I’m Reconsidering Entering Flame Wars on Facebook
I have this opinion about not expressing opinions on controversial subjects.
My reasons boil down to theology, which might make your eyes glaze over. (And I do on occasion post on theological subjects and some people find me to be controversial there.) But, if you’re still reading, I’ll direct you to Paul’s pitch in Ephesians that Jesus came to break down dividing walls between people. As if what we people do by nature is reinforce walls between us and others and it will take a Jesus-sized miracle to break those walls down. When I post my (excellent!) opinion on the latest Facebook controversy, I stake out my and my friends’ turf against the Philistines; I establish what the wall is between me and, for instance, you.
I bring this up because, in my last Horatio article (Horatio is the site publishing this piece, in case, you know, you’re reading this on Facebook), I opined on the latest Facebook controversy. Here’s why I wrote it.
The theory behind Horatio (www.hellohoratio.com) is that we want to create a nationwide conversation on the meaning of life. So, while we publish a variety of articles, a good deal of what’s there are fascinating stories of experiencing meaning in things like navigating widowhood and living in dangerous places and raising an autistic son and facing discrimination as an army private. The stories are great, but they’re not controversial—you can’t really say that the author didn’t actually experience what they say they did. These articles don’t claim a place in the current cultural conversation; they exist outside it. Our motto is the old writing credo of show-don’t-tell and so the articles become like a guru on a mountaintop who will reward a trip, but who doesn’t travel to you.
Horatio is a new enterprise; it just started earlier this year, and we already have taken some of the summer and early fall off to think through its direction (the article I’m talking about—goodness!—came out two months ago). Horatio’s steering team has been asking, how do we feel about shooting to be gurus on mountaintops? To fulfill our mission of starting a nationwide conversation on meaning, shouldn’t we weigh in, from our particular vantage point, on the heated debates of the moment? If we stay on the mountaintop, do we even, in practical terms, exist, or do we just float on a cloud in some far corner of the internet?
My contribution to the conversation: “Well, let’s find out.”
Happily, I had some thoughts on the hot controversy of the moment (Planned Parenthood) that I didn’t think had been voiced quite in the way I had in mind. A of couple days later the article was posted and we sat back to see what we learned.
Exhibit A: To no one’s surprise, in short order it became Horatio’s most popular article by a noteworthy margin. Thousands of clicks. Who knew that controversy drove internet traffic?
Exhibit B: It was a miserable experience.
The first wave of response was friendly. I heard from people I hadn’t heard from in decades who were sharing the article. I was speaking a truth that voiced what people thought, but hadn’t expressed in quite the same way. Pretty useful!
Everything after that was outrage—some of which was reasonable (as outrage goes), a good deal of which was frothing. It seemed helpful to respond to some of the critics, largely to clarify what I was actually saying versus what they were representing me as saying. But the conventional internet wisdom of “don’t read the comments” ultimately seemed on point. As in all internet controversies, neither I nor my opponents could be convinced by the other. Jesus (did I warn you this was theological?—it’s theological) called this “throwing pearls before swine”: talking about things that are meaningful to you with people who cannot consider these things but only be provoked by them. If, says Jesus, we do throw pearls before swine, we can count on the pigs trampling our pearls just before they “turn and tear [us] to pieces.” Who says the Bible isn’t relevant to the internet age!
I have some bigger-picture thoughts on this. But before I get to those, let me make one key interjection.
It might in fact be the right move to spend some percentage of your short hours on this earth entering into Facebook or Twitter flame wars.
I mean, I suppose someone has to do it. That’s how we (and our perspective on the world) stake out cultural power—our ideas get traction and we’re seen as the best champion of those ideas. We see this process in action as our current presidential campaign chugs along. That’s some of what I do in my theological writing. You no doubt have a favorite Facebook or Twitter superstar who best represents your point of view in their own articulate way (along, perhaps, with a candidate who does the same). In that sense, it’s a win all around! Your hero is now well-known and maybe well-compensated, so they win. You have the comfort of knowing their voice is out there, fighting for your cause, and so your point of view now has a place in the larger, national conversation. It’s a win! Hard to argue with that! And, hopefully sometime soon, I and two friends will start weekly podcasts which will at times discuss news of the week. And I by no means promise I won’t again weigh in online on issues of the day (though it’s unlikely I’ll do it on Horatio). So I’m not utterly disowning this.
But let me suggest a picture of two circles, a small one inside of a much larger one.
The great scholars of myth and culture (I’m thinking particularly of Joseph Campbell, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) might call the small one “the ordinary world”—the actual, day-to-day world that you and I live in. And they’d call the bigger one “the special world”—a mysterious (and wonderful and scary) world that very few people ever venture into or even know is out there, but is the realm where the actual, meaningful battles are being fought. They’d tell us that every encouragement we get in culture and from most of our friends and parents has always been and will always be to stake out our turf in the small circle, the ordinary world. Every Facebook and Twitter controversy is about winning something in the ordinary world. It’s almost as if each of us—and our political and social points of view—can be pictured as molecules bouncing around inside of this circle, knocking against each other and generating lots of heat as we stake out our turf.
But, these scholars tell us, the real action is in the special world.
Each of us, whether we’ve realized it or not, has received a special commission to leave the ordinary world in some way and to venture into the special world on a crucial quest. We each are called to be Frodo Baggins and to leave the Shire with the one ring of power in hopes of saving the world. Our friends who are bouncing around and stirring up so much heat in the small, ordinary world will never really understand the quest we’re going on. But, if we don’t take the quest, in the end everyone we love will die. The big adventure we’ve been created to experience is in the special world, where we’re traveling a path no one else has ever taken in exactly the same way. And we’ll learn very different things in the special world than we’ve learned in the ordinary world.
That’s the question Horatio’s advisors were asking this summer. Do we set up camp in the special world and be glad that whoever finds us does in fact find us? Or do we go where everyone spends all of their time and weigh in among the billiard-ball flurry of whizzing molecules of the ordinary world, hoping as we go to speak from a particular, underrepresented perspective?
The verdict? For the moment, we’re finding ourselves satisfied with our one flame-war foray. Yes, we’re persuaded that worthy things can happen by weighing in on the latest Facebook controversy. If you’re making a needed, as-yet-unspoken point about the controversy at hand, you can do a concrete good. But by becoming another one of the careening molecules, maybe you by nature sacrifice wisdom for (so you hope) powerful arguing. In the fray, what’s important is winning.
And, of course, by entering in you participate in the human project of erecting and reinforcing the dividing walls that Paul seemed convinced were so destructive and so uniquely human.
It’s not at all easy to figure out how to join Jesus on his mission to break down those dividing walls. Facebook and Twitter (and congress) haven’t managed it. But our instinct at Horatio is that the answer requires us to at least set up a ladder and look out of our highest window into the special world. (On that point, you—yes you!—should write for Horatio.)
Is that a guru on a mountaintop that I see out there?