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Culture War and context

On election night, a Facebook (and real life!) friend, Brandon, posted a status update to the effect that Americans were naive for voting for Obama. I took issue with Brandon’s remark, which he had first delivered to me over iChat, and it prompted a couple days of discussion and disagreement between us. This was standard issue stuff: he’s one of my oldest and dearest friends, but we disagree about many things political, theological, and sports-ical. 
Brandon was chided a little on his status update, but mostly he received “Amen, brother”s, and his remark was joined by other, much harsher lamentations from Republican evangelicals. (I listed the tamest of these, along with comments from Christians who are Obama supporters, the next morning.)  
To his great credit, Brandon reflected on his update, retracted it, and offered a reflection on what he meant to express. (Also standard issue–he’s truly a mensch.) But what struck me about all this was not that Republican evangelicals were disheartened–duh–but that they were able to express their feelings in a public space apparently without being concerned about how their remarks would be heard by friends who disagree. Did they not have any Obama supporters among their Facebook friends? No one who would take their abject disdain for Obama’s voters as a personal affront? Were they able to be so straightforward in their reaction because their community consists entirely of people who share their views? 
I’m not talking here of people who used appropriate language in one way or the other—statements that express support or disagreement of a position are fine in a public space. I’m talking about those of us who traffic in the cold language of culture war, those of us who have never sat over coffee with someone who holds the opposite point of view, have never strained to make ourselves understood by someone with a wholly other position, and, worse, have never strained to make ourselves listen to the other side express its views. Listening does not mean “forming a rejoinder while waiting for them to finish.” It means paying attention in a way that causes you to consider what it’s like to hold their position. It means seeing that position as embodied–as coming from within a fully human experience. 
I was reminded of this last night while reading The Blue Parakeet, Scot McKnight’s fine new book on how to read the Bible. McKnight develops a metaphor for Bible reading from this world of social media I’m describing above. He says that one way his blog has successfully managed to solve the problem of harsh, ad hominem attacks in typical blog comment threads is that he makes each commenter identify themselves:

[T]hose who drop comments in the comment box on a blog can do so anonymously or with a fictitious name. Under the cloak of anonymity, they can become bold and brazen and can blast away. Incivility makes blogs far too often. … Knowing one another restores civility. … Since I believe “context is everything,” context-less comments and faceless comments, which are what fictitious names or anonymous comments are, are not permitted. Anyone who speaks up anonymously or fictitiously is context-less. Until we know the context or until we know who is saying what and why, it is difficult to know how to respond. 


McKnight applies this, quite smartly, to learning to read the Bible in context. (It’s in chapter 4–very much worth reading.) But I thought his metaphor elucidated the basic problem with culture war speech: It’s completely depersonalized. The people lamenting (or being poor winners) on Facebook were not imagining interlocutors–they were speaking freely into a space where no persons existed who would not share their views. (A tool like Facebook ought to offer an easy solution for them, but that’s another matter.)  

American Christianity is in need of many things, but one thing we need most is a deep examination of our speech. How do we communicate with those who do not share our views? How do we respect our brothers and sisters with whom we don’t see eye-to-eye on core issues? The first step, I’d wager, is to get to know those people, and listen to them. When we do, we’ll realize that if we’re going to make any sort of persuasional progress, we’re going to have to stop talking as if we’re the only ones listening. 
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posted November 13, 2008 at 7:58 am

Hi Patton,
Sorry, I spent 2 hours trying to respond to this, but it kept erroring out when I tried to post it.

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posted November 13, 2008 at 8:21 am

Will try a little at a time.
Abraham Lincoln. In his 5th and/or 7th debate with Douglas, he demonstrated well how to lead a country into freezing (not emancipating) slavery. While accepting the country where it was at, and envisioning where it could be, while not ripping the country apart or himself from the debate. The parallels between this and the current battle on abortion are amazing.

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posted November 13, 2008 at 8:28 am

Why so biased? An editor’s favorite question? Why didn’t you set up your question with ‘why are so many Obama supporters excessively celebrating in the end zone’. I have one friend who hasn’t been to church in years. But this week, she puts on an Obama sweatshirt and deliberately goes to a conservative evangelical church. Same question, same issue, but why not framed that way. There are ample Facebook quips to demonstrate the same thing. Why not start there?
I have yet to have one Obama supporter even want to discuss why socialism is historically a lethal disaster? Or how I see Obama’s economic policies the he proposes as an expansion of the very ‘failed Bush economic polices’ he is decrying. Or how a Pro-Life Obama supporter will cost millions of lives over the next 20 years. Not that they need to agree, but that not a single person wants to understand the thinking behind the thoughts.

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posted November 13, 2008 at 9:05 am

to get to your bottom line
Yes, knowing people changes the game. Treating all people as if you knew them is the next level.
As an example, where I struggle is when life is on the line and a self-procalaimed pro-life evangelical Christian supports Obama because the agree on the other stuff (different discussion). How can charisma, tax, welfare, or economic policy usurp lives, millions of them. It seems that knowing this makes communication even tougher because there isn’t the common value of life to even start from.

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Patton Dodd

posted November 13, 2008 at 12:53 pm

I framed the question this way because this was my experience of this particular situation. I don’t doubt there is ample Facebook (and elsewhere) evidence of sore winners from last Tuesday. Another reason is that I spend most of my time thinking about my own most immediate community, which currently consists of a large number of conservative evangelicals. I’m in a better position to ask my own friends and family to reflect on our behavior re: these issues.

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