Social Media & the Fall of Discourse: A Call for Loving Rhetoric

President Joe Biden promoted his new infrastructure plan on Twitter. It received a quick passive-aggressive response: “Win a real election[.]” Another follower responded quickly: “Don’t want your job back then?”

An educational leader, after being accused of being drunk during a live radio interview, tweeted to a now suspended account: “You sound stupid. I just slept late before the interview[.]”

Contributing to the perpetual sarcasm of a Facebook thread, someone posted the following about Stormy Daniels: “Horse face [sic] is mean. She’s a whore. That’s what she is.”

These replies are a small sampling of numerous threads on the internet that contribute to a culture of hostility, denigration, and abuse. For those concerned with this cultural formation (rather, de-formation) and what it’s doing to our communities, we must ask how we arrived here and how we can move forward.

In this post, I will provide today’s social media users a simple framework that encourages a loving rhetoric with the desire that written and verbal discourse would reflect God’s love for his people.

The Fall of Discourse

It seems easy to blame technology for the fall of discourse because anger and strife are captured frequently and permanently. While nostalgia beckons people back to a previous time when things may have seemed simpler, loving discourse has been in a continual state of erosion in different forms.

For example, discourse fell in how Americans painted Africans to maintain slavery. Southern propaganda especially painted African slaves as violent rebels that needed enslaved to protect the United States’ citizens.

Not only that, but discourse tumbled in World War II with Nazi Germany’s propaganda against the Jews (and other “undesirables”), leading to genocide. Nazi propaganda effectively dehumanized one’s neighbor to justify the capture and execution of many people.

Discourse also diminished in the 2016 election cycle. Democrat and Republican pitted themselves against each other, refusing to listen to the other side’s perspective. This divisiveness increased during the nationwide lockdown during 2020 when people had more time to spend on social media and had plenty more things to talk about in subsequent months.

I highlight extreme examples to show that while public discourse in this current moment has much to be desired, it is not as bad as it could be. The issue is not solely relegated to social media or even our generation. The principles that follow can be extended to all matters of communication, whether verbally at work, via email, or how one talks to a stranger on the street to name a few.

Active Listening

The first principle to promote a loving rhetoric is active listening. It is everyone’s responsibility to actively listen to their neighbor because they can act as a mirror to the deeper issues in their life. This opportunity means that one can help their friend discern the issue they are processing through and how to move forward in their life. This reflecting is done without giving advice, which gives them the power to take control of their thinking and actions, thus increasing their responsibility.

However, this type of listening is different from passive listening where one directs the conversation how they desire, thus ignoring what their acquaintance is saying. Passively listening to one’s neighbor looks like thinking about what one will say while they are speaking. When they are done speaking (even for a second), the “listener” immediately jumps in with their thoughts and directs the conversation down another avenue.

Actively listening flows from a character of humility because it means that the power to guide the conversation in the direction is yielded for the betterment of one’s neighbor.

Unveiled Face

The second principle to create a loving rhetoric is to know each other. We need to break through the veil of digital technology and see the face of our fellow citizens in community (2 Corinthians 3:18). While social media platforms accomplished their original vision to connect people to each other, and they did just that—they neglected to promote people really knowing each other. The relationships have not moved beyond a mere acquaintanceship and if there is real friendship, it is taken offline as they interact face-to-face.

While the digital medium has many benefits (especially after the last year and speaking as an online student), humanity was not meant to live and have all relationships mediated through a screen. While community can be fostered digitally, it should not replace the community around each person: their school, church, neighbors, city, etc.

In the act of talking to our neighbor face-to-face that we humanize those whom we disagree with because we no longer see them as a small thumbnail with a name posting something we fundamentally disagree with. We see them as the imago Dei.

Charitable Engagement

Both of these principles are undergirded by charitable engagement. The disposition of social media users should be one of love (1 John 4:8). Typically, social media users are not engaging their peers online because they want to write and read for their own benefit. Although executed poorly, they desire to contribute to their peer’s understanding of the world (Jeremiah 29:7). Without love, no one will actively listen to their neighbors online—they will only want their opinion to be accepted and for their opponent to lose the debate. Without love, it is too easy for social media users to retreat from their communities and live life through a screen. With love, social media users will begin to listen to what their friends have to say and seek opportunities to promote flourishing in their various communities.

This disposition helps us aim for our ethical goal: love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:37-39). All of these principles are supported by this focus. If one loves God, they will keep his commandments (John 14:5) and seek to interact with their neighbors as Jesus did in his communities—even those who hated him and wanted to kill him. If one loves their neighbor, they will treat them how they would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12)—they will listen to them and seek out a relationship with them.

Now, even with this disposition and goal, discernment still needs exercised. While this character and goal is a great thing, there are some people inherently not worth engaging online (Matthew 7:6). They desire to cause aggravation and do not desire to listen. If possible, it is best to build a relationship with this person and speak into their life if one is in the same community. It is possible to do these things digitally, but this may be better left to someone who knows that person face-to-face rather than trying to build the relationship online.

Living as Exiles

In this post, I have highlighted the historical digression of discourse and set forth a simple framework for loving rhetoric on social media. As we engage each other in digital platforms, let us not forget that these are real people whom we should engage respectfully and listen to—even if we disagree—and respond in a loving way. If we keep these principles in mind, we will avoid the quick insults at our leaders whom we should pray for, ill-timed responses and insults, and the sarcastic banter of sexism that riddles our age and media.

This post was originally an academic paper submitted to Dr. Dan Doriani in Christian Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary. It has been modified from its original version.

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