The election season is in full swing, and there’s no way to avoid the Facebook post from the friend who swears they “never” talk politics, or the Twitter “rant” from the coworker that you didn’t even think watched the news. With the sheer insanity of our current election season, social media is not a good place to get away from politics.
Many of us struggle to know how to engage in conversations about these important topics on social media because opinions and emotions run high. These conversations often the run the risk of dehumanizing the people we are talking to, since we really aren’t saying these things to someone’s face, just their profile picture. Consequently, we can find it easy to get sucked into the hyperbole, the accusations and the sense of personal offense that often characterize political conversations on social media.
But it matters how we talk about these issues online. We can either point people to the gracious truths of the gospel or to the arrogant spirit of our own flesh with our words. James’ warning that the tongue is a fire that can do catastrophic damage (James 3:6) is not less true on Facebook than it is in the living room.
Here are three principles to remember that will help you as you talk about contentious political issues with friends and family online:
The biggest reason that conversations nosedive from helpful to hurtful is that people become unwilling to listen to the opposing point of view. When one or more participants decide to stop listening, the result is a gaggle of garrulous gabbers who just want their voice to be the loudest. At this point, defending your beliefs really just means defending your turf, and the discussion stops being about truth and becomes an extension of individual egos.
James 1:19 says that Christians ought to be quick to listen but slow to speak. For conversations that involve strongly held beliefs, like politics, the temptation is to enter a discussion determined to “prove” how correct you are instead of determined to learn something you didn’t know before. The best way to counteract this temptation is to follow the apostle’s command: Be slow to speak but quick to listen. Be eager to understand why someone may disagree with you, and what it is that may have lead them to a different conclusion. Instead of making assumptions, ask questions. This will not only help you be better able to represent the other person’s beliefs fairly, but the process will almost always disarm tension and emotional heat from a controversial topic.
2. Be honest
The internet is a magnificent, world-changing tool, but it does lend itself to the propagation of false and often manipulative content. Christians seem particularly vulnerable to the scare mongering chain email, or even more embarrassingly, mistaking a piece of satire for actual reporting. As people who believe in absolute truth, Christians have to be the first in line to reject false rumors and innuendo, even when they seem to support “our side.”
As you engage in political conversation online, be honest. Don’t say what isn’t true, and refuse the temptation to exaggerate so as to better prove your point. One of the biggest reasons Christians fall into this temptation on social media is that they want to sound like an expert on everything. But a 10 second Google search is not the same as being knowledgeable, and an unbridled desire to prove someone wrong can lead us into passing along false or incomplete information as if it is true. If you’re not actually sure how much the national debt has increased, find out before you comment on it. If you don’t know that a particular politician said this or that, find out as best you can before you say so. Model honesty and humility, and the chances are, the people you talk to will do the same.
3. Don’t take it personally
When someone disagrees with us, our natural tendency is to interpret it as a personal insult. We feel like we’ve been rejected or ridiculed somehow. But in the majority of cases, our sense of personal offense doesn’t come from what someone actually said or did. It comes from the pride in our hearts.
Taking disagreement personally is usually a sign that we’ve invested a sense of self-worth in our opinions. But this need not be. If your concern is for the truth of the gospel and the flourishing of your neighbor, then you will of course feel strongly about some issues, but your ego won’t be at stake. If you find that someone’s differing opinion instinctively causes anger or defensiveness in you, the best thing you can do is to step back, temporarily back out of the exchange, and pray for your own heart and for the well-being of your neighbor. Resist the idea that your personal honor is at stake by the appearance of disagreement.
Generally, the people who are the best at not taking disagreement personally are the people who actively cultivate friendships with others not like them. This is one of the most glorious functions of the local church—to connect Christians who have nothing in common except the gospel. Pursue relationships with people who don’t look or sound like you, and you’ll find defensiveness and ego slowly but surely evaporating.