Our drug of choice right now is knowing who we’re better than.
And social media is our bolus button.
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Last Spring I was speaking to some students at a college in Montana when, during Q and A, a young woman asked, “Pastor Nadia, what do you hope for right now?”
All I could think to say in response was, “I hope the way I view myself, others, and the world itself will be influenced more by my actual life and less by the algorithmic manipulations of social media, or how the angriest people on Twitter say I SHOULD think of myself, others and the world.”
A couple years ago, when I re-tweeted someone’s super mean comment (something about women or gays - can’t remember), it was pointed out to me that the comment was from a brand new account, without a profile pic, and had only four followers. I assumed that an actual person was saying these ideologically-laden things to me, things that made me feel outraged. And (just like each time this same thing happens), when I felt that fire of outrage, I directed the heat of my disgust toward everyone in this country who I believe is on “that side”. *
But, in all likelihood, it wasn’t a person but a computer program stoking my outrage. The comment was from a “spam bot” - an automated account that is programed by *bad actors to “engage in potentially deceptive, harmful or annoying activity”. (I’ve since noticed that while actual humans can be pretty shitty online, the most inflammatory comments are often from these fake accounts).
The good and the bad are both ugly.
In “That Uplifting Tweet You Just Shared? A Russian Troll Sent It”, an article in Rolling Stone, co-authored by two Clemson University professors, the point was made that Russian bots have not just been stirring up American’s anger at “the other side”, they are also patiently making friends with us - using the same hash tags and expressing the same opinions we agree with. Take for instance, the fake Russian account from “Melanie”:
“Melanie’s audience was made up of educated, urban, left-wing Americans harboring a touch of self-righteousness. She wasn’t selling her audience a candidate or a position — she was selling an emotion. Melanie was selling disgust. The Russians know that, in political warfare, disgust is a more powerful tool than anger. Anger drives people to the polls; disgust drives countries apart.”
Which means that our contempt for each other is a national security issue.
If the Mueller report taught us anything, it is that the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) has become very adept at hacking into American computers and, even more effectively, our hearts and minds.
I do not wish to participate in building social cohesion by rallying around a common enemy but I do invite you to read the “Rallies and Protests” section of this article on the Russian IRA to see just how often these manipulations are happening on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Russian bots and hackers may not have lit the match, but they have dumped a humbling amount of kerosene on the flames of anger and division in this country and I am feeling the burns on me.
Our drug of choice right now is knowing who we’re better than.
Perhaps like yourself, I would prefer to think of myself as a rational, independent thinker . . . but if I reflect more deeply, I am humbled to admit that so much of the way I view myself, others and the world has been formed, not by my lived actual experience, but by what I read *on-line - and sometimes what I read on-line is being molded by those who benefit from me thinking of myself as righteous and thinking of “the other side” as wicked.
So what interests me is this: what exactly is it inside of us that is being hooked by these manipulated messages? Or to state it more theologically - what sin is operative here? For those who are put off by the term “sin” - I am using Francis Spufford’s definition, HPTFTU (the human propensity to fuck things up), or Simeon Zahl’s idea of sin as a flaw in the human system - a flaw that consistently causes errors in our relationships with each other, ourselves, the planet, and even God.
This sin is like a loop inside of us that manipulated messages on social media hooks into and then pulls us apart - from our best selves and from each other.
Were I to name the “loop” - the thing inside of us that is so easily exploited - I would say it is our need to think of ourselves as “good”. More specifically, our need to think of ourselves as better than others. I know I myself devour anything that gives me that little self-righteous dopamine bump. I love that shit like chocolate. Delicious.
But what is it costing us?
It would be difficult to overstate how many people I’ve spoken to recently whose family and friend relationships have all but crumbled in the last two years, not because the person they’ve broken with no longer loves them, or has done something unspeakably cruel, but because they are anti-vaxers or now have a blue stripe American flag sticker on their truck.
I know that there are cases where creating a distance between ourselves and family or friends makes sense for the purpose of survival and self-preservation. I’m just saying it feels like this is happening more due to another person’s stance on an issue and what we are being told that MEANS about them, rather than it happening due to how that person actually treats us and others.
We are tangled in logical fallacies, tightened by our own need to feel good about ourselves.
Example: You haven’t gotten a vaccine? Well every single thing I read when I open my laptop tells me that means that you don’t really care if you kill people. I think killing people is wrong, therefore if I continue to love and respect you, I am complicit in innocent people being killed, so my love and respect for you must end.
Example: Your brother is a cop and you have a blue lives matter sticker on your F-150? I know we’ve been friends since middle school but according to everything I see on Twitter that means you hate Black people and racism is wrong therefore I can’t respect you anymore even though I know you are an amazing dad who volunteers at your local soup kitchen. Bye.
In an effort to think of ourselves as righteous, are we maybe losing our humanity? Because friends, honestly my soul just can’t afford the dehumanization of those we believe to be dehumanizers anymore.
Given all of this, Jesus’ parables can feel like an act of aggression against me.
Take for example, the Pharisee and the Publican (tax collector) in Luke 18.
Jesus tells this parable in response to those who trust in themselves that they are righteous but regard others with contempt.
A Pharisee prays, “Thank you God that I am not like other people - thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this here tax collector - thank you God that I pray several times a day and tithe to the temple, and keep all the religious laws.”
But the tax collector simply keeps his head down and prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”
Jesus asks, who went away in right relationship with God? “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Ugh. Like the Pharisee, I want to be able to trust in myself that I am righteous. I want to be able to trust in my world-view that I am righteous. I want to be able to trust in my lifestyle that I am righteous. I want to be able to trust in my Facebook newsfeed that I am righteous.
But there’s just no winning that game - there will always be someone better and more righteous than me, there will always be a nagging voice that reminds me of the truth. Self-righteousness may feel good for a minute but, as I like to say, only in the way that peeing your pants feels warm for a minute. After that, it’s cold and starts to smell.
Maybe this is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, the Gospel is frankly hard for the pious to understand. Because the Gospel confronts us with the truth saying you are a sinner, a great and desperate sinner. Now come as the sinner you are to the God who loves you madly.
This is why sometimes I like to say that the Gospel is like, the worst good news I’ve ever heard.
Not for nothing, but Jesus would make a lousy Instagram influencer.
We may gulp down messages we see on-line that make us feel superior, but were Jesus on social media, I just have this feeling his shit would never go viral.
I mean, this is the guy who said “you have heard it said, you shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Everyone around Jesus that day who considered themselves righteous because they had not cheated on their spouse were pretty bummed that Jesus would take that ranking away from them so quickly.
But he doesn't up the ante to be mean. He ups the ante so that we realize how futile the human righteousness ranking system is. And he does this so we will finally trust in God’s grace and mercy (which is endless) and not trust our own righteousness (which is like, deeply flawed and super limited).
There is a difference between fleeting dopamine hits and what we like to call, hope.
I am desperate for hope right now. Real hope. I don’t see much of it on the internet, but I do see it in my actual neighbors; I see it in the moments I break down and finally apologize for something I really was hoping to pawn off as someone else’s fault; I see it in moments of humility even though what I am most drawn to is pride.
This is why The Great Human Competition Extravaganza is spiritually meaningless: because God isn’t ranking anyone.
The Gospel confronts us in our virtue and says You need not rely on your ability to be better than others. Lay down the ranking system. Walk away from your projects of self-perfection. None of it matters. You can stop trying to earn-by-comparision what has already been freely given to you: your freedom, your blessedness, your right to be loved.
God has the uncanny ability to reach past our photo-shopped profile picture and into the stark reality of our actual hearts. Into every hidden motive, into every xenophobic thought, into all our secret self-loathing and fear, into every dark thing that we hide so well. None of it is safe from the terrible mercy of God. Because God is determined to redeem us – so determined that God will not allow us to maintain the delusion that we can redeem ourselves; so determined that God will not allow us to maintain the delusion of our separateness from them and from one another. That feels like hope to me. So please, come as you are to the God that loves you madly.
*I understand this is not a simple issue. Social media is also instrumental in exposing us to viewpoints and perspectives that we would otherwise not see within our own social locations. This shit is complex.
** I highly recommend The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. This book helped me gain an understanding of people more conservative than myself, rather than simply defaulting to my judgments about them. Not that I don’t still default - I default. A lot. Jonathan Haidt also published a long form essay about the very same thing. One point that he makes in his essay is that the most heavily ideological people on each side of the spectrum bully anyone who dares to suggest that there is nuance to issues, or who expresses any kind of compassion for those on the other side, or even dares to see the humanity in them. In an effort to avoid the bullying, the majority become silent.
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My goodness I needed to read your article this morning. I have tears in my eyes. I can feel, sometimes, how manipulative posts are and have really been starting to wonder how to work my way through the social media morass. My lived experience with people is way more trustworthy than a random post. I love that you're willing to share your feelings - the frustration, the anger, the judgy bits, but most of all the hope. Thank you so much, and keep challenging us.
This resonates so much! I will say, one of the greatest gifts AA has given me (other than, ya know, liberation from being a complete and total waste case of a drunken drug-addled mess 24/7/365) is the mindset of approaching people's experiences, strength, hope, and stories from a place of identifying IN rather than identifying OUT. (For those not in the rooms/familiar, basically it means, look for the things you have in common with someone rather than the places where your stories differ.)
Pretty much everything I've learned in recovery has become a way I strive to use while moving through the world. I'm far from perfectly successful, but at least I have a blueprint I can return to when I realize that the structure I'm building on self-will is about to crumble down on top of me and my best thinking. Thank you, Nadia, for this beautiful and poignant essay.