A persistent memory from when I was a child is my grandmother’s anxiety when everyone gathered for the holidays. She fretted and worried. Her children often teased her, told her to relax, but she still worried. She measured the tone of the conversations, and she felt the tension in the room. Although I didn’t understand it then… I do now. My own children bump and rumble when they gather. I watch them navigate their relationships around my dinner table, and feel that familiar anxiety. I long to smooth out the rough places and keep everything on an even keel.
Recently, I have had that same experience as I read through my social media feed. Whether it is presidential politics, terrorism, the refugee crisis, or Starbucks red cups, strong ideas and feelings fuel online expression. My Facebook feed represents folks from diverse ideological perspectives and some days I wonder how I have collected folks from all over the spectrum. When I look at these images, articles, and posts I see my people. These are my friends and my family. These are people whose stories, values, and beliefs matter to me… even when we disagree.
They say the two things you should never talk about in polite company are politics and religion. We rarely have difficult conversations in person about such sensitive topics. But in the virtual world, we are happy to like and share (and occasionally rant) about these without a second thought. I wonder how this online expression will affect our actual relationships. Where once, personal opinions were excluded from public expression, we now share (and judge others) without the benefit of relationship, on the web. Around the dinner table we can see and feel the impact of our words, but across social media we often deal with each other as caricatures not whole people.
Over the past decade I’ve experienced a phenomenon I call the “assumed we.” This is when we are in a group and believe that everyone in the room agrees with us. In these moments, strong opinions are often expressed without the normal filters of polite society. In church circles there is an assumed we about some things, in higher education another, and in military circles still another. When this happens, there is very little opening for discussion or dissent and it has the effect of creating an echo chamber where we only hear our own opinions reflected back at us again and again. This is not an opportunity for conversation, for exploration and thoughtful consideration, but simply a chance to be right again.
When my sister was in college, she called to interview me about a controversial topic. Her assignment was to write a compare and contrast essay and she had one opinion and I held another. She called and asked questions about what I believed and why. She listened to understand, not to argue. When we were finished talking, neither of us changed our views but we did know each other better. I wish we could do more of that. So, I read differing opinions about what is happening in our world and what we should do about it. I am trying to let my faith set the bar for my own opinions, and let others deal with their own conscience as well. My hope is that I might get to know my people better… to listen well, to understand, and to love them especially when we disagree.