The Internet does not have a good reputation for encouraging civil conversation and thoughtful dialogue. It’s a place where people can spew hatred, vilify their opponents, and generally behave in unfortunate ways. It’s a place people claim either has zero consequences or massive consequences for “the real world,” depending on the issue and their personal preferences.
While that’s all true, I’ve also found the Internet a place that expands my ability to engage with those with whom I disagree.
As someone with a fairly introverted, conservative temperament, I find comfort in order, preparation, and systems that establish commonly understood expectations. People are great, but they can be exhausting. I grew up in Pella, an Iowa town that was 95% white and home to over a dozen churches (mostly CRCNA/RCA). I’m a proud alumna of Dordt College, where multi-faceted diversity is not yet a defining trait. All in all, I am the sort of person who might find engaging difference (racial, socioeconomic, sexual, theological) to be more work than it’s worth.
Enter the Internet. The Internet is…
… a place to find out about experiences different from mine, and not in a “wonders of the world”/National Geographic sort of way, but in an “actual people with daily routines live like this” sort of way.
… a place to find profound articles from sources that I might never encounter in my normal news-of-the-day routine.
… a place to listen to painful stories and grapple with my own privilege and defensiveness.
… a place that forces me to recognize that condescension and snark are not ultimately edifying, but rather an unfulfilling way to get a cheap ego boost through likes and retweets.
… a place to wrestle with the ways the identities I love are problematic and represent pain and prejudice to others.
… a place to remind me that my own beliefs and postures have evolved, and therefore I should expect no less from others.
… a place where hope and grace can be found amidst oppressive darkness.
The crazy, wild world of the Internet creates space for me to learn about cultures, systems, and experiences that I have not personally encountered and therefore helps reduce the anxiety I have with new situations. In this way the Internet allows me to do some of the internal preparatory work required to engage others with a Christ-like posture. It is a uniquely twenty-first century process of sanctification, if you will.
For me, the Internet is a place to begin, but it is not enough. At some point conversations have to move from online to in-person. Face-to-face conversations force me to confront the fact that the Twitter handle or online byline is a real, flesh-and-blood person, one who is just as much made in the image of God as I am.
Others in this blog series have noted common objections to engagement, the challenge of initiating dialogue, ways of encouraging productive conversation, and tips for avoiding defensiveness, so I will let their words serve as guidance for this step.
In the meantime, as you discern how you are called to live in this now-but-not-yet world, take the time to listen to online voices with whom you disagree. Examine your heart to see how God might be asking you to begin a conversation with grace and compassion, rather than judgment and anxiety. Remember that God is sovereign and claims every square inch … even on the Internet.