Some Thoughts Before You Post Strong Opinions

I’m not writing this to the trolls, who auto-share memes and fake news from their favorite sarcastic voices or share opinions in real life and on social media out of hatred or mean-spiritedness.

This post is for the ones trying to fend off the people I described above. For the ones who have (often painful) personal experience with a question everyone is discussing in the abstract. For the ones who are angry for a good reason about something that’s happening in the world and with those who are approaching that issue in a way they think is wrong.

To you, I say: be careful.

Please.

Here’s why. Over the past year, I’ve seen many statements, especially on Facebook, that contain lines like “if you have the audacity/stupidity/cruelty to believe [this usually-overgeneralized-and-extreme-version of an argument], then you don’t get to join the conversation.” Sometimes in those actual words or words like it.

“You don’t have the right to speak if you think…”

“I don’t want to hear anyone say….”

“Don’t you dare respond that….”

“You can just go ahead and unfriend me if you’re going to protest that….”

And the list goes on.

I think I know where this is coming from, because I’ve felt it too. We set up these challenges, not because we’re afraid of being proved wrong, but because we’re tired of interacting with views that offend us. We’re emotionally exhausted by the fact that anyone on Facebook can take a few seconds to dash off something racist or sexist or just plain stupid, that they are leeching off our platform to get attention their misguided view doesn’t deserve.

But we keep using social media because we still want to be heard. We want affirmation of what we believe. We want to be the loudest voice, and we want all of the comments to help others understand the truth or just tell us that we described the truth in a powerful way.

This isn’t about hate speech vs. free speech in public dialogue, just about how we conduct personal conversations and debates, especially when we announce which perspectives are acceptable and unacceptable on a particular issue. I can believe, sometimes, that it’s a well-meant desire, that we hope that this time, maybe, we can warn away the people who type before thinking or who dispense clichés or who just want to start a fight.

But there are consequences to silencing voices that disagree with us.* I’ve been thinking about them lately, and here are a few I see:

One: We start hearing only those like us.

By letting those who are different know they aren’t welcome, we pick teams and create our own ideological echo chambers. Among other things, this slowly chips away at our ability to feel empathy—to understand why people feel the way they do, even if we don’t agree. When we lose the ability to listen, even to the outrageously misinformed, we lose a lot of our humanity with that.

Two: We miss the chance to become smarter and stronger.

How are you going to get better at well-reasoned arguments if you’re only posting unchallenged monologues? Let me bring in my 19th century frenemy John Stuart Mill describing why he considered it “evil” to silence other views: “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Couldn’t our culture use a clearer perception of the truth? I know I sure could, and I don’t think it can happen if we chase away everyone whose opinions differ from ours.

Three: It forces us to make calls on who’s “in” and who’s “out.”

Klan members and Nazis might seem like easy targets, but after that…who gets to stay in the club? Whose disagreement is too extreme to earn a spot at the debate table? If you’re pro-environment, do you exclude the people who think proposed solutions to global warming aren’t worth the cost, or just those who deny that global warming is happening at all? If you’re pro-life, do you exclude people who believe that abortion is an issue of women’s rights, or just the people who deny that the fetus is actually a life?

There are voices that you may want to counter strongly, particularly if some crazies associate themselves with a group you’re a part of. (For Christians, I’d put Westboro Baptist and prosperity gospel preachers in this category.) But the fact that those voices can still be heard and engaged with makes for better debates with the best chance for getting at the truth. We can’t come to right conclusions if we have a mile-long list of biases and perspectives we are not willing to even consider.

And don’t forget: you can feel free to ignore or respond with polite dismissal to crazy opinions, which especially on social media, I would highly, highly recommend.

Me all the time.

Four: It gives an unhealthy weight to emotion in our decision making.

Before I go on, let me say this: if you’re a survivor of sexual abuse or a teacher who goes through shooter drills or a person who has experienced countless acts of racism, then you have a credible and emotionally impactful perspective on current issues. Your opinion is supported by experience. You can feel what other people are just talking about.

But I do think it’s a mistake to let even important, valid emotions take certain solutions off the table before they’ve been fully discussed. If you’re going to accept or reject a policy or opinion, acknowledge your feelings about the issue. Use them to add to your passion in explaining the best solution as you see it. But don’t let them replace careful research and analysis of responses to a problem. (I’m an ENFP on the Myers-Briggs test, so I believe feelings are too often discounted as a weakness in debates instead of being leveraged as a strength…but I’ve also seen them used badly in logical arguments.)

To sum up: I’d rather see more people countering or ignoring stupid arguments on Facebook than telling those who hold them to shut up before they’ve even spoken, because I want to see all of us be a little braver, a little more humble, and a little more in love with the clear and lively truth than we are in being cheered by a crowd of those who already agree with us.

 

*Stuffy Devil’s Advocate Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: Let me think of the most extreme example I can think of: say you’re in a conversation about genocide with a Holocaust denier. She repeatedly cites false statistics and rejects all of your actual photographs and primary sources and war crimes court transcripts. You feel like you’ve reached the point where you cannot have any kind of productive discussion, and you certainly wouldn’t want to invite your Jewish friend to join in, because this view is not an opinion about how to interpret facts, but a deliberate distortion of facts, and also deeply offensive.

I’m totally fine with saying, “Look, we aren’t just using different logical arguments; we’re referencing a different set of facts. Because of that, there’s no way this conversation can move on in a way that is helpful to either of us.” (Basically, the nice way of saying, “One of us has to be misinformed or delusional, and if we keep talking about this, I may be tempted to drop-kick you all the way to Auschwitz.”)

To me, that’s very different than saying, “If you disagree with me about how to approach gun control/whether “safe spaces” are necessary/what to do with immigration, you are not welcome to express that” which is what I’m talking about here.

Let’s Talk About Cain Killing Someone With a Rock

Most people know the general plot of the story, whether they think it’s history or myth: Cain and Abel were the first brothers on earth, and because his offering wasn’t accepted by God like his brother’s was, Cain killed Abel in a jealous rage. (You can read the full story here—and you should, because source material matters, people.)

There’s something deeply disturbing about realizing the first death was a murder. Christianity teaches that because of sin, we all die…but also because of sin, we sometimes kill.

Which brings us to today. More than in the aftermath of past mass shootings, I’ve seen arguments from both sides that reference Cain. Here’s the most common one:

Full disclosure: I’m not a huge fan of discussing complex societal problems on the Internet, partly because I’m not an expert in basically anything, and partly because it’s not a good medium for listening and responding well.

But as soon as I see people posting Biblical verses or references to support their position, it’s like beaming the bat-signal into the sky. Time to break out the cape and exegetical utility belt. Gotham needs me.

Don’t worry. I always give myself a cooling-off period when I’m in one of those moods, so I’m not about to go all vigilante justice on you. By now, I know that I’m not the hero the world deserves or the hero it needs. I don’t have all the answers. I can’t solve all the problems. But I do have some thoughts.

If you had asked me a week ago what the story of Cain teaches us, before the memes and the rhetoric, I would have said things like “God deeply values right worship,” “God deeply values human life,” and “We are held responsible for the moral choices we make.” All of those are major themes of the story. None of these are referenced by the meme.

That’s your friendly reminder that the story of Cain and Abel isn’t actually about gun control. It exists in the Bible for much more important reasons than to get name-dropped on Facebook after a terrible tragedy.

Okay. So, let’s talk about the part that is directly relevant to mass shootings and what we should do about them. One of the themes of the story of Cain is…

We are capable of great evil.

All of us. Not just the mentally ill or the marginalized, not just the shooters and the psychopaths. Need proof? Later in the Bible, when John says, “Do not be like Cain”—referencing choices to hate others instead of love them—he’s talking to his fellow Christians. (1 John 3:12)

Have you felt what that means, lately? It means we could be like Cain. It means sometimes we are. Sometimes I am.

If you believe this, thousands of conclusions follow, some of which I think relate to the meme-ification of gun violence. Because I believe that all of us are capable of great evil, I also believe…

My friends on the political left are correct when they say it’s all too easy to let greed and selfishness blind us to potential solutions to this problem.

And my friends on the political right are correct when they say that no matter how many laws are made, people determined to break them will find a way to do so.

Some of my friends are wrong because, really, there is no such thing as a “good guy with a gun.” We are all corrupted by sin, and even our good intentions for gun ownership—protection or public safety—can be twisted by fear or prejudice or pride. (Ex: controversial police shootings and questions about “just wars.”)

Some of my friends are wrong because they put too much faith in rules, and maybe even in the government (made up of corrupted people) by being willing to trade freedom for security. It’s an age-old question of risks and gains that needs to be made carefully with an understanding that we’re just as bad, maybe worse, institutionalized into a group than we are individually.

So to the people talking about how Cain killed with a rock, I’d say yes, he did. But now we can kill with weapons that have more power and potential, and that changes things. That’s true of every new invention—guns are just one example. Technology shows both our capacity to create and progress, and our tendency to corrupt and destroy in more far-reaching ways. That’s the difference between a rock and a gun. And the point of the story of Cain and Abel isn’t to say we shouldn’t have laws just because we are lawbreakers at heart.

And to the people saying that Abel’s blood cries out for justice, I’d say yes, it does. But it cries out against us, in our confidence of our own rightness and righteousness. The references to Abel’s blood crying out in the New Testament (Matthew 23:34-36, Hebrews 11:4, 12:24) aren’t given as a reason why we should have more restrictions to prevent murder. The point of the story of Cain and Abel is not that it tells us how to respond to violence, but that it symbolizes all of our rejections of God since then.

All that said, the story of Cain and Abel does have application to the crazy, messed-up world we live in. The main one I see is in its honesty about the human condition. What you think about people’s goodness matters when you talk politics and policy…but it doesn’t mean you don’t have a responsibility to talk about those things.

Let’s refuse to accept platitudes and easy answers as we try to find wise solutions…but let’s also remember our tendency toward corruption when we think about how those solutions will play out.

Star Wars Valentines

Happy Valentine’s Day Eve! (That’s a thing, right? Like, where you eat carrot sticks and rice so you can eat too much chocolate the next day?)

It’s become a tradition on the blog to put up a page of homemade Valentines in February. This year’s round is for my sister, a big Star Wars fan. (You’re welcome, kid!)

Do some of these probably already exist out in Internet-land? Yes. Are there about a billion Star Wars valentines being sold every second today to young padawans who have class parties tomorrow? Yes. Did I still really want brooding Anakin on a valentine of my own? Also yes.

I could have gone on for dozens of punny slogans, but here are a few. Put more ideas in the comments…I love reading them! And check out the Theologian, Lord of the Rings, and love-at-first-fight valentines too if you need more.

Okay, friends: here’s your chance. You’ve got three trilogies (and an extended universe) of characters to write valentine mottos for. Go!

Can Technology Make Us Better?

“I’m going to tell you a story about a time I made someone cry,” I told the fourth and fifth grade Sunday School class. They settled in, excited, as I described the scene: sixth grade, the start of a long stretch of awkwardness. One of my classmates was trying to collect his thoughts in answer to a question and couldn’t quite get there. “I think…I think…” he said, then trailed off.

“Do you even think at all?” I blurted out. And the other kids laughed. The boy I’d made fun of ran out of the room crying. I’ll never forget the look on his face before he did.

I paused the story. The kids, the present-day ones, looked alarmed. This is not where they thought the story was going. Most of my stories have happy endings, and along the way involve funny things like zombies with lightsabers, exploding grape slushies, and me launching an offensive disguised as a bush during a game of Capture the Flag. They probably thought I’d made someone cry with joy, or, more likely, by accidentally injuring them in a comical way.

This Amy, they were starting to realize, did something mean. Plain and simple.

“Do you know why I did it?” I asked.

Twelve pairs of wide eyes stared up at me. No one volunteered an answer.

So I gave it to them. “I did it because I wanted to.”

I went on to explain that I loved being the center of attention. I wanted people to like me and think I was funny. So when I saw a chance to make a joke at someone else’s expense…I took it.

That’s what I thought of when I saw this clip from a Louis C.K. interview about how cell phones have changed bullying. (The main point is in the first two minutes, and if you just listen to those, you’ll also miss the language.)

I use this example in particular partly because it’s got something profoundly true to say about how technology can distance us from others. As Louis C.K. says, a cell phone can’t teach empathy.

But I also included it because Louis C.K. is one of many Hollywood figures caught up in a storm of sexual misconduct and abuse. In that aspect of his story, we see some of the complexities of technology: it’s given victims a voice and it’s made it easier for us to hurl condemnation from afar. It’s made entertainers into idols and then publicized their falls.

I saw a response by Sarah Silverman, his friend and colleague, who talked about the hurt that comes when someone you love does bad things. What stuck out to me most, though, was at the very end when she said, “We need to be better. We will be better.”

And I have to admit that part of me wondered, “Will we? Does saying it make it true?” (more…)

Let’s Talk About Technology!

During my senior year of high school, we were supposed to write a personal essay on a topic of some kind.

That’s how I remember it, anyway. It’s possible the instructions were more specific than that, but then again, I recall my very structured sister vehemently hating this assignment, so maybe not.

Regardless, I decided to write about writing. More specifically, how much easier (and better) it was to write first drafts by hand rather than using a computer. My teacher loved it. He had me read it out loud to the class, and I confidently waxed eloquent about how the convenience of technology can be a danger as well and how writing is more pure, undistracted, and real when begun by hand.

“There’s something about a computer that distances us from our writing,” my essay declared. “In a way, it could have been anyone’s hands that typed this sentence. Each letter on the keyboard in front of me has been pushed thousands of times and has come out in the same Times New Roman size 12 mold each time. . . . Admitting that it feels intimidating to entrust my writing—in a way, a small part of myself—to the impersonal Document1 makes me feel a bit ridiculous, like I just confessed that I don’t like to have my picture taken because I think that the camera will steal my soul. I know that, logically, this essay would be the same whether typed on a laptop or scribbled in my messy handwriting…but it doesn’t feel the same.”

There was only one problem: it was a lie.

Oh, sure, I’d gotten the idea while brainstorming in the margins of my notebook, even written the first paragraph and some of the best parts in the middle on notecards, to be rearranged later. But the bulk of the essay, contrary to what I claimed, went straight from my head to the impersonal Document 1 by way of the computer.

That wasn’t how I planned it. It had just sort of…happened. And by the time it did, I decided to turn the essay in anyway. When my conscience poked me about it, I told myself that it would be too much work to change topics, that I’d have to rewrite the whole thing, that (to be honest) I didn’t know how to explain my complicated feeling about technology. (more…)

Why Are Fairy Tales So Violent?

With fairy tales, there’s a certain expectation of a charming, sweet little story that takes place long ago and far away. Sure, we like the Disney storybook versions with pain-free happy-ever-afters, but guess what? When you count the original stories for those sorts of tales, you won’t find many.

Hugs and wise guidance from parents are far less common than abandonment and decapitation in the old tales. Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper, Snow White makes the evil queen dance in red-hot iron shoes till she dies, and instead of beautiful castles and red roses, there are mostly just monsters, unfair enchantments, and people getting rolled down hills in barrels filled with spikes. And those are just the fairy tales that Adam Gidwitz drew my attention to.

My latest road trip was occupied by listening to the amusing-but-unflinching narrator read Gidwitz’s collections of woven together fairy tales. (In case you’re interested, the second one, In a Glass Grimmly was by far my favorite.)

Plot points of these stories range from the creepy (a stepmother murdering a young boy and then framing the boy’s sister) to the gruesome (his father accidentally eating the son’s dismembered body for dinner) to the just plain weird (the boy’s spirit in the form of a bird dropping a millstone on his stepmother and then turning into a boy again). Same story. That would be “The Juniper Tree,” kids. Basically everything that happens in that one is a bizzare twist.

As I read, I wondered why these stories were ever considered appropriate for children. When I got to the grossest, grimmest parts, Disney’s cleaned-up versions were just fine with me. But as I thought about it, I realized the purposes of the old fairy tales weren’t the same. In an interesting essay, Gidwitz explains how fairy tales make abstract moral concepts real for kids: “Forests are where our fears turn into wolves, our desires into candy houses, where our fathers turn us loose to fend for ourselves, where the emotional problems we face at home are physicalized, externalized, and ultimately conquered.” There’s a moral certainty to these old stories, a weightiness. Good has to triumph and evil must be punished—that’s the way these tales work. You can count on it. It just will.

Probably the scary and violent details of these stories got by, experts say, because two hundred years ago, many kids didn’t reach adulthood and none of them were coddled, and there actually was a chance that a wolf might eat you if you wandered into the woods alone. I’m sure those are all true. But what intrigues me more are the high stakes that these violent old stories put on choices and their consequences. No kid who heard those tales and their vivid endings would wonder if wrong choices would catch up with them. Not going to happen. (more…)

The Last Jedi and Everyday Evil

It’s game night. We are playing a “social deduction game” where the object is to either assassinate the player who is Secret Hitler or to get Secret Hitler elected Chancellor, depending on whether you’re a liberal or a fascist. As usual, I am defending myself, and as usual, the people who know me best don’t believe a word I’m saying.

Finally, someone comes to my defense. “Come on, guys,” he says, holding up one of the world-famous chocolate chip cookies I’ve brought with me. “No fascist would make us cookies.”

“Yes, they would,” I say automatically. Then I explain that one of my philosophy professors had a song called “There’s a Little Hitler Inside of You.” Looking back, this didn’t help my case at all.

SecretHitler

It really is a fun game. You should try it.

Since I am getting strange looks from the people who met me twenty minutes ago, I don’t tell them that I’ve read dozens of books about racism and genocide, and most of the people involved were decent, mild-mannered neighbors who donated to charity, doted on their children, baked cookies…and turned away from a vast and sweeping evil that they could have resisted.

And I certainly don’t say that every time someone watches a movie or the news and tells me, “I can’t imagine how anyone could let something like that happen,” I think, You have such a limited imagination, my friend. Or maybe just a short memory. How long has it been since you dwelled on something dark and secret instead of turning away? Since you felt hatred for someone you didn’t really understand? Since you saw the way out of temptation and didn’t take it?

Not long, at least not for me.

While I’m thinking these things, the game goes on. I am, actually, a fascist (but not Secret Hitler). I get assassinated and the liberals rue the cookies they ate in confidence. They should have known better.

(more…)