Social media tends to be a bit fad-ish. Memes and ideas explode on the scene, are everywhere for a short period of time, and then tend to drift off into the ether, never to be heard from again. When these memes are cat videos or quotes from celebrities, this appearing and disappearing act doesn’t seem to be a problem. But what about when the social media fads are not cute and amusing, but horrifying and terrible? Whether it be expressing outrage over the situation in Aleppo or being exasperated by the latest instance of police violence against a person of color, real life situations often take on meme-like status via social media: they seem to come out of nowhere, suddenly everyone is talking about them, and then—only a few days later—the issue has disappeared from our radars again. But is it good that real, serious social issues become memes on Facebook or twitter?
On the one hand, bringing people’s attention to issues impacting the lives of our fellow human beings is a good thing. We often live in ignorance of the pain and suffering felt by other people in our community or around the world. Having some light shed on these issues can help us better love our neighbors—and perhaps even reflect on ways we might be unwittingly complicit in some of the events causing this pain. Engaging these issues on social media can provide a starting point for conversations that begin to change hearts and minds.
On the other hand, the meme-ing of social issues can sometimes reduce complex webs of cause and effect into simplistic “good guy v. bad guy” narratives that make it easy to become angered and indignant (almost always at someone else), but do little, if anything, to change the conditions which led to the problem in the first place. When it becomes a story of the good guys and the bad guys, we almost never cast ourselves as the bad guys, and it’s almost never the supposed good guys who are causing the problem. Naturally, if it’s the bad guys’ fault, and I’m not one of the bad guys, then there isn’t much I can do to fix things—except get mad at the bad guys and try to shame them into changing.
And the fad-ish nature of the whole thing also threatens to turn other people’s pain and suffering into fodder for our entertainment, another item to be consumed by our voracious appetite for what’s new. This is not to say that we enjoy the pain and suffering we see. But even if we are saddened by what we see, as long as we are doing it for the sake of our own feelings, it remains largely entertainment, and our indignation at the horrors of Aleppo seem to become one with our sadness at the death of a child on Call the Midwife or our horror at the brutality of war depicted in Vikings or Game of Thrones. If our anger about innocent deaths or racial injustice are the same whether the victims are real people or characters on a television show, we have to ask whether we are paying attention because we care about the issue—or because we somehow enjoy the righteous indignation. Do we want to make things better—or are we just looking for a reason to be aghast at how bad things are?
Of course, not everyone—perhaps not even most people—engaging social issues on social media is doing so for their own benefit. But as we try to evaluate our own engagement with social issues via social media, we need to be honest with ourselves and our own motivations. Are we genuinely being moved, via social media, to better love our neighbor and God’s creation—or are we merely looking for somewhere to direct our anger, fear and anxiety? Are we seeking redemptive reconciliation, or personal catharsis? Do we acknowledge that we are part of the problem (the sinful brokenness of creation), and thereby challenge ourselves to be part of the solution—or are we merely looking to confirm how terrible the world is “out there”, so we can be a bit more smug about how good things are “in here” (whether “in here” means as the Church, or as liberals, conservatives, and whatever other group we may hold dear)?
I wonder sometimes about our own engagement with social issues on social media. Why do we share the things we share, engage the issues we engage, avoid the issues we avoid? Each of us probably needs to think more carefully through what we hope to accomplish by our engagement:
Am I hoping to raise awareness? If so, with whom? How am I framing it so that people who aren’t already aware of it will engage with it, instead of just tuning it out because that’s not something they care about?
Am I desiring to build community and create safe spaces for expression, dialogue, validation and affirmation? If so, how do I bring in the people who need that community—and keep out the people who threaten to undermine it? How do I make sure that I myself am not undermining someone else’s safe community through my words and actions? If not every post is shared because people want to debate the topic at hand, how do I know when debate is welcome and when it’s time to stay out of it, or when it’s time to offer encouragement instead of critique?
Am I trying to be active in changing the situation or issue at hand? For me, this is the trickiest one. There are many of the same questions here as there are with raising awareness (how do I frame it, who do I share it with, etc.), but there are also the additional questions concerning changing the situation: do I want to change people’s hearts and minds, and hope that leads to social and perhaps legal changes? Do I want to change the laws and/or social conditions, and hope that individual hearts and minds will change down the road? In addition, there are also questions about why I (or someone else) should want to change this particular issue, and not another of the myriad of issues with which people could be concerned. After all, all these issues show us areas where the world is crying out for the type of reconciliation that we, as Christians, know can ultimately be found only in the redemptive work of God. Therefore, every issue is an avenue where God’s loving grace is working to make all things new (Rev 21:5)—but also an avenue where other things are at work which may not be pointing toward love, grace, or reconciliation.
Social media is no different. It can be a powerful force for social change, and a means of helping us live better as agents of redemption and reconciliation. But it can also be a way for our selfishness to mask itself as concern, and our tendencies towards judgmental-ism and demonization to flourish under other guises. At its best, social media creates new avenues for dialogue, connection and community, enabling us to engage more people in a wide variety of ways around difficult social issues. But at its worst, it allows us to merely re-affirm our own goodness in opposition to “those bad people”, thereby losing ourselves in a self-righteousness that that is neither righteous, nor particularly helpful for ourselves.
As you open your Facebook page or scroll through your Twitter feed, what questions help guide you and shape your engagement with social issues?
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Wow, Neal. Thank for articulating these thoughts. I intend to use this in one of my classes as a means to evaluate our own attitudes as tread water in the sea of social media. I hope you’re doing well!