By their posts ye shall know them.

This is a guest post by my good friend Nathan Jones. Nathan is a husband and father of three. He teaches High School Bible and is a 1LT in the NCNG. His competing interests include”battling” his kids (swords, shields, masks, damsel etc.), drinking coffee with his beloved, reading, and DIY projects and chores. 

Your social media post is a road to nowhere. By broadcasting contextless queries, accusations, statements etc. you have only shouted blurbs that you intend to have meaning and impact. They do not. At least, not as you might intend. Fact is, we’re in an ever-polarizing environment plagued by identity politics. Therefore, when you say one thing, it is almost always seen as a piece to the puzzle that makes up a picture with which we’re already familiar.

What makes it worse, is that these social media “desk pops” ensure that the conversations become and remain between only two sides. Where there could be nuance, creativity, perspectives, there are only one-liners and contextless hard bargains (should, need, have-to). Social media desk pops ensure that there are only two sides. It is dodgeball.

Think for a moment, the type of influence your fast-flying-rubber-ball-to-the-face statements actually have. Your team winning or losing isn’t dependent on getting angrier and throwing harder. Like red-rover, you have to win people over.

Fortune cookie fortunes are meaningless, whoever decided those messages do not know me or my circumstances, nor is it likely we interpret reality the same way. Fortunately for fortune cookies, no one is expected to take them seriously. Unfortunately for your contextless soundbites, we are supposed to take them seriously.

 When I see posts, instinctually I have to provide the context to make sense of it, interpret it, and then form an opinion about it. That is not what you want! You must craft the context, not those whom you wish to influence.

Note. You may say the context is supplied, see the unrest/turmoil/division/goings on in society. That is not what I mean by context. I mean literally, the typographic content that lends specific meaning to one or a few sentences that comprise a typical post.

Photo by dole777 on Unsplash

I’m convinced that the significance of context in interpretation has been promoted the past several years, but it appears a new front has opened up -production. As much as context has become important and normal in the interpretation and application of texts, it appears is lacks any of the same influence in our typographical productions. How can our production be any more liberated from context then our pursuit to understanding? Nevertheless, we can produce textual meaning without context, thank you, social media! But that isn’t so, there will always be context. It will simply be created by those reading it.

So what? Stop posting. Want to have voice? Talk to people -in person! Perhaps your posts make you feel better, maybe it is cathartic or giving you a sense of purposeful changing influence, or maybe you feel good about aligning yourself with identities or causes… OK, go on then. But your feelings that lead to posting or the feelings you get afterward have a flailing impact if any and they arguably hurt human relations more than foster them.

You may object. I’m angry (about injustice and immorality) and our shared world view and/or beliefs require this outrage be expressed and joined. That’s correct, I’m with that. Social Media posts (at least the messaging as of late) is a flawed means for that end. Hammer’s don’t screw, spray-paint doesn’t write essays; fortune cookies are meaningless.

Context is omnipresent. It is either already there (identity politics) or it is created by the writer (rarely) or reader (often). We must be cognizant of the context into-which we situate and convey our message if the intended meaning and its influence is to be communicated.

I promise, I have had good and excellent conversations with folks of opposing ideologies and interpretations of society. Fueling those conversations is faith, books and ideas, narratives and stats. Progress happens: hearts are endeared to people, suffering is seen, justice is promoted, and humility realized. The progress of humble in-person-conversations is the Wrights brothers, whereas a contextless posts is Dunder Mifflin’s Jumping-photo Christmas Card, “is it worth it? Don’t answer that!”[1]

[1]NBC “The Office”

Our need for bias

Without the aid of prejudice and custom, I should not be able to find my way across the room; nor know how to conduct myself in any circumstances, nor what to feel in any relation of life. Reason may play the critic, and correct certain errors afterwards; but if we were to wait for its formal and absolute decisions in the shifting and multifarious combinations of human affairs, the world would stand still.

William Hazlitt, quoted in How to Think (p.86-87), written by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs continues:

“So we need the biases, the emotional predispositions, to relieve that cognitive load. We just want them to be the right ones. As a wise man once said, one of the key tasks of critical reflection is to distinguish the true prejudices by which we understand from the false ones by which we misunderstand.”

Calling our collection of predispositions and biases ‘System 1’ (a term borrowed from Daniel Kahneman), Jacobs argues that our ‘System 1’ thinking can be “changed, trained; it can develop new habits.” He connects this with John Stuart Mill’s insistence that we consider our whole being in this arena- the emotions and the intellect. Jacobs writes: “This is what Mill meant when he spoke of the power of rightly ordered affections to shape the character. Learning to feel as we should is enormously helpful for learning to think as we should.”

This passage evoked so many from Jamie Smith’s You Are What You Love that I nearly brought that volume back upstairs. Some of the most splendid moments of my reading life occur when I witness my authors speaking to one another. Often they are echoing one another, or taking a drink further downstream. At other times they are sharpening the argument, flipping the blade to the other side.

These conversations are most easily perceived with the best writers, by the way. Often, the most important conversations span centuries. This interestingly brings me to a concluding comment that Jacobs makes about the role of rightly ordered affections in our thinking. He writes:

“And this is why learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst, is so important. To dwell habitually with people is inevitably to adopt their way of approaching the world, which is a matter not just of ideas but also of practices.”

I ain’t the only one

Have you ever noticed that when you present people with facts that are contrary to their deepest held beliefs they always change their minds? Me neither. In fact, people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them. The reason is related to the worldview perceived to be under threat by the conflicting data.

~ Michael Shermer in an article titled: When Facts Backfire. This article appeared in the January issue of Scientific American.

This was the opening paragraph to Shermer’s article. While my own experience confirms the truth of his statement, the cartoon of a flat-earther and a round-earther (what shall we call them?) shaking hands confirmed my suspicions of who Shermer had in mind when he wrote the paragraph.

He continued to argue that creationists, anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, climate deniers, and Obama birthers, in his view, double down on their positions in spite of overwhelming evidence, due to their worldview commitments.

He provided at the end of the article six suggestions for tackling this difficult problem of talking with such Cretans:

  1. Keep emotions out of the exchange.
  2. Discuss, don’t attack.
  3. Listen carefully and try to articulate the other position accurately.
  4. Show respect.
  5. Acknowledge that you understand why someone might hold that opinion.
  6. Try to show how changing facts does not necessarily mean changing worldviews.

I appreciate that Shermer is working on the tone of his tribe, considering that many of them consider that my belief in God is as rational as belief in a flat earth. An unfortunate number of articles in Scientific American have an unnecessarily pedantic and antagonistic tone. Following these six steps would take the magazine in a helpful direction. I would like to humbly suggest a seventh piece of advice for Shermer and his intended audience: realize that you too regularly deal with the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance and the very real possibility of ignoring or even distorting evidence in support of your positions.

I work hard to identify and describe this tendency in my own life and in my own circles. My worldview demands this type of introspection. My conclusion is that Shermer’s concern isn’t a problem that afflicts religious people or conservatives alone, but all of God’s children. Shermer should be able to encourage his readers to acknowledge this without considering such an admission to be a blow to his community’s credibility. In fact, the absence of such an admission further undermines my willingness to trust such advocates of Science as impartial.

I recommend this article from the Hedgehog Review by Ari N. Schulman. Schulman addresses the pervasive sense of mistrust that society shares of the scientific community and offers balanced perspectives how the various groups involved can constructively move forward.

I’d also like to point out that I’ve got Locke on my side here:

All men are liable to error, and most men are in many points, by passion and interest, under temptation to it. If we could but see the secret motives that influenced the men of name and learning in the world, and the leaders of parties, we should not always find that it was the embracing of truth for its own sake, that made them espouse the doctrines they owned and maintained.

Let ever so much probability hang on one side of a covetous man’s reasoning, and money on the other; it is easy to forsee which will outweigh. Earthly minds, like mud walls resist the strongest batteries: and though, perhaps, sometimes the force of a clear argument may make some impression, yet they nevertheless stand firm, and keep out the enemy, truth, that would captivate or disturb them… Quod volumus, facile credimus; what suits our wishes, is forwardly believed.

~ John Locke, quoted in Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous, by W. Jay Wood.

Allan Bloom- We Are a Bit Like Savages

We are a bit like savages who, having been discovered and evangelized by missionaries, have converted to Christianity without having experienced all that came before and after the revolution. The fact that most of us never would have heard of Oedipus if it were not for Freud should make us aware that we are almost utterly dependent on our German missionaries or intermediaries for our knowledge of Greece, Rome, Judaism, and Christianity; that, however profound that knowledge may be, theirs is only one interpretation; and that we have only been told as much as they thought we needed to know. It is an urgent business for one who seeks self-awareness to think through the meaning of the intellectual dependency that has led us to such an impasse.  

~Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster,  1987), p. 156, emphasis mine.

This came from the concluding paragraph of a chapter on the influence of German philosophy on the American mind. If I knew more about Nietzsche, I would try to evaluate Bloom’s argument that Nietzsche provided the grounds for our current cultural value-relativism. However, I can say that Bloom’s words addressing our unconscious intellectual dependency are worth dwelling on.