“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
I have only been in one physical fight in my entire life. I was 10 or 11 years old and the fight was with my best friend who lived a couple houses up the street. We were at my house enjoying one of our favorite pastimes – watching WWF wrestling. Like most things with boys, it only took a few minutes for the watching to become enacting and we started practicing our own wrestling moves on each other. At some point, I accidentally Hulk-Hogan-style tore the shirt my friend was wearing, which just so happened to be his prized wrestling t-shirt (I believe it had Sting’s face on it). I remember the look of complete shock and disbelief that came over his face as he looked down to his favorite shirt, hoping against confirmation of his worst fears about the loud tearing sound we had both just heard. He looked back up at me, pre-pubescent rage filling his eyes, and proceeded to walk over to my closet door, where my prized wrestling t-shirt (I’m remembering the NWO logo but that’s about it) was hanging. While making full eye contact with me, he reached up and ripped the neckline (why are these shirts so easy to tear, Hulk Hogan, why?). At that point, as they say, it was on.
Clearly, neither of us had ever been in a fight before. We pushed each other around a bit and, as he turned to leave, I followed him out the door. When we got to my steps, the attempts at throwing punches began, our little arms flailing wildly like windmills, and not at all like the Stone-Cold Steve Austin punches we imagined them to be. I don’t remember making contact with him at all but I do remember at some point feeling a punch graze my ear. This was a breaking point in the fight as we both felt actual pain (his from first making contact with something) and were startled by it. As we had literally been fighting our way up the street, my friend was now close to home and used the pause to run back to his house. As the throbbing feeling in my ear subsided, I looked up and saw him standing outside his garage looking menacing and holding a small flathead screwdriver, like a pre-teen version of Sting’s baseball bat. I didn’t want any of that so I turned around and walked home, one hand over my battle wound and one hand wiping hot tears from my face so my mom wouldn’t find out.
I tell you that story both as an homage to the durability of friendship, particularly with kids (I think he came over literally the very next day and we were fine), and as proof of my own aversion to fighting and conflict in general. I consider myself to be a peacemaker at heart; I don’t like the feeling of tension that comes with hard conversations and I will go out of my way to avoid exacerbating a disagreement whenever possible.
Out of that disposition, one question I have often struggled with in my use of social media is, “When, if ever, is worth it to pick a fight online?” If you’re anything like me, you have probably been in this scenario before: you are scrolling through your feed on any social media platform and you come across a post from a friend or relative (probably relative) with which you find yourself in strong disagreement. Perhaps it’s offensive in any number of ways or maybe it advocates for a position that you find intellectually or morally untenable. Sometimes it’s even a comment they make on a post that you originally shared and now you’re playing host to whatever brand of craziness this person is selling. You’re blood pressure starts to rise and you have a decision to make: do I engage with this person or not? Do I choose in to conflict or do I simply let it go?
Similar to my physical fighting skills, though somewhat more experienced, this is not an area of strength for me. However, I do have a rough sense of how I personally decide whether or not to engage in conflict on social media:
Generally speaking, I only step into conflict online when I feel that I can use my power to meaningfully correct or prevent an abuse of power. Let me break down what I mean by that:
I don’t pick fights with strangers.
The world of social media is full of opportunities to engage with complete strangers. From hashtag threads to celebrity bloggers and the comments their posts engender, you could easily spend days on end doing nothing but arguing with people online. For me, I mostly choose not to engage with people outside my sphere because it seems unlikely that I will have the influence or social capital needed to provoke meaningful interaction with them. I ultimately desire to go deeper in relationship with people I argue with online and I try to avoid the fight if that doesn’t seem likely.
I don’t pick fights when the stakes are relatively low.
As someone who works in ministry and clearly thinks highly of his own thought process, I have a lot of opinions about any number of issues related to theology, practice, leadership, etc. about which some people do choose to debate on social media. However, I would describe many of these issues as low-stakes in that it is unlikely that adopting either or any side in the debate will lead to the degradation of an image-bearer of God. I might have a position when it comes to Calvinism or worship music but I am not particularly interested in debating it on Facebook due mainly to the small stakes involved in converting someone to my particular opinion. For me, the question “Is the image of God in someone at stake in this argument?” is key to discerning my engagement in conflict.
I arbitrate fights happening in my house.
This one makes me the most uncomfortable but I do feel responsible for arguments that get started on threads that I have created. When I post something on social media, I assume the role of “host” to a theoretical argument, which, for me, adds an extra layer of discernment: “Do I have the time and energy today to mediate whatever conversation this article or statement might create?”
When I engage, I work to create dissonance and provoke deeper investigation.
As I mentioned, my primary desire in conflict is to use whatever power I might have to meaningfully correct or prevent the abuse of power that often leads to the dehumanization of image-bearers of God. If I see a post within my relational circles that I believe will do some level of direct or indirect harm to people I care about, I will offer pushback both for the sake of the poster and for the sake of others who will see the post, normally in the form of questions meant to draw out forces that shaped this opinion (“How did you arrive at that position?”) or narrative evidence to the contrary of the opinion (“I have some friends who have experienced it differently; what do you make of that?”). For me, this is one especially pertinent way to steward the privilege I have as a white man in my circles. When I see other white people (particularly men) in my social circles posting comments or articles that I believe reveal significant blind spots that are dehumanizing to people who are not white men, I feel a certain responsibility to challenge that viewpoint in such a way that the poster and those watching will feel led to further interrogate their own perspectives on the issue at hand.
When I engage, I try to do so with measured and appropriate force.
As someone with a proclivity for sarcasm, I have to be mindful at all times not to shame or degrade my opponent if I choose to engage in conflict with them. If the elevation of the image of God is truly my highest intent, dehumanizing someone in a debate is literally the worst way I could go about achieving that end. I try not to make assumptions about stances that have not yet been articulated. I try my best to stay one notch below the other person’s intensity level (somewhat arbitrary and abstract but helpful for me) and to pay attention to power dynamics in the conversation, such as the relative age, generation, or education gap between us. When I feel I have stepped over the line, I do my best to repent meaningfully and offer to take the conversation offline whenever helpful.
So what about you? How do you decide when to pick a fight on social media? What are key questions you ask yourself before you engage? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.