We live in a culture of shouting.
Social media has turned the marketplace of ideas into a zero-sum game. The internal logic of this game is that, not only must I express my own ideas loudly, but I must intimidate, shame, and silence those who disagree with me. This is true not only among the “right” and the “left,” but among self-styled “centrists” as well. “Centrism” can become its own moral island, no less dogmatic than the “extremists” it criticizes.
Our culture has developed a poisonous cocktail of moral expression. It consists of two parts. The first is the individualization of truth. Truth is what I will it to be. I decide the truth about myself, about how I should regard other people, and how they should regard me. I decide what is right and wrong, and woe be unto the person who calls this into question. Such a perspective is called voluntarism, and because it abandons critical reasoning and debate, its end game can only be a clash of wills.
The second part is that, once I establish my moral perspective, that perspective is absolute. It is unassailable. Because it is rooted in my feelings, desires, and will, any attempt to criticize this perspective is necessarily oppressive, even violent.
I decide truth, and my perspective is absolute.
The widespread adoption of this approach has no possible positive outcome. The only possible outcome is violence, and not just the kind where I get my feelings hurt. The clash of wills, apart from principled and reasoned debate, can only escalate until one party silences the other. There is real danger here. We have seen its opening salvos on college campuses as of late.
If you actually value reason and discourse, negotiating this culture can be difficult. Here are a few suggestions for ways to maintain your intellectual integrity in our day and age, and to keep your sanity while doing it.
Tune out the noise
We now live in a culture in which the President of the United States will challenge another person to an IQ contest over Twitter, and this is among his more benign outbursts. This kind of acting out contributes nothing to public discourse, but only arouses anger, for a variety of reasons, among a wide array of constituents. Under any other presidency of my lifetime (and I am forty-six years old), this would have been inconceivable, but times have changed. We have to deal with what is, not what we would like to be.
There is a lot of noise out there, heat without light, words that don’t quite ever form properly into ideas. I see it in my work in the church—personal attack, virtue signaling, and conspiracy theories that would be laughable were they not so insidious.
The temptation is to respond in kind to these minor eruptions. Don’t do it. If there are people who are constantly bombarding you with noise, create some distance from them. Unfollow them. Block them if you have to. They may cry out that you have “cut off dialogue” with them or something of that sort, but, if we’re honest, we know that real dialogue was never taking place to begin with.
What I’m not saying is that you should quit listening to ideas you don’t agree with. In fact, I want to insist on the opposite. Listen to other perspectives where there is something meaningful to listen to. If one of my colleagues walks into my office and calls me a jerk, that probably isn’t going to to help us get to a new level of understanding and cooperation. If one of my colleagues tells me that I’m wrong about something, or that I’ve made a bad decision, and then offers reasons for his or her opinion, I would do well to listen. That colleague will likely teach me something.
Spend time in prayer. Ask God to give you ears to hear what you need to and the ability to tune out distractions. Find a place of peace. Human beings don’t make good decisions when they are in fight-or-flight mode. There are “brain states” in which we cannot hear others, cannot think rationally, and absolutize our circumstances (“my perspective is absolutely right, and the circumstances will never get better”). I know of no better way to calm the mind than prayer.
Listen for the authentic
Like a gold-miner sifting out pebbles and dirt in search of something far more valuable, develop mental habits whereby you can sift through the overflow of ideas to which we are constantly exposed and retain what is useful.
Amidst the many voices struggling to be heard, there are real people often trying to express real concerns. If you can hear these, you can learn a great deal.
Perceptive individuals will read both text and subtext. They will hear what someone is saying, as well as what that person is not saying. They will learn to get to the root of a problem, rather than simply its presenting symptoms.
Careful and empathetic listening can open doors to dialogue and mutual understanding. When people feel heard, they are more likely to open up in more authentic ways. Thus we establish the groundwork for meaningful community and common purpose.
Focus on the positive
If you are going to walk into the brier patch of public discourse, you’d better know who you are. What are your core values? What do you stand for? What is most important to you? On what issues are you willing to compromise?
Consider Paul’s words to the Church in Corinth (1 Cor 9:19-23):
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.