In Defense of, If Not Social Media Partisanship, Then at Least of Having a Conviction

Todd Akin. Paul Ryan. Mitt Romney. Barack Obama. Joe Biden. “Legitimate rape.” Medicare. Birtherism. Obamacare. “Chains.”

I have formed opinions on these people and issues that have been much in the news of late. In fact, I would imagine that anyone with enough working digits to operate, if not a pen, then a remote control, has also formed opinions.

We’re human beings, which means (at least in part) that we reflect on the world in which we live. But our reflections on the world don’t emerge from some secret place uncontaminated by prior beliefs. In fact, all of us process information through a series of filters: Republican. Democrat. Christian. Jew. Muslim. Buddhist. Hindu. Atheist. Northeastern. Midwestern. Southern. Western. Science. Humanities.

We all experience the world perspectivally, forming opinions and beliefs.

Politics. Religion. Sports. Nothing escapes our voracious appetite for manufacturing convictions.

But for the depredations of hurricane Isaac, the Republican National Convention would begin in earnest today. As it is, they’ll have to wait until tomorrow for the roll call vote that will officially name Mitt Romney the G.O.P. candidate for President. All of which means, of course, that the airwaves, the print news landscape, and the blogosphere will entertain, among other things, thoughtful reflection and a fair amount of impassioned partisanship from all sides.

Partisanship. At its heart it locates one within the context of an argument.

“I believe X to be the case, while you happen to believe Y more nearly reflects reality.”

However, partisanship carries with it a negative valence in popular thinking, since it also implies a kind of intransigence—a dug-in mentality, unwilling to budge or to change one’s mind.

Stubbornness. But not just any kind of stubbornness. Partisanship, in our cultural lexicon, connotes a sort of uncritical, knee-jerk song sheet from which the faithful are programmed to sing.

Inflexible. Pigheaded contumacy. A kind of intellectual jingoism.

Who would want to defend such obvious conceptual rigidity?

The answer, of course, is “nobody.” Nobody thinks of themselves as intellectually dishonest enough to be considered conceptually hidebound.

“I’m firm in my conviction; you, on the other hand, are merely obstinate.”

Partisanship, or at least charges of it, pollute the political water table—especially during election years. People believe that certain candidates and their policies better reflect their convictions than other candidates with differing policies. It’s not really shocking.

Apparently, though, some people find the public expression of those beliefs to be shocking. To occupy a particular position openly can be casually dismissed with a single word: partisanship. Apart from cable news, this observation is nowhere more true than in Social Media, where people regularly share their unsolicited opinions with the world on everything from healthcare to who should advance to the next round on American Idol.

One conceit on Facebook I find particularly cloying: The detached Meta-Critic.

This is the person who has risen far above the plebeian scrum, who reclines on the heights, where thoughts are general, unsullied by such odious tokens of common life as political partisanship, religious commitment, or moral conviction.

The Meta-Critic looks down from an Olympian perch, always slightly bemused that the uncultured might possess convictions they actually care enough about to express in Social Media.

And because the Meta-Critic seems to occupy no particular position (other than the one that says positions should not be occupied—at least publicly), the Meta-Critic is afforded a certain kind of moral authority denied to anyone else with an opinion.

Both the Right and the Left, the Fundamentalist and the Progressive, the Puritan and the profligate are targets of the Meta-Critic, because all are often relentlessly obnoxious.

But the God’s-eye view from which the Meta-Critic observes the unseemliness of the Social Media Mosh Pit is too convenient, since it never has to fear the flying mud of real life.

In many good people’s minds, there seems to be some virtue attached to refusing openly to advocate for anything that might be even remotely considered partisan. They feel that to raise one of these issues from a “partisan” perspective would be to break some sort of social contract, whereby we collectively agree to maintain the pretense that we hold no conviction more dearly than the one that prevents us from holding convictions dearly.

That’s the problem (or at least, a big part of the problem) in my estimation: The position that stridently dictates that no one express any position that might be considered partisan is itself a kind of partisan position, which flourishes because its partisanship remains most transparent to its most committed champions. I can publicly advance the position that no one should share their position in public, because I don’t see my position as a position at all—but merely as “the way things are—or at least ought to be.”

And while I certainly wouldn’t want to be misunderstood to be saying that if I could only succeed in getting my partisan agenda enacted, then the reign of God could finally be ushered in, or that a certain amount of humility is somehow unnecessary whenever one presumes to speak from any position even loosely associated with the qualification “Christian,” I have a hard time finding support in the Christian Scriptures for any viewpoint advancing the idea that the responsibility for followers of Jesus requires nothing more of us than to keep our big mouths shut.

Neither Jesus nor the early martyrs died because of they were disposed to political inoffensiveness.

Am I suggesting that following Jesus requires you to be a jack-ass? No—although in fairness, I suspect I often test those particular waters. What I am saying is that if you happen to throw your lot in with a guy nailed to a tree by politicians because he failed to keep his opinions to himself, staying comfortably outside the fray when the powerful threaten the powerless and people are dying isn’t one of the available items on the theological menu.

One may grow weary of the constant din. One may ask for things to quiet down a bit. But, for better or worse, no one gets to stand outside it and sniff disapprovingly that it exists.


10 thoughts on “In Defense of, If Not Social Media Partisanship, Then at Least of Having a Conviction

  1. Pingback: In Defense of, If Not Social Media Partisanship, Then at Least of Having a Conviction | [D]mergent « The Company of the Eudaimon

  2. AMEN. I mean this in the true sense. AMEN as in I believe that you have nailed it. I affirm all that is communicated in this post. Keep on rockin’ the truth with the hip micro-beer crowd. I’ll keep doing my damnedest with the working stiff proletariat.

  3. I think you’ve got some things right, Derek.

    There is another angle – social media isn’t always the best place for conversation. I tend to seek broader ways to get at an argument, like in response to the “I built my small business campaign” to remind folks that all things come from God. All the resources we use are gifts – we don’t really create anything but use what God has blessed us with.

    But what you hit on the nail for me is the tendency to shy away from speaking where I stand… as a pastor. I know sometimes there would be a price to pay. And sometimes, I choose not to say anything. Lord, in your mercy…

  4. I don’t have a problem with people engaging each other and speaking out when it comes to politics, but I do have a problem with how it’s done via social media. I will expound on what Nathan said, social media is not always a great place for conversation. It’s seems to be the space where we can basically be snarky about people and political viewpoints we don’t happen to agree with. Since I’m the lone libertarian/conservative that many of my friends know, I tend to see what they say on Facebook and Twitter and it isn’t very nice. Social Media tends to basically amplify what people believe because it gives people the illusion that everyone on their friends list thinks just the way they do. That makes it easier to make sweeping statements about people that one would not say in person. I’m not saying that Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter) should never be criticized. We should as Christians have a debate about the role of government, taxes, how to help the poor and so on. But we don’t really have debates on social media, what we have are people yelling to their friends about how much they hate the other side.

    All of this makes me more hesitant to share my own views. I don’t want to be pilloried and I also know it’s too easy to confuse my political views as something ordained by God. What I would like to see is Christians engaging one another on these issues respecting one another, but really talking about what God requires of us. The sad thing is that I don’t see many of us modeling that.

  5. I am troubled by the disrespect exhibited through name-calling, sarcasm, and half-truths. I’m not bothered by talking about differences respectfully among passionate friends. That’s constructive, the answers lie among an engaged people who listen to one another finding truth and learning from divergent perspectives. Much of the partisanship I see on social media, often from clergy, has an inappropriate tone to it. (Derek, I think you’d call it being a “jack-ass.”) Those of us who claim to follow Jesus, especially clergy, have an obligation to engage in a way that does not diminish others. Too often the memes that get shared around just encourage that kind of behavior.

    • “Those of us who claim to follow Jesus, especially clergy, have an obligation to engage in a way that does not diminish others. Too often the memes that get shared around just encourage that kind of behavior.”
      Tim – It would help me to follow what you are saying if you provided some examples. I’ve yet to meet anybody who opposes the spirit of what you are saying. That said, it is my opinion that what gets labeled as out of bounds is nothing more than a deviation from white middle class politeness. I’ve heard people say that Rev. Sharpton “diminishes others”. I’ve heard the same about Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
      I know that I often intentionally use acerbic satire in my writing. It is intentional. It is for a purpose. Frankly, I find it fun.

      • Brian, A recent example: there is a meme on Facebook that juxtaposes Senator Rand and Eddie Haskell of Leave it to Beaver fame. While there is an obvious physical resemblance between the slimy friend of the Beav’s older brother in the 1960s sitcom, I do not see how this helps us to further God’s realm. That is, it strikes me as a personal attack on a man rather than a substantive discussion of his positions. It diminishes him. (Disclaimer: I have significant problems with the policy positions and political views of Senator Rand.) There are other examples but this one came first to mind this morning.

      • Tim – I respect that you experience that as a personal attack. Frankly, I experience that as good clean fun. I’m OK with the fact that others will experience it differently.

  6. Another thought came to me. This one is personal, but on topic.

    I’ve been intentionally writing some pretty “way out” things online in the name of Jesus for about 4 years. One reason is because I find it helps to keep me accountable. If there were ever a concern for how I’m representing the denomination, surely someone would speak with me privately about it. In 4 years, this has never happened. Sometimes folks (especially from other denominations) will publicly respond to my posts that I’m not being a good minister because of my methods in social networking. I listen to what they say, but always remind myself that I, and every other clergy in our denomination, hold to the same basic code of ethics. If there is an honest concern, surely someone from the region, or an ally who supports the DOC mission would privately speak with me. I would take that seriously.

    I’ve shared with the COO of the hospital I serve as chaplain that I write provocative and controversial things. He is supportive. My family is supportive. My friends are supportive. So far, no private correspondence from the DOC region.

    Please forgive the navel-gazing of this post, but this is a topic that is near and dear to my mission.

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