ISSUES OF FAITH: Putting the social back into media

TODAY, THERE DOESN’T seem to be what one might call a “useful purpose” for social media. Everyone seems to just know that it, somehow, corrupts children, brings doubt to reality and demands we question our own sense of truth without any assurances, in exchange, that we might be able to find a way to live together as a society.

There was a time when we collectively agreed that “news” was something we could all trust. We might not agree with a given politician’s policy statements, or the way a particular event was reported in mainstream media, but we didn’t necessarily and instantly judge any and all posts to be a lie. Instead, we took such reporting, and each other, at face value. We could say, of others, “So and so might be a [insert party here],” but we generally didn’t question the very integrity of those who held differing opinions, as we’re all too willing to do these days. We assumed good will.

I was reminded of this when I recently saw a photograph of two politicians from the 1930s with a caption along the lines of “Two Political Figures Discuss Foreign Policy.” If that were the title of a contemporary political cartoon drawn today, the joke would come from the image being discordant with the very idea of cordial and fruitful political discussion.

It might have depicted a stereotypical image, say, of an elephant and a donkey slugging it out. But that wasn’t the point, at all.

The two conversing were in quiet conversation, weren’t depicted as animals, as lacking basic humanity. Instead, they were merely talking to one another. Just talking, without any apparent rancor whatsoever. The power of the image came from its quiet certainty that two people with very different ideas could still maintain a conversation without personal insults, attacks on each other or any other dehumanizing tactic. They just ... talked.

In our society, we seem to have lost much of that ability to talk, certainly to those we disagree with. What’s missing is any idea of a common space in which two people (let alone more) can speak with a reasonable expectation that they will be heard by each other.

That idea — that we can both hear opposing ideas and accept that the other is arguing their position in good faith — is lost or, at least, highly at risk. It’s worse than that: our basic default position is not merely “I am right and you are wrong,” but too often “I am right; therefore you must either agree with me or be evil.”

There’s no place for quiet discussion anymore, and that’s a great loss.

In social media and in our face-to-face lives, such quiet spaces often collapse. The participants become entirely insular, walled off from each other. We allow ourselves to close ranks together against “those people,” whoever “they” might be.

So, the question is: can we find a way in spaces such as coffeehouses and chat rooms alike to find a way to talk? And, especially, can we do so in ways that make the world a better place by our demonstrations of love for one another?

Well, yes, but it isn’t easy.

Rules for discussion help, a lot. As Nancy Thomas and Mark Brimhall Vargas have noted, “Ground rules ... help groups participate in productive, candid, civil conversations. Each group should set its own ground rules at the beginning — before much conversation occurs.”

Where the knowledge of the ground rules for a given community are either not well known by the group as a whole or not agreed upon by the whole, chaos will soon ensue.

Someone will say something politically charged in a discussion which is intended to be apolitical, and the discussion will spiral out of control with people joining in without reading all the conversation that has already taken place. People begin reporting each other to whatever admins may exist. Anger grows and feelings get hurt.

But Jesus, in his interactions, did not yell at others, ever (well, OK, maybe the time he chased out the merchants out of the Temple with a whip).

Generally, though, he would listen for what my first spiritual director called “the music of their hearts.”

Jesus knew that strong opinions forged more in anger than in reason might simply come out of hurt — whatever that hurt might be.

And when he was faced with a strong argument, he would even change his mind: “Jesus ... withdrew into the district of Tyre and Sidon. And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.’ But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and implored him, saying, ‘Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us.’ But he answered and said, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and began to bow down before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me!’ And he answered and said, ‘It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ But she said, ‘Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus said to her, ‘O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed at once,” (Matthew 15:21-28).

Jesus’ first reaction, like ours, was to simply ignore her; meanwhile, his disciples begged him to send her away, because she was “shouting.” But when she responded, after being compared to a dog, “even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table,” I picture Jesus stopped dead in his tracks, no longer seeing her as merely a Caananite, or an outsider, but instead as she truly was, a desperate mother with a sick child.

Once that happened, once he truly saw her, he had mercy. So should we when we confront the other.

Like Jesus, we need to learn to listen if we want to move beyond mere talk to loving conversation and love of the others we meet.

________

Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Dr. Keith Dorwick is a deacon resident in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia.

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