Facebook Not A Happy Medium After Recent Tragedies – 10 Tips For More Productive Conversations (Todd Littleton)

Religion and Digital Media

In light of the tragic events this past week surrounding the police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota as well as the killing of five police officers in Dallas, PTT invites ongoing commentary, including thoughtful and critical analysis, from both readers and regular contributors in hopes of fostering a more penetrating and far-reaching conversation about race in this country.  If you would like to be a part of these discussions, we welcome your submissions.

Independence Day 2016 dissolved into the day after with the release of a video of the death of Alton Sterling as he was being arrested by Baton Rouge police officers. Chris LeDay posted the video to his Instagram account with its 13,000 followers. Social media streams lit up like the July 4th sky, and with them, all the accompanying emotions of those asserting opinions and drawing conclusions.

Less than one day later, another video emerged. Lavish Reynolds posted a video to Facebook. Sitting in the car with her boyfriend, Philando Castile, who was slumped and bleeding in his seat, Reynolds recounted the shooting while her 4-year-old daughter sat in the backseat. A St. Anthony Police Department Officer stood at the window, gun drawn.

The week was not yet over.

On Thursday, July 7, four Dallas police officers and one DART officer died when a gunman shot them from a parking garage as a Black Lives Matter Rally was ending. The shooter allegedly acted out of anger over the shootings of Sterling and Castile.

For three consecutive days Facebook was no happy medium.

Like many I logged into Facebook looking for articles related to the events. What details had been released? What were the responses? What possibilities for bridging the divide these events revealed? I found few healthy conversations, not many willing to listen to the other and little suggestion for hopeful possibilities.

Here are ten social media lessons from this week.

1. Conversations are difficult when emotions run high.

Better to sit down over coffee face to face before drawing conclusions. Social media channels tempt quicker responses than traditional publishing. Speed kills conversation; it moves us instead more quickly to our corners, where any hope of understanding each other gets closed off.

Several years ago, theologian and author Scot McKnight offered a series of blog posts based on Benedetta Craveri’s The Age of Conversation. He reworked that series into a post and warned: “The fundamental obstacles to conversation are two-fold: most conversations are blocked either by a right vs. wrong obstacle or by an information-only obstacle.”

Last week there were few conversations. Many people sat defensively in their corners. Reconciliation is not possible from the corners.

2. Keyboards/Cell Phones are easy to hide behind.

If settling into our corners represents a defensive posture, hiding behind keyboards proves an offensive position. Without threat of the Real, or maybe one might argue it is the Real, people pick off those with whom they disagree without benefit of a human connection. No emoji adequately represents tone or inflection.  Unwittingly, participants practice de-humanization in the form of dpersonalization, often without understanding the situation is an assault on the self.

3. Sharing a post does not mean unqualified support.

Lost amidst the bluster of social media sharing is the realization that almost no one agrees down the line with what they share, unless of course one is showing support for their favorite sports team or posting photos of their grandchildren or beloved pet. When it comes to the articles attempting to get at all the information and nuance associated with events like this past week, there will always be something to which to object, if even a little.

The lesson here is where we turn the corner to consider what might bring about the desire for reconciliation. If corners and keyboards represent our defensive and offensive positions against the other/Other, then understanding that the better tactical maneuver would be to look for something you have not thought of rather than for what confirms an already decided position. Avoid the echo chamber. Listen or read with discernment for what you might learn.

Disclaimers distract. They cause another reader to be wary via the given filters of the person sharing.

4. When emotions are high, we rarely give the benefit of the doubt to someone we know.

Failure to give the benefit of the doubt is common for those we do not know, for those we have not yet tested to trust. What about those we know? Emotions often override what we know, especially when they run hot.

Recent studies in neuroscience challenge conventional wisdom that human beings are chiefly thinking beings that have emotions. Research indicates the neural pathway to the emotional center of the brain is the first tipped off to information. It is now suggested we are emotional beings that think. If this is true, then when we receive information that threatens what we have already decided we choose between fight or flight.

When events like those we observed this past week stir out emotions, even those close to us trigger doubt and distrust.

5. Rarely did an explanation of working out how we might take something in a shared post get acknowledged as a means to listen to the Spirit or think about the way of Jesus.

The context for this article is the events of last week, but this lesson transcends those events. If the Spirit is always at work in the world, then those who follow Jesus might want to look to the fringes—the unexpected places—for activity that disrupts the world as it is and calls us to a different world.

Christianity’s sacred text contains illustrations of the most unlikely people, even animals, who mediate the Call. Donkey. False Prophet. Women. (Don’t forget the Women.) When God looked for the first humans to declare the Resurrection, he found women.

6. Too many see the issues stemming from a very difficult week as either/or.

The pursuit of reconciliation in Christ disallows an either/or. Take as an example, the level of emotion ratcheted up with the deaths of the police officers. Some posted as if one was required to choose between supporting those who view the deaths of Sterling and Castile as acts of injustice or support for police officers who put their lives on the line to serve and protect day in and day out.

No such choice is required. It is not contradictory to call for justice in all of these events as well as respect for the officers who protect us.

7. Pastors are expected to discuss things considered theological, but we know that religion and politics don’t easily mix.

Pastors tend to receive greater critique when they attempt to point out how politics—the shared experience of life—are always subject to the way Jesus subverts power and the way things are—the givens of our world. The boundaries lie between encouraging the personal pieties, including evangelism, and expressing empathy for the bereaved. It is as if these shared experiences do not obtain to an order of life, a personal politic.

One would not want to essentialize one discourse and assert everything is theology, but neither would it be helpful to avoid the intersection of theology and everything.

8. Resist the urge to monasticism.

That is, fight the urge to disengage from social media channels due to the frustration they create. Instead, work to be more patient and clear. Consider these media as avenues to keep calling attention to the material ways Christians must not only engage but participate to make for a more peaceful world.

The Incarnation represents a Call to run into the world rather than run from the world. Cloistered congregations with only an eye to the eschaton subvert both the Incarnation and the reality of reconciliation in Christ.

9. Apologies are good.

Engaging with and participating in the world in pursuit of reconciliation and peace result in missteps and misrepresentations. Often the manner used to expose systems that undermine human flourishing is offensive. When an offense is taken make the first move toward reconciliation. Don’t wait on the other. Avoid the risk that your actions will overshadow your message.

Few actions reveal possibility like an apology. Fight the urge to rationalize the benefits of your argument in the face of the rupture caused by your words.

10. The Good News of Jesus is about a world and way that are possible.

Teaching-centric models of Church often spend an inordinate amount of time helping people manage their lives in order to be better Jesus people. The vision may actually be more self-centered than realized. What would startle the world is to hear the claim that in Jesus a new world is possible; a new way is obtainable.hopeful. Observing Christians live into that vision would represent a reiteration and a recapitulation of Incarnation. It would affirm Resurrection. And, it would point to the work of reconciliation in Christ.

We learn from Job. We read the answer Jesus gives regarding death and the falling tower. We read the catalog of the Apostle Paul’s life experiences, including shipwreck and beatings. We reflect on the events of last week and maybe we discover the world as it is is arbitrary. The life Jesus calls us to is rooted in love.

Love is not arbitrary. Reconciliation is possible.

Todd Littleton, D.Min., recently completed his 22nd year as pastor with Snow Hill Baptist Church, Tuttle, Oklahoma. He enjoys Jeep trails in the Colorado Mountains and fly fishing in the Upper Rio Grande.

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