Why don't you just try to win them over...?
A complaint that I’ve heard frequently goes something like this.
If you have a grievance against a person, you should take it up with that individual. Of course, that’s probably scary and nerve-wracking; but it’s vastly better than gossiping and rumour-mongering. If you don’t feel you’ve got anywhere, please have another go, but take a friend with you. So far, so Christian. It’s precisely what Jesus advised, after all.
Then, and only then, is it appropriate to take things further, by addressing the whole fellowship. So what on earth do people think they’re doing by shouting out on social media? That’s appalling behaviour, clearly unmasking a divisive and vindictive spirit. They should cease and desist. Etc etc etc…
Now, please don’t misunderstand. This is precious wisdom. How one longs for the restoration of trust and good will. But it is not always as simple as it might seem. The reason is a phenomenon that is necessarily getting increased attention these days: power imbalance. Despite the claims of some, the simple step of identifying this as a problem does not entail spineless capitulation to political correctness nor slippery slopes to wokedom (whatever that might be). It’s just naming a fact of life.
But when those in power have actually abused their power–which essentially is achieved by exploiting that imbalance–the Matthew 18 injunction becomes nigh-on impossible. The scales are always tipped in favour of the empowered. I mean, it’s not exactly rocket science, is it? But for those whose grievances are genuine, it is agony.
A cursory google search took me to various places that described power imbalances. So here are a few observations I gleaned about the experience of being on the wrong end of the imbalance.
- Decisions are made without taking your perspective into account
- The needs of the powerful are met whereas yours are not.
- In contrast, you are expected to give far more than you receive.
- You feel (or are made to feel) uncomfortable defending yourself
- You are isolated and lonely in the relationship
- You feel that maybe it’s all in your head and so you should just pull yourself together. But because the effects are real, you begin to doubt that you’re actually even sane.
We can’t be naive here. Power imbalances are not inherently wrong but are inevitable features of life in large communities (such as a town or nation); just as uneven privileges will always exist in a complicated and broken world. The issue is what is done to manage the imbalances. The ideal is that the greater the power, the greater the extent of others’ flourishing.
Yet, as the writer Arundhati Roy famously put it, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” Because that is a privilege that power does offer: the means to silence, ignore, scapegoat, or isolate.
I’m not a relativist. I don’t believe that all statements are equally valid; furthermore, I know perfectly well (from bitter personal experience of mental illness) that perceptions can get skewed and distorted. We all need discernment. So a claim to victimhood does not automatically entail the fact of victimhood. BUT… it must entail being taken seriously and investigated properly rather than brushed off. Discernment is emphatically not the same as deliberate avoidance or drowning out.
Yet for too long, many experienced precisely that.
No longer 'why publish?' but 'why read?'
In 2008, NYU professor, Clay Shirky brought out a book on social media and the internet that blew me away. I picked out a number of its key ideas on the blog back then, so I won’t repeat myself unduly. One thing that has stuck in my mind ever since has been the internet’s astonishing potential to give the voiceless a voice. Because of the impediments of cost, inconvenience and intensive labour, print media could always maintain some degree of quality control (although my notion of quality control might well be your idea of censorship), the internet precisely inverted this. Before the question was ‘why should we publish this?’ Now, once you’ve paid to be online (a price that’s negligible in the West at least), there’s little to stop you. So, ‘why shouldn’t we publish this?’ The tally of published items is already astronomical. That inevitably raises another lingering question: ‘why should I read this?’
12 years on, the book now seems too optimistic, naively so; the high hopes of toppling tyrants (as heralded by the Arab Spring) have been supplanted by the potential for those same tyrants to achieve maximum surveillance. Be that as it may, the social changes this has all brought are only beginning to be understood. Its relevance to the topic in hand is obvious. Let me simply quote a few paragraphs from Wilderness of Mirrors about how the horrors within Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese came to light
Most of us can sympathize with Frank Taylor, seventy-seven-year-old father of one of Father Joseph Birmingham’s young victims, who said, “I left the Church. I never went back again.” The conspiracy of abuse and concealment was too great for him to regain his trust in the institution or its message. Likewise, victims of spiritual abuse and cultic practices in unaffiliated or newer churches are wary of anything remotely resembling organized religion. The attractiveness of a spirituality (whether or not it is shaped by Christianity) that is not bound by any structures, orthodoxy, or hierarchy is self-evident. Of course, it also appeals to a Western individualistic mindset, but to dismiss the whole trend on that basis is to ignore the genuine grievances that underlie it.
The surprise, however, is how many resisted that path. After an evidently long and painful journey, some recover and even thrive within more wholesome Christian communities. Some, like Tom Blanchette, turned to another denomination; others sought justice and transformation within their denomination. This has led some to create pressure groups and victim support groups. One such is Voice of the Faithful, whose tagline is telling: “Keep the faith, change the church.”
Social media offered such groups revolutionary opportunities for information sharing and collective action, to the extent that the ability of a grassroots protest to take on a global institution like the Catholic Church has become the subject of sociological study. Clay Shirky noted that there had been protests and allegations in the early 1990s, but these were quickly silenced, in part because they were not coordinated. By 2002, the Internet facilitated effortless coordination and instantaneous dissemination. The authorities had no means of containing it. Shirky writes, “Social tools don’t create collective action — they merely remove obstacles to it.”
No wonder the bushfire of suspicion spread so far and fast.
A Wilderness of Mirrors, 2015, p62
Before the internet, it was practically impossible to identify, let alone make contact with, others who had experienced abuse. The balance of power lay entirely in the institution’s favour. Covers-up and obfuscation were straightforward. Facebook and Twitter changed all that. #MeToo and #ChurchToo bubbled up from the grassroots – and the likes of Weinstein and Epstein ended up behind bars. It also meant that survivors could find reassurance they weren’t going mad, while also feeling connected and understood by others, even if they lived on the other side of the globe. For that’s the weird thing about social media. For all that snarky preachers might dismiss online connections as “so-called Friends”, there is genuine community to be found online.
Where else can I turn?
What would you do, if you felt you had exhausted every avenue? If behind every door was a brick wall? Not only that, if you felt that everybody seemed to be protecting their chums while you’re left out in the cold? Or worse, being traduced and dragged through the courts.
What I am pleading for, I think, is a greater reticence before berating those on social media seeking redress, at the very least. Ask yourself: What would you have done in their position? Have you genuinely done everything within your power to attend to the grievance?
Because we need to reflect on a grim irony. The internet has brought about another inversion: an inversion of power dynamics. A well-aimed hashtag with a band of willing retweeters can wreak havoc and make somebody’s life a misery. As Jon Ronson so effectively proved in his chilling So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed“, twitterstorms can be devastating. There’s very little that a target can do other than to bunker down and somehow weather the storm. In full knowledge that the briefest googling of their name will hereafter bring everything back up again.
So I just wonder — NB I’m thinking out loud here, so do suggest correctives or alternatives, but please do so in the constructive spirit with which I write — how those who brandish powerful Twitter handles might do so in a thoughtful and careful manner. By no means am I suggesting that the wounded or hurt should avoid social media. Quite the opposite in fact. If anything, I’m trying to grasp at a responsible and perhaps more effective way to do that. So here are a few undeveloped, disordered thoughts.
- If pre-existing hashtags (like #MeToo or #ChurchToo) correspond to your grievance, by all means make the most of them. The fact that some use bandwaggons as a kind of weird virtuous-victim-signalling is not reason enough to avoid them.
- It is certainly not wrong to call out situations of corporate or institutional bad practice – and where they have a social media presence, they are clearly inviting interaction. So raising pertinent or difficult questions is reasonable.
But please take care.
- We must take fact-checking as seriously as we can. Obviously, the majority of us are not journalists or researchers so we don’t have the means or time. But seek reputable sources rather than rumour or hearsay or 4th hand retweet. I also wonder if we need to be confident that there are concrete examples of malpractice in mind rather than vague accusation (and even when we do, I’m not sure it is wise or even in our own best interests to air them, unless every alternative avenue has been frustrated). What’s more, over the years, whenever a news story has featured something or someone that I know a bit about, I’m amazed how often they get details wrong. It’s not surprising – journalists are human, they’re on crazy deadlines and it’s hard to dot every i. So not everything you read in the paper is right.
- Might it be possible that the worst possible interpretation is not the only one? That error rather than skullduggery is to blame? Or that incompetence rather than conspiracy might be the cause? Or that someone who has made an easy mistake then gets driven into the dead-end of denial by escalating twitter shame? Shouldn’t the Sermon on the Mount, and the ethic of the Golden Rule, result in an effort to be generous (without being naive or enabling) until the facts make certain conclusions unavoidable?
Again – please do not mishear. I am not denying that there have been awful breaches of good practice and oversight in some situations (the Zacharias case being the most recent to have been investigated); terrible things have been perpetrated and then concealed. The problem is once one has experienced one such betrayal, it’s hard not to feel every resonance and parallel is on the same level. That is perfectly natural – it’s how we protect ourselves from getting our fingers burned a second time. But unfortunately, that is also how conspiracy theories start. And social media is the perfect incubator for them.
- So perhaps we need to be very careful about naming names. I’m not saying it is a wrong move necessarily. Only that it needs to be done sparingly in order to be effective, with very specific goals in mind.
- Speaking of goals, I fear sometimes that sometimes there are unrealistic expectations at work. A tweeted accusation may take 60 seconds to make; an appropriate let alone satisfying response may take weeks or months. It is rarely possible in a tweet and may depend on several forces beyond one person’s control: such as waiting for a report’s conclusions, having to engage with several individuals involved, or to do some fact-checking of their own.
- Beware of arguments from silence. In academic historical research, arguments from silence are usually treated with degrees of scepticism, and rightly so. For sure, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence (the conspiracy theorist’s mantra). But at the same time, the absence of evidence will be precisely what we find if what is suspected didn’t happen!! Then it actually IS the evidence of absence. But the one accused cannot win; the accuser merely needs to release a tiny wisp of doubt and their job is done. SOOOO, just because somebody has not commented on Twitter or the blogosphere or anywhere else about the latest atrocity, it is hardly fair to conclude immediately this represents complicity or condoning.
You see, if we don’t do this well, the genuinely guilty can legitimately defend themselves has having been unfairly condemned in a trial by media. But if we are seeking truth and justice, even if just an apology, it is important that we don’t respond to abuses of power by resorting to another abuse of power, albeit one of a very different kind.
But let me end where I began. It is all too easy to jump on the heads of those whose pain and despair have driven them to cry out online. Have some compassion. Have some empathy. And simply ask what might have occurred to push them to pouring out as they have. And then consider what might help them most. Especially in the real, rather than virtual, world.