In various times and places throughout human history there have been innumerable clashes and conflicts. This diaspora of violence, persecution, and hatred reveals the fragility and brokenness of our human nature. We are, by nature, creatures with deeply rooted emotions, and it is often this which drives us to form inaccurate ideas about the motives of others. I have recently been listening to a Yale psychology course on emotions, and this has led me to once again appreciate the profound impact our emotions have on our state of being. One multifaceted emotional reaction that I have seen, time and time again, especially in the Social Media world (Facebook and Twitter being the greatest culprits) is the formation of a persecution complex. People that disagree with one another often assume their counterpart is “mocking” them or has a “personal” vendetta against them.
Basically we all react with raw and unfiltered emotion where careful consideration is required. We also take personal offense, where impersonal ideas are being discussed. This is because instead of kindly discussing ideas, we often associate our self-worth and identity in those ideas, thus when they are being critiqued, we assume our identity under attack, and respond in like. The truth is, you and I often think we are being persecuted when we are not.
The History of Dissent
For most of human history disagreements and the persecution disorder have been a localized phenomenon. Some ancient people lived in societies that were either relatively uniform in religious views, for example the Native Americans, or the Chinese and Buddhist civilizations. Others lived in massive multicultural empires that encompassed a vast array of religions and philosophies, like the Mediterranean or Near East regions. Eventually most major nations quenched religious diversification and the West became predominantly Christian. Yet in all of these contexts the meta-narrative includes some form of persecution against the few who disagree with the opinion of the many. Although Christians often claim to own the title of martyr and victim, history proves otherwise, Christians are not alone, their ranks are joined by martyrs from every major religion, and even those without religion. (1) In most of these instances we can speculate that it was the fear of the unknown and different, as well as feelings of personal disrespect that were, at least partly, responsible for the persecution.
Our modern world carries many of these traits, but yet, is like nothing that has existed before. Because of the internet and increasing globalization the amount of conflicting ideas and paradigms one encounters in their lifetimes has dramatically increased. Also the ease of expressing these opinions has been profoundly amplified. Whereas in the past, a group of religious clergy could speak a monologue and have little reaction from the common man, today it is easier than ever for a layperson to submit a personal critique in the form of a blog post or self-published article/website. In some cases this had decreased tension (because some people, aware of the increasing diversification of ideas are less dogmatic) in other cases this has increased tensions (because other people are for the first time encountering criticisms of personal beliefs and ideologies).
That brings us to Social media, which is an altogether different type of medium, one that was previously available to most people. The online venue that allows us to throw out our opinions, thoughts, and ideas, is strongly limited by the inability to adequately share our motives and feelings. In addition there is a large variety of people that can interact online. Some of these are highly educated, well versed in academic discourse, others are academically underdeveloped, many more fall at various places in the middle. Besides the level of education and interaction with academic ideas, there is a plethora of different communicative philosophies that are accepted by different people. Some think rigorous speculative rhetoric is helpful, others think words should be few and only encouraging, and those in the middle may hold to yet other types of ethos. And then this complex mixture of people and ideas, with innumerable views and theories about communication, attempt to communicate without seeing each other’s facial expressions or hearing the tone of voice.
This becomes the perfect mixture for people to be misunderstood and for a persecution complex to develop.
The Emotion of Debate
Some issues are easy to talk about because there is little emotional identification and affection. For example I can effortlessly talk with my brother who is an avid apple fanboy, whereas all of my mobile devices are android based. We may disagree, however, can carry on a conversation without feeling offended at each other (sometimes).
Other issues are more complex; faith, the interpretation of Biblical texts, methodologies and theologies are all very meaningful and emotional topics. They are issues that people have invested their time, energy, money, and, most importantly, identity into. More often than not, people have a strong tie between morality and the things they believe. This means that many Christians who take to the internet, often think the things they believe are the best, or only, morally right thing that anyone should believe. Or that by affirming a subset of particular doctrines and ideas, they are being morally upright, while others who disagree, have morally suspicious motives. To add another layer of complexity, many people cannot distance their emotions from the things they believe and the way they believe them. Rather, they personally and emotionally identify themselves with their, sometimes abstract, religious ideas, theories, speculations, or beliefs. Their personhood, value, worth, and emotional stability, without their realizing it, are powerfully tied into the things they believe.
Once you understand this complexity, you can understand why there is so much angst, emotion, anger, and frustration when discussing issues of faith on social media. Let’s take the following scenario: Richie is a Christian who strongly believes X is the best morally righteous way of life, he believes it so much that he does it and defends it. He has been doing or believing X for many years, and has never personally talked with someone who dissents. Yet Richie has often heard preachers warn about distant nameless people, out there, who are evil because they hate X. Then Richie goes on Facebook and encounters someone who claims to also be a Christian, and says that X is a bad idea. What is Richie’s reaction? Is it gentle curiosity? Is it an eager quest to understand? Is it a desire to have a polite and rewarding conversation? Probably not. It’s very likely that Richie will react emotionally with shock, fear, and most importantly personal offense. Because Richie has invested such a great deal of time, energy, and identity, into X, any critique of X is seen as a personal attack against him. We can agree that Richie will feel this new critic is saying he is stupid for investing so much time and effort into X. Richie feels offended and persecuted.
Yet, whatever Richie assumes and feels, is merely an emotional reaction because he is not socially equipped to have an open dialogue with those who disagree. It is not necessarily evidence that the motive and intention of Richie’s internet opponent is harmful or derogatory. It’s quite likely that the person writing about X and Y didn’t merely have no evil intentions towards Richie, but didn’t even realize that Richie existed at the time. For all intents and purposes the critic was innocent of purposefully maligning and offending Richie, however, Richie is absolutely offended and frustrated by this criticism of an idea, that to Richie is a direct personal assault on his personhood.
That is the sad reality of many discussions on social media. Oh, and that Richie guy? That used to be me, and my guess is, that’s probably you as well. Today, I recognize that persecution complex in the majority of my interactions with people online when the topic is Christian faith and practice. I’ve been told that I have a knack for “pissing people off” and seeing some of the angry and upset responses I am often blessed with, I’m starting to see this is somewhat true.
The Future of Discourse
The sad reality is that we human beings are not very kind to those who voice dissent from our emotionally rooted ideas. We have many types of explanations to rationalize our emotionally vengeful overreaction, like “he was just being outrageous” or “she is teaching heresy” or “he is a liberal.” Yet the bitter truth is that usually, none of these reasons could ever justify our hyper emotional responses. Most often these reasons only malign and accuse the other person in order to “prove” that they are worthy of our sharp words. Yet the reality is that no one deserves sharp words for having a divergent belief. In fact in most cases, those people who are responded to with personal attacks, did not intend personal attacks. I know this because I have been on both sides of this equation.
Let me give a few examples. Throughout nearly four years of blogging, I have been in the hot seat so many times, that I’ve learned to wear fireproof pants. On numerous occasions, I have forayed into thinking about some wildly popular idea that is rooted in unquestionable tradition. For example, when I belonged to a traditional Slavic subculture I once wrote about the appropriateness of women wearing pants. Not even once was I thinking “I hate those people who think women need to wear pants.” In my head it was all about logic, reasoning, what makes sense, what doesn’t, where does Scripture and tradition mix in this tug of war. And I posted it, never intending to hurt or upset anyone. The responses proved otherwise, my thinking out loud was perceived as a personal attack and responded with a great deal of negative emotion.
Another story is more recent. About two months ago I wrote out ten challenging questions about glossolalia that I was thinking through at the time. Not once during this process did I feel anger or hatred towards my friends who do speak in tongues. The article even said that I was not attempting to be hostile and was open to their input. There wasn’t the slightest desire within me to personally offend or personally attack anyone. In my thoughts and writing I was thinking out loud and asking hard questions in the public domain, inviting others to a polite discussion of ideas. I even posted it to social media with a tagline that clarifying I didn’t want to anger anyone, but simply to think through some difficulties. Numerous responses came from heavily offended people that countered my discourses with personal harassment and condemnation against me. I got emails telling me what a shameful person I was, but almost no one responded to the ideas in the calm and rational fashion they were written in. After the dust had settled, I had received far more than ten personal accusations in response to ten impersonal questions. Only one person attempted to engage a few ideas in the writing itself without responding against the writer.
Stories like these permeate many online interactions where a large melting pot of people, traditions, ideas, and theories clash to create an emotionally hostile environment. We are so attached to the ideas and theories we believe and devote our lives to that it hurts when others critique them. It feels that others are critiquing us. So how can we change all this? How do we all move forward? Well perhaps I could stop talking, writing, posting, and disappear. That might stop the persecution complexes growing up around me. A far better solution, I think, is that those of us who do engage in online dialogue would encourage each other to respond with careful consideration and politeness, and refuse to let our emotions rule over us.
- Don’t assume and judge anyone’s motive. If it feels offensive, politely ask about without being belligerent or insinuating things. Never ever assume someone’s motives. This is the biggest cause of internet hostility. Again, don’t assume you know their motives and moral decisions.
- Don’t assume you have all the answers to everything in the world. Don’t assume you’re always right and the other person is wrong. This kind of arrogant attitude is unhelpful. Instead, try to show why you think you’re answer is better using reason, logic, careful thinking and persuasion. Be open and consider your opponents ideas. Don’t assume they are persecuting you
- Don’t take personal offense when someone disagrees with you. You can still be friends and disagree. If you are starting to feel offended by something another person wrote, ask, “are you trying to offend me?” Don’t allow the development of pain or frustration to swell within you over discussions of ideas. Don’t assume they are persecuting you
- Don’t kill friendship, civility, gentleness, & kindness over ideas. Be completely willing to show kindness, kinship, and empathy to those who disagree. Don’t reject people because of ideas, love people as they are. Granted, if they are hostile towards you and your ideas, nothing can happen, but if both of you are very welcoming and kind, the result is very worthwhile. This is hard, so I have very few friends with ideological differences, but those that can meet me at “we disagree and can still be friends” have joined me in very rewarding relationships.
- Don’t forget your smallness in a vast and mysterious cosmos. Sometimes, you need to step back, turn on a majestic orchestral ballet and look up at the stars. There are billions of us tiny humans, living on a spinning rock hurling through the infinite darkness of space, like a tiny needle in a trillion cosmic haystacks. Our knowledge is tiny, our minds flawed, our lives short. Does it really matter that we fight and assault others to prove that something called the “rapture” will happen 7 years before something called “tribulation”?
“I never consider a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” Thomas Jefferson