Peace, Love, and Understanding

I watched a Twitter firestorm yesterday.
In the scope of the entire “twitterverse,” as they call it, it’s probably small potatoes. But this particular storm made my heart hurt and got me thinking (again) about the nature of communication and the prevalence of misunderstanding, as well as the resolute “your opinion doesn’t actually matter”-ness of contemporary American culture.

We are obsessed with being heard.
I submit, as evidence, the existence of Twitter in the first place and the very existence of this blog.

Sometimes, wanting to be heard is justified as there have been many marginalized voices in our country (and in our churches) and amplifying those voices is appropriate. But being heard, I’d argue, is not enough. We want to be understood.

But being understood is much, much more difficult. And understanding requires much more work than most of us are willing to put forth–especially for the sake of strangers.

At one point, a hallmark of liberalism was open-mindedness and the ability to tolerate a difference of opinion. But most modern-day liberals have no interest in either of those things. Liberalism’s new cousin–progressivism–is a different animal entirely and is just as intolerant and other-phobic as its original enemy: conservatism.

I mean this criticism in good humor because I have plenty of friends and family on both sides of the equation and I think most of them (ha!) are decent people with good intentions. I would gladly defend them to their opposition if the need arose but, if I’m honest, I’ll admit that they are most all plagued by an inability to understand each other.

In fact, most of us are.

The twitter “fight” I saw yesterday was between a prominent Christian thinker/writer and a contingent of his personal and ideological critics. It was an honest-to-goodness “cluster****,” as they say, and it was ugly.

I know it’s not really my job to moderate the conversations between strangers, but I always feel like I need to do it. People are just so unfair to each other, often attributing only the worst of intentions to their opposition. They are inflammatory. Derogatory. Absurd and dishonest. All the while, they assert their own personal integrity and moral superiority.

I’ve done it too.
There have been times when my disagreements were so intense and I was so indignant and proud that I stood by things I did or said that I should have never done or said, even after I knew they were wrong to do or say. And it didn’t matter a lick to me how my words or actions affected the people around me. All I wanted was to win. And I most definitely did not want to learn from someone else or change.

But, see, I’ve also been on the other side.
My words have been twisted into something I never intended. I’ve been called names I didn’t deserve to be called. I’ve had friends become enemies because of what they heard instead of what I actually said. And I’ve felt that terrible, aching feeling of being deeply misunderstood.

Empathy is not my strong suit, but I empathize with those who feel misunderstood, whether it’s because they are simply not good with words or because they’ve been backed into a rhetorical corner by someone who is better. It feels terrible. And it’s a terrible thing to do to someone.

Our disagreements aren’t going away anytime soon. Polarization seems to be the flavor of our culture today. And though I am not the arbiter of mutual understanding, I can’t walk by such ugly fighting without at least suggesting the rules change. If we don’t practice a little ideological empathy, we will eventually be incapable of actually hearing anyone the way they intend to be heard. And that will be a sad, sad world indeed.