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The culture of finger-pointing and catastrophizing others’ words has grown so out of control in social media. Are we on an inevitable plunge into social chaos?
What can be done? This article presents practical, personal solutions.
The Swift Decline of Today’s Online Culture
If you politely disagree with someone online and empathetically explain your views with kindness, few will pay attention.
But if you use outrageous language or make claims that another person violated the world’s belief du jour, you’ll get a lot more attention.
Better still, if you can extract an offensive word or innuendo from even an unintentional or decades-old blunder by a famous someone who doesn’t see the world your way, you have a formula for a media headline and a career-ruining firehose of vitriol—never to be forgotten or forgiven.
Grandest of all—in the anti-wisdom of today’s culture—if you can claim personal insult and devastation at the hands of an ideological opponent, plus point out offensive words, and do it with catastrophized, outrageous allegations, you have the best chance possible of creating a melee that will endear you to your adoring social media followers who love seeing such tactics applied with deftness.
What Have Researchers Found?
Most outraged social media users believe that kindness, respect, deference, and decorum yield no rewards, no audience, and no progress for their cause.
To be heard and “make a difference” in the world, most have chosen to throw that mushy nonsense out the window and go for the throat—at the slightest opportunity. The impacts are becoming measurable:
- The outrage is starting to change our brains. (See Moral outrage overload? How social media may be changing our brains, citing Yale and Johns Hopkins University researchers)
- Our anger is spiraling not out of singular events but out of a culture of aggregated beliefs and ideas; it is changing how we communicate. (See the 2023 book from MIT Press: The Rhetoric of Outrage: Why Social Media is Making Us Angry.)
- We can statistically demonstrate how receiving approval of another’s expression of moral outrage increases the future occurrence of that individual expressing moral outrage. (See How social learning amplifies moral outrage expression in online social networks, by Yale University researchers)
- . . . and countless other eye-opening sources that portend social harm.
Anti-Wisdom vs. Foolishness
For thousands of years, inspired philosophies and religions have enshrined codes of human conduct that lead to the greatest good for society and the greatest happiness for individuals, families, and communities. But today, many who are praised for their “courage” and “candor” are flouting these codes of civility, justifying it as righteous indignation.
When we reject wisdom—knowingly—we become proponents of the opposite. We become an enemy of wisdom, which is far worse than being foolish.
The word “foolishness” suggests the simple-minded misbehavior of an uninformed, immature individual.
Yet, in our culture, despite being saturated in the wisdom of the ancients from all cultures and traditions, most online activists and media outlets have turned their backs on wisdom.
But consider the wisdom of God that inspired so many even before Jesus:
“Straight-forwardness, without the rules of propriety, becomes rudeness. . . When anger arises, think of the consequences.” — Confucius, Chinese sage and philosopher
“Examine what is said, not who is speaking.” —African proverb
“He who digs a grave for his enemy might as well be digging one for himself.” — African proverb
“It is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” — Aristotle, Greek philosopher
“Know how to listen and you will profit even from those who talk badly.” — Plutarch, Greek philosopher
“All cruel words should be endured. None should be treated with disrespect. No anger should be directed in turn toward one who is angry. Only soft words should be spoken, even when violently pulled by another.” — Narada Parivrajaka Upanishad, Atharva Veda (Hindu tradition)
And for believers in Jesus Christ as the Creator of heavens and earth, His teachings point to life and happiness for individuals and societies.
As proclaimed in the book Jesus Christ, His Life and Mine, “Jesus is the gold standard by which we can know what is good, what is wise, and what is truly important.”
So, let’s take a look at the behaviors we see so often online and compare to the wisdom of God as found in His words in scripture, the Holy Bible.
4 Anti-Wise Behaviors vs. the Infinite Wisdom of God
Consider these specific behaviors that are surely leading to terrible unhappiness for individuals and ultimately the decline of our societies into violence and upheaval.
Anti-wise behavior #1: Find maximum fault.
I will look for any conceivable fault in your actions, words, inactions, or unspoken words to shame you publicly—but only if I suspect you are not on “the correct side” of an issue.
In contrast, the wisdom of God: “Judge not,” taught Jesus. Some may say, “Jesus certainly condemned and judged the hearts of the Pharisees.” True, because He is God and He will be the Judge of us all on the last day. But for humans, with extremely limited insights into the hearts and minds of other people, we are not to judge or condemn or speak evil against another, even if we think we are right. There are ways to take positions and set boundaries without condemning, twisting, inaccurately catastrophizing, or becoming hateful.
Wisdom seeks to uplift and improve relationships through empathy.
Regarding the pandemic-era vaccine debate, I was shocked at the glee and nasty comments that surrounded the recent death by COVID of a famous anti-vaccine activist. Someone defended her uncivil treatment, given the deaths of many that she very likely influenced. But there’s a great difference between pointing out the dangers of her choice as a warning to others and being vicious toward a recently deceased person who had a family who loved her and who made positive contributions in other aspects of her life. God will judge her heart and deeds and that’s all that should matter to us.
Our job is not to judge but to love well.
“Do not speak evil against one another.” (James 4:11, ESV)
“Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends” (meaning, be willing to let go of another’s misstep and don’t start a wildfire of accusation). (Proverbs 17:9, NIV)
“Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” (Ephesians 4:29, NLT)
Anti-wise behavior #2: Never forgive.
If I have found fault in you, there is no forgiveness, ever. In the internet age, your words live forever and so do your faults. Your shame is deserved and you are canceled from life.
In contrast, the wisdom of God: Apologies and recognition of fault should be accepted in a spirit of willingness to move on. We hope the best for the offending person going forward, even if they have opposing views on social or political issues. Continuing to skewer the person or “cancel” them from ever being relevant again is grossly out of line with God’s ways.
Said George Herbert, “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself, for every man has need to be forgiven.”
Redemption from wrong-doing, even after being malicious and hurtful, is the great promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Will we deny that grace for others on social media? Will we presumptuously be gods unto ourselves and decide who should or should not be forgiven? Conservative or liberal, black or white, gay or straight, vaxer or anti-vaxer—none of our personal views, attributes, or personal choices justify shaming personal attacks, much less never forgiving.
Jesus said, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25, ESV)
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” (Luke 6:27, ESV) (Before any of us dismiss this as crazy talk, it is possible and it is right. Empathy works. Remembering we are all children of God works. God can change our hearts and even those who differ, one heart at a time.)
Anti-wise behavior #3: Use savage tactics.
Lying, bullying, exaggerating, and taking words out of context are all useful methods for driving my target into the ground and gaining favor with my like-minded thinkers.
In contrast, the wisdom of God: Mistreating others in such vile ways is never acceptable to God. He wants us to behave as His children, and that includes the words we speak, which are like rain to help others prosper or fire to burn them down.
We may forget that Jesus’s command to love our enemies is followed by this insightful reminder: “. . . that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” (Matthew 5:45, NIV)
“On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37, ESV)
Anti-wise behavior #4: Widen the gap, deepen the divide
I am adored by my like-minded followers if I can show that my enemies are evil and extreme. I know my views are right so they justify my tactics. Actually, I’ll exceed whatever tactics the enemy is using, otherwise, they win and we lose.
In contrast, the wisdom of God: Each one of our words and actions creates a ripple effect in the world. Our philosophical end does not justify the vicious means. We are responsible for the effects we unleash through our words.
Will God hold those guiltless who poison our culture by ignoring His example and commandments, while promoting the ways of the devil, who stirs up anger and contention?
The foolish set their hearts on worldly victory. The wise keep sight of what matters most—eternal life.
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. (Romans 16:17-18, ESV)
Speak evil of no one, avoid quarreling, be gentle, and show perfect courtesy toward all people. (Titus 3:2, ESV, condensed)
“[God] does not retain his anger forever, because He delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us.” (Micah 7:18-19, ESV)
More Reading on Outrage, from Secular Sources
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