Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person. [The Holy Bible]
As someone pointed out to me recently, there are still nearly three months left until the presidential election. Based on my Facebook feed, it seems like it should be next week. It is a scary proposition that things are only going to get more intense as we get closer to November 8.
Yet I’m not going to stereotype. I have for the last several years seen many Facebook political and religious discussions that were civil and even fruitful. And I am thankful for a couple of friends who regularly seem to be able to unite people of very extreme views under a dialogue where no one ends up unfriending other people. Of course, we know the opposite is often true. Social media breeds strife and animosity and people talking past each other and instead of to each other. That is in large part why I write.
I write this from a place of humility because what I’m going to share are things I have learned the hard way, by NOT doing them. Not necessarily on Facebook even, but on internet forums and like media. I have not always disagreed well. I’ve been involved in marathon debates about sports and theology and have been condescending with people and have been far more concerned with being right than anything else.
For the most part I stayed out of this kind of thing on Facebook for a long time. Last year I tested the waters a little with a few posts on a particular political issue and tried to put some of these things in practice. I found by doing them the conversations went well. Even still, I decided to avoid making those kinds of posts almost entirely for a variety of reasons (three of the wisest pastors I know who are active on social media almost never make political posts) and limit myself to the occasional comment on someone else’s link or post. But I realize arguments on Facebook are inevitable so here are a few things I would want people to consider. They are not necessarily absolute truths as much as general principles from the Bible:
1. Do not post angry, or in any extreme emotion. Choose words with care.
I say this for similar reasons people say to not drive angry. Extreme emotions lend themselves to comments that are less than rational and thought out, or without an ounce of love or humility. Particularly on the internet, we need to think through our words deeply and choose them carefully. I recently had a slip up when an article by a woman who refused to participate in the “Love your spouse” 7-day challenge went around Facebook. I didn’t like the approach of the article and I was also frustrated that I had written something similar the previous week that didn’t get shared as much. So I made a couple of intense comments on a couple of my friends’ shares. I had to stop myself from doing it on every share because I was emotional. I am thankful the ladies who received my comments were gracious in response, even though I was not.
2. Do not slander. Remind yourself constantly that the other person is made in the image of God.
Saying things like “That’s idiotic” are rarely if ever a biblical way to speak to others in public. I do not deny that it’s okay for discussions to get intense and yes, iron can sharpen iron in passionate discussion. When it comes to people like my brothers, or my friend Josh Crowe, I don’t mind some sarcasm and intensity. We know where the lines are and debate has never hurt our relationship. But the less well I know someone, the more likely I am to stop and consider that they are a special creation as a human with God’s imprint. There is a certain dignity nearly all people deserve in conversation.
3. Avoid extreme declarations. Temper and qualify appropriate opinions.
REO contributor Dave Lytle just recently wrote about the importance of nuance in the race discussion and I echo that here in all debate discussions. Saying things like “Liberals always do this” or “This issue is about (this one singular thing out of many likely influences)” are nearly always unhelpful. Phrases like “generally speaking” and “I may be wrong” can keep dialogue honest, and therefore more civil. It seems that in the U.S. we feel that unless we say outrageous things, we won’t be heard. It seems we don’t want to make the mental effort to go beyond stereotypes and simplistic explanations for things. We don’t like middle ground. Maybe because we think it shows weakness and/or riding the fence. Yet more often than not, the truth is somewhere in the middle. It’s in the nuance. Yes, there are things that I believe that are extreme: Every life, even in the womb, is sacred. That’s extreme. But the vast majority of internet debate, to me, isn’t about extremes. We have made them that way with battle lines and sides and how we talk to each other.
4. Read carefully. Do not misrepresent the other person’s view.
I get this from Tim Keller’s article on Gospel Polemics1, which is a series of points on how to argue publicly that my senior pastor keeps in front of our church, and especially our leadership. I also alluded to this in my articles on Apostasy using Dr. Robert Picirilli as my example. To truly have meaningful debate, we have to comprehend what the arguments are. Not the caricature version of what we want them to be. I’ve seen time and time again how people come to realize how much middle ground they agree on just from actually trying to fully understand the other person. Giving the benefit of the doubt is crucial often times as well. The totality of a person’s thinking likely cannot be capture in one post or 20.
5. Know when enough is enough. Do not value winning an argument over living out your argument.
I won’t say a debate with dozens or hundreds of replies is always wrong. But we all know there are far too often times where people just will not let go. The obsession with the last word is something I have struggled with before. But at some point I have to ask myself that if I believe something to be true in an area of, let’s say, racial reconciliation, am I best served spending hours arguing on Facebook or going out and putting into practice what I believe.
As usual, this is not very deep. It’s pretty common sense. But in our social media climate, I think these things are under practiced. I want to encourage people to think about them and try to use them if they do not already. Our sanity over the next 12 weeks is at stake. :)