I’ve given this a lot of thought. I’ve spent way too many hours being angry at “people” for the stupid, ignorant things “they” say. I’ve let myself read through discussions of posts, seemingly for the sole purpose of getting myself angry. What am I looking for? What do I hope to find, reading through hateful statements that only provoke the next person to escalate?
I’m a fundamentally hopeful person, as in, “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Hope rooted in God’s love. I’m not blindly optimistic that people are just nice. I don’t think they are, particularly. Some are awful. But I believe in love that changes us. Not magical pixie dust love, but God’s love that we see every day in forgiveness and reconciliation, God’s love that heals and redeems.
So this begs the question: if my basic orientation is hopefulness, if my central belief is in God’s goodness and willingness to love us no matter how we are and change us through this love, why am I so drawn to read people’s expressions of ugliness? Why do I choose–why do I have to force myself to stop–reading some of the worst people have to offer?
Honest answers. Here we go.
I’m dying to tell them off. I really am. Deep in my crooked little heart, I have the same ugliness and sin and I also feel I’m right and smart and understand the world better. Occasionally, not horribly often, a stranger or someone I barely know will comment on one of my posts in such a patronizingly simplistic fashion that I can only assume they believe I’ve simply lacked this information all my life:
“If you color with the green crayon, you’ll get green.”
Now truthfully, that shouldn’t bother me. I already knew about the green crayon, from way back, and this is not actually someone I’m close to and have tea with or who gives me helpful feedback on my sermons. This is a person insulting my intelligence whose insult should have no bearing on me, because A)Who is this person? and B)That was a very patronizing thing to say, which reflects badly not on me but back on this person.
Yet some ferocious beast in me yearns to crush my keyboard into shards explaining just what an inane comment the stranger made and demonstrating to “the world” how much more I understand everything than this person does.
If I weren’t careful, I’d suspect that this same beast is behind much, perhaps most, of the comments I read that enrage me. If I were especially incautious, I’d infer that the same thing that offends me about them is within me, wanting to fire back. If I were wildly reckless, I might even call that “thing” a spirit.
Or just sin.
And that would knock down my whole house of cards.
I think Facebook, Twitter, perhaps all social media platforms that people use as spaces for uncivil (anti-social) debate, lend to the sense that there is this collective soul, a generic “they” out there who just needs to be straightened out. In the old days, “they” were far away, out there somewhere. Now they type! And their comments show up on my screen! I’m angry all the time when I’m on these days because They think such Stupid Things! But it’s rarely the same person twice. I’m not actually
mad (okay, I probably am) pissed off at everyone, or even everyone who might hold that position, but because there is a constant stream of “someones” saying stupid things,* I begin to lump them together.
But this is unchristian. I think that’s the best way to say it. Social media generates not only anonymous interactions, which we all know allow for some people to show their most hateful side seemingly repercussion-free, but generalizing interactions, removed from individual context or connection (I see the tiny little icon of your cat or a flag next to your comment, nothing more). That lack of any rooting in our individual peculiarities and uniqueness, the things that can make us endearing to one another even when we disagree, leaves us in the same mindset that people have when they practice racism or sexism or homophobia.** “You people make me angry; you people are all alike.”
But that’s false. When I’m collecting evidence of how stupid people are, reading through their comments, I’m lumping together the person’s Ayn Rand comment with the one about Vespugian immigrants threatening our jobs and the one about how recycling doesn’t matter. They weren’t by the same person. They might all disagree with one another’s comments. The person unhappy with immigrants might hate Ayn Rand and recycle more faithfully than I ever dream of doing. The anti-recycle person might spend evenings helping shut-ins by delivering their groceries. Heck, the Ayn Rand fan might be quite hilarious and have great taste in movies.
But they aren’t people to me; that’s what I mean by “unchristian.” Jesus, who is God Almighty existing before time, came to earth in a very specific time and place in a particular human body, and he became friends with individual people whose names we know, Peter and Mary and Lazarus and Levi and Joanna. God in the flesh got to know them personally, individually. Our most basic claim about following Jesus, even before “I’m a sinner,” is “God cares for me.” Specifically. Individually. He cares for you, in all aspects and in most minute detail, down to the very hairs on your head.
When I turn around and disdain people I don’t know based on a few words they type, I’m defying what my faith is about. I’m left to conclude, then, that this compulsion to read comments with which I will disagree–and you know, the moment you start reading comments, where it will most likely go–is simply a temptation to sin. Pride, arrogance, my need to be superior, maybe even insecurity and inferiority that drive me to “prove them wrong.” Yeah, I can mask that as “getting a better sense of what people on the other side are thinking,” or some such smokescreen, but the real way to do that is to engage my friends in real, direct conversation. I have enough friends who see things differently than I do (go figure).
This means I am talking about “a spirit.” I’m talking about exactly the spirit by which I do not want to be led in my decisions and actions. It’s obvious, in retrospect, because I can see that my comment-reading-and-lumping almost invariably produces bad fruit in me–meaning it does bad things in my heart and mind, aggravates my insomnia, and doesn’t make me more Jesus-like, even a teensy bit. You’d think that would have been enough to give me a clue, but funny thing about sin: it makes us think wrong. It clouds our judgment and allows us to rationalize our destructive and self-destructive behaviors as somehow being benign or even productive.
I am repenting here. I hope I am also challenging our thinking on how we see and interact on social media. You may be way ahead of me on this. I want to stop dehumanizing people. Jesus came to help us become fully human, to become the most alive and joyful we can be.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
I think this is what I’m saying: I want to interact with people as Jesus taught, not as the thief leads.
*I know we don’t all agree on what constitute “stupid things.” If, as in my subsequent example, you happen to love Ayn Rand, fear Vespugian immigrants, and despise recycling, I apologize; I wasn’t trying to single you out.
**Don’t begin to tell me homophobia is not real. I had a conversation not long ago with a self-proclaimed Christian who, when the subject of gays came up, stated “I hate them. I hate them all.”