My friend Preston and I were chatting the other day about internet discourse . . . and specifically, about the way the internet provides a space in which people feel comfortable confronting strangers. Problems can arise when we only read, listen to, or associate with those who agree with us, and then attack those who don’t. Preston said some things that stuck with me, and I asked him if he would be interested in writing a guest post for me about the subject. I’m definitely not perfect in this arena, but I have always tried to be a person who was open-minded to diverse opinions, but who is also willing to talk about hard topics. I’ve tried really hard to create a space on this blog where there is openness to that as well. I’m guessing, if you read here, that might be a value for you, too. So I think you will appreciate what Preston has to say.
When I Surround Myself With People Who Agree With Me
For those keeping score at home, my hate email for this week totaled around thirty-six with a two-email margin of error, as they opened praising my commitment to a topic but closed telling me I was going to hell.
As a blogger, this sort of interaction comes with the territory. It seems that the only thing people are more sensitive about when it comes to what they think and feel is what you think and feel. I’ll tweet some innocuous pith into the void and within minutes I have started a firestorm.
I haven’t been considerate enough to one group; I haven’t thought through the counter-argument enough; I haven’t worded myself in the sixty different ways I should have in order to make a clear point. Then comes the cavalcade of pushback, the emails, the demands for clarification. One hundred and forty characters can do all that. Never mind the general vitriolic smear campaign I’ve come to expect of blog posts, which usually come under the mantle of “open letters”.
Recently, I pushed back on one of my dissenters and asked why he always felt the need to call me out on every other thing I tweeted. If he didn’t agree with me, he was free to unfollow me, and we could go are separate ways in peace.
I could, but I’m just trying to make sure that you’re not always surrounded by people who agree with you.
I’ve heard this similar comment in a few other circles of life recently and it’s left me thinking about what it is we mean by the word agreement.
The form of agreement this person seems to advocate is that what we mean when we use that word is we affirm one another’s positions to the point of echoing them. It’s an endless circle of supported talking points. Notice, it does not include the persons doing the talking. All we affirm is the position of the argument itself, which could be disembodied for all it matters.
When dissenters present themselves as the watchdogs for the other side of the argument--which already ventures into logically problematic waters, since there aren’t always two sides to a story, like the Earth rotating around the sun and not the other way around--they detach the person from the words that have been spoken and focus only on what they presume is an argument that exists in a vacuum free of nuance and experience.
Arguments come with people attached and those people bring perspective that is heavily dependent on their personal histories, background, and worldview.
A huge problem in online culture is the presumption of knowability. Trust seems instantly earned because someone blogs or catalogues a handful of things that seem to make a whole, even though they are always severely deficit when compared to the tangible knowing of two persons occupying the same physical space. But the illusion of knowing is there and is there strongly, so people who have followed someone on Twitter for two weeks think they know enough of the nuance of that person’s words as they know of their own spouse. When they dissent, even strongly, they seem surprised when the reaction is either strong pushback or to ignore them.
Haven't they earned the right to say something?
Isn’t their dissent just an appropriate check to make sure the other side is accounted for, to make sure that someone isn’t just hearing people who agree with them?
See, I have a more sophisticated understanding of agreement than it being about my ideas. I surround myself with people who agree with me.
I surround myself with people who do not necessarily agree with everything I believe, say, or identify as, but who are people who curate a space of trust in which I am free to bring all of those things to the table with the safety to work them out and discuss them. I seek to do the same in turn. Because of this, I end up with friends radically different than me religiously, socially, racially, politically, but who are nonetheless safe spaces for me to check my own thoughts. Sometimes we fight, sometimes we don’t talk about the things that divide us, sometimes we laugh and sometimes we cry, but enough authentic, time-earned trust has been won to ensure that when we disagree with each other, we know that we are disagreeing with things that are outside of the primary, fundamental value we have placed on the well-being of the other.
These people actually know me and have shown, over time, a desire to know me first before critiquing what I have to say. Accordingly, when they push back, I take their critique seriously, because it doesn’t feel like an attack on my person or that they’re out simply to win.
For instance, I tend to be more conservative when it comes to theological issues, but I write in spaces that largely feature liberal perspectives. I count these people my friends. We disagree openly, push each other, press the question, but the unspoken desire to understand, not to control, pulsates through those conversations. This was hard-won and slow-won, but it is the consequence of walking with people for a length of time, to make room for the disagreement to be a productive exchange of ideas that aren’t presented just for the sake of arguing but for the sake of seeing the other more clearly than they had been seen before.
Ideas mean nothing if we detach them from the people who create them.
I don’t much care to surround myself with people who are interested in winning an argument. I care to surround myself with people who are interested in hearing me well so as to grow together in understanding. Show me that you care about me, then about my ideas, and we can have a true conversation.
Preston Yancey is a PhD candidate in Divinity at at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is currently writing his first book, a spiritual memoir of God’s silence, Tables in the Wilderness (Zondervan, 2014). Much to my delight, he also randomly quotes musicals. He blogs at See Preston Blog. You can also find him on twitter and| facebook.