"I Could Be Wrong": Exploring Humility on Social Media
The talk will be about how adapting a posture of humility can help the way we engage online with our brothers and sisters in Christ (and anyone else) with whom we disagree. One very important revelation to me was when I saw someone else use the words “I could be wrong,” on Twitter. Social media has become a haven for strong opinions, mean back-and-forths, and cesspools of cruel comments. What if we engaged online as we would want to be engaged with face-to-face? That starts with a posture of humility that holds outcomes loosely. To this, we look at Jesus who, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” I will give examples of how I got this wrong, and talk about how social media is a neutral tool–it is our use of it to interact with fellow image-bearers that can make it a powerful force for good or for evil.
Laura Turner is a freelance journalist writing at the intersection of religion and culture. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, Slate, Pacific Standard, and Christianity Today, where she is a regular contributor. She has also written a column for Religion News Service on faith and entertainment. You can find her on Twitter or at her website.
So yeah, I’m gonna spend a little bit of time today talking about the way that we relate to people on social media and online in general. I’m guessing that a lot of you guys are real familiar with, thank you, the way that, the way that politics looks online, the way that conversations on Facebook about political issues are not often kind or gentle or marked by other of those fruits of the spirit.
The title of this talk poses a problem. I could be wrong because, who knows if I could be wrong about this, you’ll just have to let me know at the end. But I was born in 1985 and I’m really glad that I grew up in an era before parents could post embarrassing pictures of their kids on social media. There is a woman, I don’t know if you’ve read about this, who’s 18 years old in Austria, and she is suing her parents entering 500 different pictures in as pieces of evidence for them having violated her privacy on the internet.
One of the things she said which really struck me was, “I’m tired of not being taken seriously “by my parents.” Now, this talk isn’t about online humiliation, but I think that online humiliation has something to teach us about humility online. It’s easy to not take people seriously when your interactions are mediated by a screen. We’ve all heard this before and we might have participated in it. As Evan mentioned, I’ve written for a number of different outlets and by far the meanest comments I’ve ever received have been from Christians.
I wrote a piece not too long ago for Christianity Today about the importance of feminism in my life that was still very broadly readable, I think, and relatable and got questions from people not only concerned with my position, but concerned of my character and concerned of my salvation. And they decided to email my editors as well so they weren’t just coming to me, they were kind of tattling. And I’ve written for BuzzFeed you guys. Like I’ve written for places where the comment section is known for being bad.
But it’s by far the worst with Christians. If you’ve ever debated politics on social media, you might be familiar with this phenomenon. There’s a term garbage fire that you’ll see if you’re on the internet for long when you’re looking at politics, and the idea is that debating politics online is so potently destructive that it’s compared not only with the intensity of flames, but the thing that is burning is literal garbage.
I grew up in part in the suburbs of Chicago and on the weekends we would sometimes go out to more rural parts of the state to go for a hike or apple picking and we would be in areas where people could still burn their garbage. And it smelt terrible. There are places in the Bible where Jesus refers to Gehenna, which is often translated hell, which some scholars believe is this garbage dump outside of Jerusalem where refuse and cadavers would be thrown and they would be burned in order to make room for more refuse and so on and so on.
This is the state of our political discourse in 2016. The internet can seem like a different world altogether than the place that we live our real lives. But what I want to get out today is that there isn’t a separate set of rules for how we live online than how we live in our real lives. So if we’re supposed to hold humility and conviction together, how do we do that in a way that is loving and honoring to God and honest in our response to politics? We can’t insist that humility is a virtue in real life and go online and act differently.
A man who treats his wife kindly but goes online and posts misogynistic comments to women is not a good man. A teenager who bullies her peers on the internet but is nice to her friends is not a loving friend. So, how do we do this? How do we hold humility and conviction together? Well, first, I think it’s helpful to define humility. This, I love from Richard Foster, this definition. Humility is power under control. Power under control.
We’re gonna come back to that but just think about that for a minute. I’m gonna talk about three practices that I have found helpful, if sometimes painful, in cultivating humility and conviction especially in the online world. And they’re all kind of centered around this posture, the title of the talk I could be wrong.
The first thing I am learning how to do is listening without the need to control the outcome, and I’m gonna show you a picture of someone I think who does this best in my life. This is R2-D2. [laughter] I’m not kidding. We call him RD for short, but his Christian name is R2-D2. [laughter] When I come home at the end of the day, to an empty house if my husband hasn’t gotten there, we’re not having friends over, I’m an extrovert and I need to process, so I will talk to that dumb little face for 10 minutes about what I’ve been doing, what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling, how my day is going. And other than a walk or food or a scratch behind the ear, there is really nothing more that RD wants.
Roxy has a dog who’s actually, looks so similar to this guy that she thought this was a picture of her dog I had put in my slide show. There is something about, you know, it’s kind of a cliche to be the kind of person your dog thinks you are, but there is something about listening without expecting anything in return that I think dogs do really well. I think it’s important for us to cultivate the discipline of hearing voices and not deciding what we’re going to respond with, not choosing next what we’re going to say.
One of the best ways we can do this and practice this is by listening to people who are different from us. When it comes to Twitter, my husband will often say you are who you follow. You are who you follow. And that’s true a lot in life as well. And for me, that means that I want to listen to a lot of people who are different from me and I will look for voices that are non-white, for people who don’t live in America. I will listen to people who have different political convictions than I do and people who have different faith backgrounds than I do. I think that listening to those kinds of people gives me a full understanding, kind of like Roxy just did, of what the landscape is and what exactly it is that’s important to people who are different from me. Listening to these voices in some ways is how we exercise our power.
There’re a couple of different ways we can use our power as we interact with people online. One of them is to abuse it, which I think we’ve all seen examples of. People who sort of want to impose their will and opinion and say this is the only Christian way to interpret this issue. And people will also deny their power, and this is something that’s a little bit more close to home for me.
I’ve written extensively about anxiety, which is something that I deal with and have for years, and anxiety has a lot to do with feelings of powerlessness. Because of that I can feel convinced that dreadful things are going to happen and that other people won’t want to listen to me and that I shouldn’t say what I have to say. I think this happens a lot with women as well. And so we can either turn to overusing our power and abusing it or misuse it by kind of denying it. And practicing listening without expectation of return is one of those things that helps me to put power under control, as Richard Foster said.
There’s another kind of parallel to this in our lives which is prayer. Listening without expectation of what I want is a version of prayer. And one of the most underrated qualities, I think, of Jesus was that he was a really good listener. I have a friend named Adam McHugh who wrote a great book called The Listening Life and he says in that book that the God who shares power is a listener. I think when I hear this about the rich young ruler who came to Jesus and asked what he had to do to follow God and Jesus said, well, you have to sell everything that you own and give it up and follow me, and the scriptures say that the ruler walked away grieving because he owned many possessions.
Now, Jesus didn’t try to argue him into faith. He didn’t listen and then say, here’s what you do and if you don’t do it, I will physically keep you here. He didn’t say, here’s what you do and if you don’t do it, I’m gonna leave 20 Facebook comments on your wall about why you’re wrong. He let the rich young ruler go and I think that Jesus was saddened by that decision as well. Jesus never lacked conviction, but he didn’t always have to have the last word. He was a walking teachable moment, Jesus, but you have to have a teachable spirit if you’re going to receive what he has to give you, and that’s part of what we can do online.
Which leads into the second practice that I’ve been coming to understand is helpful, which is knowing that my job is not to convict other people that they are wrong or convict them of their sin. There’s a surprising number of Christians who think that their job online is to tell other people that they’re wrong. This is one of my favorite cartoons to that effect, if you can see it. Someone’s asking, “Are you coming to bed?” I can’t. What? Someone is wrong on the internet.
Do you ever get the feeling that there’re these people out there who are just kind of like scanning the internet to see where they can correct somebody? Are you ever one of those people? I have been. And if you’ve ever gotten caught up in a Facebook argument with your great uncle’s nextdoor neighbor’s tax guy, you might know a little bit about this. There’s this urgent pull to be right. I don’t know if you guys feel this or if it’s just a select few of us. But sometimes I think that being right is more of a religion for me, than Christianity.
It’s a thing that I worry a lot about. So I asked a friend not too long ago about this. I was having an argument in a relationship. And she said, “Well, this is easy. “What’s more important, “being right or the relationship?” That wasn’t so easy for me. As someone who likes to be right all the time, I was willing to give up a relationship so that I could maintain the high ground, so that I could convince someone else that they were wrong and hopefully passive-aggressively convict them of their sin. There’s a historical reason that we do this too.
We try to persuade people because we are people who live in a modern or post-modern era in which we are beneficiaries of a lot of the good reasoning of the Enlightenment, a lot of the bad reasoning of the crusades, so we have been taught that the best way to convince someone of something is to argue them, is to tell them what we believe, to give a syllogism and explain. A is true, B is true, therefore. It’s been a long time since I took geometry, I don’t remember syllogisms, but something’s true. We can internalize this worldview that Christianity really hangs in the balance, when we are arguing with someone. And I love this quote from Flannery O’Connor who says, “The truth does not change “according to our ability to stomach it.”
Which must also mean that it is not our job to defend the truth. That is the job of the Holy Spirit who goes before us and ahead of us and softens the hearts of people, and we can engage in that work together but it doesn’t rise and fall on us. The Holy Spirit is active in the world and maybe, just maybe our job is to be the kinds of people who can be there for someone else when the Holy Spirit is prompting them.
I have a really dear friend who was going through a hard time about a year ago and she was, what she would call a happy atheist, no interest in God. Found herself crying a lot throughout this hard time. She’s not a crier. Found herself one day sitting down in her living room on the couch and saying out loud to an empty room, “Be with me.” There was something that she wanted to be with her.
And she knew that I was a Christian and knew that I was trying hard not to be a jerk about it online, and in part because of that she reached out to me and said, “Hey, I’m really curious about Jesus.” And we prayed together. And she’s a Christian, she’s been a Christian for a year and that has been one of the greatest gifts of my life to be part of her relationship with God. I want to acknowledge it’s a little weird to talk about myself in that role in a conversation about humility, but this is an area that God has done a lot of work in my life and I’ve been there for his work in other people’s lives.
As Roxy pointed out, there’s really a strong sense of division in every faction within Christianity in America. We can look at Evangelicals and mostly, let’s be honest, what we mean be Evangelical is white conservative Christian. That’s the truth a lot of the time. We need to remember that like Hispanics are the fastest growing group of Evangelicals in America. There’s a lot more happening than what we see represented in simplistic stories. But on both sides we want to convince the other that we’re right.
So the left will want to convince people to be more involved in social justice, the right will want to convince people to be more involved in campaigning for morality. They both are willing often to co-opt the gospel for their ends. I have done this too, I am not innocent of this. But we have to recognize that. What is our witness online I wonder? How many of you, quick show of hands, has become Christian because of something you’ve seen posted on the internet? [laughter] Have any of you radically changed your political views based on something someone’s posted on Facebook? Yeah, I kind of thought that’s the case.
This is why I think we really need to let the Holy Spirit do what the Holy Spirit does. Jesus talks about this with his disciples in John 16. Oh yeah, that was the Guess not. Guess no one’s been changed by Facebook. Forgot to do the shrug emoji. I’m just gonna read a bit of this. “When the Spirit of truth,” Jesus says, “comes, he will guide you into all the truth. “For he will not speak on his own, “but will speak whatever he hears.” And what he hears is from Jesus, and what he hears is from the father.
We can trust that the Holy Spirit will do the Holy Spirit’s work. This brings me to the third way we can hold humility and conviction together, which is a really hard practice for me. We can apologize. There was a time when I thought it would be a great idea to get into a Twitter argument with a pastor. I had written an article about a topic that was very close to home for him. He responded on Twitter by calling me out and I instead of calmly thanking him for his opinion or not engaging at all, which is always an option, I decided to tell him why he was wrong.
This went back and forth for a while and when he responded sarcastically felt vindicated, like see, this is what guys like him do, I was right. And I was telling this to a co-worker of mine and very gently and very kindly she suggested that I might want to check my motives in that situation. And after doing a little bit I thought, oh she’s probably right. So, I started thinking about why I said what I said and I realized that I was really motivated by pride, by this need to be right, which is another name for pride, which I believe is also rooted in fear but that’s another talk for another day.
I went online and I had to find this pastor’s email address on the church website and I wrote an apology that was really insincere and then I deleted it and then I finally wrote the apology I needed to write and had to send it and that was hard. It was good but it was hard apologizing is not easy work to do. A good friend of mine is the member of AA she is three years sober now and they talk a lot about this concept of rigorous honesty, which I think Christians can often apply in our conversations with other people, like I need to be very honest with you ’cause that’s what I am called to do. But how often are you rigorously honest with ourselves? The 10th step in AA is this. I’m gonna read this language.
We have continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. Promptly admitted it. If you’ve got that figured out you can go. Like I’m sorry you’ve had to sit through all of this. If you’ve got this down, I have nothing more to say to you. But if you are having a hard time with acknowledging when you are wrong and owning your mistakes, you’re human. You’re struggling with humility so am I.
This is a little bit of an example of what that can look like. This reads to me, this is from AA, The Big Book, but it reads to me like a confessional prayer only a little more specific, which is a big part of why I think AA is just real good church. These are some examples of how we violate humility. We constructively criticized someone who needed it, when our real motive was to win an argument. We sometimes hurt those we love because they need to be taught a lesson, when we really want to punish. You see over and over again here check your motive, What is it that you are doing? Why are you acting this way.
This is real consistent with the idea of integrity. This is real consistent with the Christian virtue of humility. I am incredibly guilty of this and that’s in part why I think empathy is such a needed corrective to arguing online and making the other person our enemy. This is a beautiful line from Teresa of Avila but also very convicting. She writes, “It is a very good thing,” not think, thing, sorry, “for us to take compassion on each other’s needs. “Get to know those things in others “that you would be sorry to see “and those about which you should “sympathize with them. “Others, in their turn, “will bear with your faults, which, “if you include those of which you are not aware, “must be numerous.”
That makes me feel like this. I don’t want to hear that. Quick note on apologies, especially for women but for a lot of people. I think women especially can often feel the need to apologize for taking up space or existing or expressing an opinion in a way that inconveniences someone else. That’s not what I’m talking about here. So, this isn’t an I’m sorry to share this idea, or I’m sorry to speak up.
This is the kind of apology for causing harm or hurt or division. We all do it. We know that we do it. But this is how we will understand. We will search our motives ask the people that we know to help us search our motives so that we can apologize with honesty, with truth about who we are. And this takes place in the real world and it takes place on the internet all the time. But a confident humility is one of the best gifts that we can have as Christians.
We can be confident in the God who called us and humbled by his love for us. I think Psalm 1:31 which is very, very short is one of the best texts on humility I know and David who knew power under control and knew the fruits, the bad fruits of power not under control wrote this. He wrote, “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, “my eyes are not raised too high. “I do not occupy myself with things “that are too great and too marvelous for me. “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, “like a weaned child with its mother. “My soul is like the weaned child “that is with me.” I want to wrap up with a story that I love, that embodies humility.
There was an author and professor named Dallas Willard who a lot of you will be familiar with. He was a philosopher and a professor at USC. He was teaching a class one day, a class of undergrads. He was interrupted by a student who said something that was not only incorrect but that was also kind of rude.
And Dallas paused after the student spoke and he said, “Well, I think “that’s a good place to end class today.” So he put everything in his briefcase and walked back to his office and eventually drove back to his modest little home out in Box Canyon. and later someone asked him, Dallas why did you do that? Everyone was hoping that you would put this student in his place. And again, Dallas paused and he said, “I was practicing the discipline “of not having to have the last word.” How beautiful is that. Practicing the discipline of not having to have the last word. It’s a practice I can benefit from.
I think a practice we can all benefit from. And so this week as you go out into your world and especially as you engage online with political discourse in 2016, remember that you serve a God who allows you to be fully confident and fully humble without ever having to have the last word. Thank you. [applause]
Thanks. Thank you, Laura.
We have time for a couple questions. These practices. Say a little bit about the idea of this human being being on the other side of the screen so to speak.
What do you make of just the medium itself as being either conducive or probably less conducive to developing virtues. What do you think of that?
It’s a great question. Fun fact, in like 1999 Billy Graham gave a Ted talk one of the first Ted talks. It’s great, you should look it up. He talked about technology as a neutral force, like technology has always been around and it’s not good and it’s not bad, it’s neutral. And the way that we use it makes it good or bad.
And so I think that really applies to things like Facebook and Twitter. I’ve learned so much from following different people online. I’ve read better books and articles and I think become a more empathetic person because of the way I’ve used social media. I’ve also gotten engaged in arguments that have made me bitter. I have become resentful. You see the good and the bad there. I really think it’s an underdeveloped imagination that can’t recognize that there is a person on the other end of the screen.
Now I’m guilty of this as well. It’s not like something that someone else does. But it’s pretty easy to remember. Take a breath if you need to. Don’t feel like it’s your job to be the person who sets someone straight and if you want to respond to an argument remember you’re responding to a person. Imagine that person. Look at their little face in front of you, say a prayer for that person. If it’s a Twitter egg, just don’t respond to that person. Because if they haven’t even put their photo online you shouldn’t bother interacting with them.
Twitter egg is the profile. The default.
Yeah, exactly. So just wait until they put their picture up then feel free to interact with them. But that allows people to kind of hide behind anonymity and those are often people who say really terrible things. Not always. If you have a Twitter egg, I don’t mean to insult you.
Next question. Where is the grimace emoji?
I’m hoping to see some posts on Twitter eggs now.
You mentioned how, how seldom minds are changed on social media. It seems like social media is more a place to go to well, try to change someone else’s mind. But if it’s true that in general, our minds are seldom changed somehow there is this disconnect.
We still think ah, sharing this is gonna change someone else’s mind and yet there are so many opportunities for destruction of character for missing someone for just the wrong tone. I wonder if you might say this is difficult, but how do we use social media as a tool for truly connecting and real embodied friendships with each other. How can we use it as that tool that is pushing us towards one another
To be really present?
The way, the best way I can answer that question is based on my own history using social media fro those ends. And the best word I can think of for that is vulnerability. I need not to just post things that give me a sense of, that lead me into confirmation bias, I need to, there is a, you know, occasionally I’ll post something online and I’ll think, oh I really hope so and so sees it ’cause they really need to see this article.
Hope the algorithm hits them.
Totally, yeah. How can I write to Facebook and make sure that it gets right to them. But I have found real power in being vulnerable online as I mentioned, I write a lot about anxiety and I’ve had a lot of people who have reached out to me and said oh me too, me too. I haven’t talked about it because I was afraid, I was afraid it would be a stigma.
I was afraid people would think differently of me. I had a good friend who reached out to me recently. I hadn’t talked to her since high school and she said I never knew that that was something for you. I wish I had known. Another friend of mine was posting online about her boyfriend is dealing with a really rare form of blood cancer. and he is someone who is young and vital and vibrant and may well die in the next year and she has asked for prayer and she’s not a Christian. She’s not totally sure what to do at this time of life.
But she’s been vulnerable in an appropriate way that has allowed other people to come alongside of her. We have sent meals from across, she lives in England, from like across the country. So, that kind of vulnerability is really powerful and we respond to it in real relationships and we respond to it online. There is not like a secret code for behavior online that’s not true of life face to face.