Yesterday I ate two cookies. I feel the need to be honest with you on that point before we get started. Two cookies may not seem like a lot to you but, as someone who has consistently claimed to be more of a savory foods person, I have to admit that cookies are my weakness. This is particularly true when they are what I would call the best kind of cookie. Some people love soft cookies that tear apart easily and almost melt in your mouth. Others love crunchy cookies with the added textural bite and fun Cookie-Monster-esque sound effects. For me, the best kind of cookie is the best of both worlds: crispy on the outside and soft in the middle. When that kind of cookie is at hand, savory foods be damned, I must have one.
I’ve written previously on using social media for self-education and today I want to think about its uses for those who are leaders, those who intentionally seek to influence people in a given community toward certain values. In my experience as a Christian navigating the complex world of using social media as a platform for influence, I have found that this type of cookie is also a fitting image for illustrating how people express their political and social stances online. Think back to the cookie with me – let’s imagine it in its two-dimensional, side-profile glory:
With that in mind, imagine a problem being discussed online about which you have a firm, settled opinion. There are three types of people when it comes to your particular stance on that issue: people who agree with you (near crispy edge), people who disagree with you (far crispy edge), and then everybody else (soft middle). The soft middle folks may lean toward one edge or the other, growing more and more crispy as they do so, but they are still soft, or pliable, to a certain degree; they have not made up their mind about a certain stance on that topic.
On any given issue, the direction of influence tends to be the edges pulling the middle toward themselves. Another way of saying this is that convinced people convince people; it is hard to exert influence on an issue about which you do not have a firm opinion. Because of this innate polarity and the illusion it creates that only crispy people have the authority to discuss, conversations on social media about critical political and social issues tend to only happen between opposing crispy sides of the cookie, leaving those in the chewy middle with very few places to learn or form a nuanced stance. This is problematic with every issue but it is particularly troubling with issues where a large chewy/undecided middle passively keeps certain groups of people in situations of marginalization and suffering. After the unrest in Ferguson began two summers ago, conversations in my circles immediately formed into two opposing camps: those who unwaveringly supported the police and those who unwaveringly opposed the police. In a complex situation with hundreds of years of history and dozens of angles of perspective, it felt like many of my friends were forced to either choose a very crispy edge (based often more on social pressure than informed compassion) or simply stay out of the conversation all together. Nearly two years later, though much has been accomplished by activists on the front lines, I cannot help but think what progress we might have seen both socially and in the justice system had we found more ways to mobilize the vast chewy middle of people who still are not quite sure how to feel about the death of Mike Brown.
So how do we use social media as a tool for influencing those still forming an opinion, instead of simply galvanizing those who already agree with us or picking fights with those who don’t? How do we create space for others to learn and practice discernment instead of simply telling them what to think?
Recognize your own blinders.
If you are someone with a crispy opinion who truly desires to be influential in the chewy middle, you need to be willing to admit that it is at least a possibility that there are intelligent, morally sound people who disagree with you on this issue. This is particularly challenging because the crispy folks who agree with you will praise you and offer you a lot of cultural cache (Facebook likes, Twitter followers) to hold your line as firmly and arrogantly as possible. However, those in the chewy middle, particularly in the Millennial Generation, will find you difficult to trust. As I have mentioned previously, I feel fairly crispy about the need for stronger gun control laws in this country. There are several factors that have culminated in this stance; however, I cannot deny that part of what holds my stance together is that I grew up in a family that did not own a gun, I have the privilege and means to live in a relatively safe neighborhood, and that I have never had to physically defend myself from an attack. It is not weakness for me to admit that I do not stand atop a mountain of my own pure rational and moral fortitude (nor does it make my opinion less valid); it is simply the slice of humility that makes basic human conversation with those who disagree with me possible.
Put yourself in their shoes.
Aside from humility, another virtue necessary for true influence is empathy. Can you imagine what it is like to be in the chewy middle on this issue? It might be helpful to think of a specific friend you know who is currently there and think about their day-to-day life experiences, background, and perspectives that shape their current stance. What is it like for them to engage in this conversation? What emotions or fears come to the surface? After I first joined in a protest following the events in Ferguson and heard disturbing stories regarding the community’s experience with the police department, I wanted to influence people like me (white, middle-class, millennial evangelicals) to get practically involved in the movement for criminal justice reform in our city. After some failed attempts to invite my friends to come to protests, I realized that I needed to find a first step into involvement that was more appropriate for the level of uncertainty many people were feeling about the situation. Imagining and asking about their barriers to involvement helped me figure out a pathway of invitation that led to at least a handful of people learning and growing in their own passion for an issue that I believe to be critical in our city and nation.
Tell more stories.
Even more so than statistical analysis, stories have a powerful way of providing people with a platform on which to stand inside a problem and imagine how they would respond to it as a human being. If you care about wage reform, you could simply post a rant about how unfair it is to pay people below what they need to survive. Alternatively, you could post another article with the map showing how hard it is to pay the average rent in all fifty states with the minimum wage of those states. But, if you really want people to change their minds about the subject or at least feel a degree of compassion, tell them a story of someone directly impacted by the problem. As a husband that tries my best to find ways to provide for my growing family, I am especially motivated by stories of other men working tough jobs for forty or fifty hours each week and still struggling just to put food on the table. Stories give us entry points into the conversation without forcing us to form an opinion just yet; they give space for the thoughtful reflection that is so crucial with such important issues.
Don’t abuse the Bible.
As a Christian who believes firmly in the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible and as one with fairly strong convictions regarding a handful of social issues, this is a constant temptation for me. There is no trump card quite like the Bible in the Christian community and for good reason. We are first and foremost a people of the Book and it is right and proper for followers of Jesus to take their primary cues for life from his Word. However, as people living in a society nearly two thousand years removed from the most recently written books within the Bible, we also have to admit that it is not always a simple matter to discern how the Bible would guide us on important social issues. Wouldn’t it be easier if the Bible had a page in the back where God simply answered frequently asked questions from the 21st Century like “Should human beings have the right to purchase automatic weapons?” or “What exact dollar amount should be the floor of our compensation?” As followers of Jesus, there are some issues where we must look at what the Bible does tell us and try our best to discern the social implications of what we believe in community and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This may mean that we sometimes disagree even among the Christian community about how to best deal with a given problem in our society. Throwing an intended knockout punch like “Well, socialism just isn’t biblical” or finding some obscure reference to support your point that forces the Bible to speak to some issue that the original writers could never have imagined is not only bad for discussion; it is weak theology and abusive of the Scriptures.
Be willing to shift media to maintain learning.
Lastly, we have to realize that social media has limited influential power. If we desire to see practical change in the lives of people under our leadership, we eventually have to move the conversation into the real world of everyday life. As I’ve mentioned previously, this medium brings many temptations to claim to care about things without the accountability of putting that care into action. If you desire to see people under your leadership grow in their concern for broken school systems, posting articles about the state of the schools in your city will have some impact on a select few people. However, nothing will cause a shift quite like getting them in front of a child from one of those schools for an hour every week for tutoring or bringing in a teacher to speak to a group about what it’s like to work in the system and praying boldly for their endurance in a challenging world.
As leaders, we need to recognize both the advantages and the shortcomings of using social media as a platform for influence and steward its power wisely in the lives of those under our care. If you’re a leader who has used social media in your leadership, I’d love to hear your experience as well – do you agree or disagree with my take on it? Feel free to leave a comment below.