Finally, treat others with Christian charity, even if it means walking away from a conversation.
- Guard against dehumanizing. Dehumanizing allows one to attack without concern for the well-being of the “opponent.” With civil discourse, those with whom we converse are not opponents. The goal is not to win a battle but to pursue truth, facilitate conversation, and winsomely persuade to the truth. Dehumanization leads to ad hominem and other poor tactics for the sake of argument.
- Be humble. For Augustine, the concept of Credo ut intelligas and for Anselm Fides quaerens intellectum recognized that their faith helped them to understand, not merely their faith somehow allowed them to “corner the market” on truth. Instead, the faith produced an intellectual humility that helped orient the pursuit of truth and the employment of human reason. When the faith rightly instructs the quest of all knowledge, it creates a humble disposition.
- Don’t be a troll, and don’t take a troll’s bait. It is often the case that provocation is a useful tool to draw out an essential point of argumentation. However, rarely are provocation and sarcasm the most effective means to engage difficult conversations. Recognize the right openings to have an honest dialogue, but remember conversations are a two-way street. Part of being winsome and wise is knowing when to proceed with discussion and when to walk away.
These critical steps help to navigate challenging conversations. If the church is to be an effective witness amongst the culture, a revival of civil discourse is a must. Our discourse, whether online or offline, is an outworking of our character. Consistency in character is just as important as our urgency to share the truth.