Social Moralizing-A Reflection


“A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.”

— Proverbs 15:1

I’ve been reflecting upon my own interactions on the social media and some related observations.

Ever since the emergence of social media, it has accelerated a culture of impassioned opinions on issues of right and wrong. The opinions are thrown about, typically with self-righteous, air of superiority, displaying an overly critical point of view, often peppered with sarcasm that are down right mean and nasty.

And many of us (including yours truly), hiding comfortably behind our computer screens, can fall victim to feeling false sense of security and anonymity that give extra ammunition to make us behave in a way that is more careless in hurling accusations against our brethren and yet feel malignly indifferent to the injury we may cause not only to those we are directing our comments to but to the broader social fabric of our culture.

Anecdotes and viral videos has largely replaced data, empirical evidence, and emotions and feeling have overrode logic and reason. Or evidences are cherry-picked in order to drive a certain narrative. And with no rules of etiquette enforced, many social media comments and discussions quickly devolve into insults and ad hominem attacks where many resort to remarks that are simply an attack on an opponent’s character rather than an answer to the contentions.

We also cannot underestimate the phenomenon, that there is this incredible power of an anecdote, and how the social media can take an ordinary person’s story and instantly make it a sensation. Anyone can create and publish a content which can potentially strike a cord with millions of viewers, ignite the public’s consciousness and can even greatly steer the nation’s social or political discourse. That being the case, one should question the role it plays in pushing a narrative which is driven by emotion, and many are induced into owning a narrative and decidedly choosing sides, implore others to adopt a similar view, regardless of whether they have the facts on their side.

And whenever a story on social media goes viral, (especially the ones that are emotionally charged, a highly controversial subject that is already a sensitive social mores of the day), it becomes a feeding frenzy and many of us are guilty of jumping in, what often turns into a toxic cesspool of polarizing debates filled with vitriol and condemnation.

Beyond the question of whether or not these sorts of behavior is condoned or endorsed, people increasingly speak as if it is their duty to tell others what they ought to think and do. This is evident from the fact that many incessantly moralize despite some significantly negative consequences, such as potentially offending people or damaging their relationships or worst, get permanently blocked by their social media “friends”. Would we behave this way in the real world?

It’s certainly plausible to me that the reason why they are not sensitive to consequences like these is that they think they are acting on an overriding moral and ethical obligation.

What could motivate the idea that one has an obligation to moralize? The following line of thought comes to mind:

  1. People have moral obligations.

  2. When some people fail to meet their moral obligations, they become blameworthy.

  3. If someone is blameworthy, one ought to blame them and set them straight.

  4. Consequently, one ought to moralize to those who are blameworthy and hope that they come to their moral senses.

This is akin to religious dogmatism wherein the moralizer tries to induce his subjects into believing in an ideology, to join a movement, political party, or other cause or organization, while demoting the ideologies of its subjects. There’s a real prosecutorial element to the discourse, in order to enforce conformity by shaming the opponent.

But if the “moralizing” is really an attempt to gain sympathy or win someone over, I am not too sure if the tactics often employed from what I can observe are helpful. On the contrary, it is leading the opposing groups to become even more polarized.

I would also argue that the other driving motivator of moralizing comes from a deep seated insecurity or fear that some how the values and standards of decency that we tenuously hold are being threatened or challenged. No one likes to have their cherished views challenged nor admit that they are wrong.

Whether you are espousing a radical, liberal, progressive ideology or a far-right, conservative, Christian values; it is a paramount practice by many to become entrenched with their own respective identity group, whether political or otherwise, to re-enforce their own opinion and further strengthen the groupthink and the confirmation biases.

In times like these, and in order to spur healthier dialogue, we would all do well to be more impartial and welcome differences of opinion without feeling attacked. This is all the more reason why it may be helpful to step outside of our familiar echo chambers to recalibrate our sense of perspective so that we don’t run the risk of falling victim to our own identity group’s prejudices and biases.

If the position each of us hold can be more fine-tuned and sharpened by the interaction and would force us to account for wider range of thoughts because someone has put forward some evidence or thoughts that we haven’t considered before, then we should welcome the opportunity. Or if the ideas proposed are difficult for some of us to incorporate into our system of beliefs then, again, we should view that as another opportunity to reexamine our thoughts and biases.

I would personally want to hear the best versions of the arguments that run counter to mine because that would force me to scrutinized any of my own untenable positions and figure out where I’m wrong, make changes and would make what I believe to be even better; this to me is more important than doggedly making sure that what I already know is right.

A real discussion with someone who objects to you in an intelligent and respectful way is where you learn.

Maybe we can consider a passage from James

“From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.” — James 4:1-6

What causes wars and fightings among us?

The term for “war”  is polemos; in other contexts (as in Heb 11:34),
it may refer to actual armed conflict and so it carries a violent image. The term for “fighting”  is mache; it is used in other literature only for battles without material weapons and so it refers more to such cases as variance, disputants, strife, contention, etc. James uses the terms as a pair to make his question inclusive and more pointed.

The fighting among Christians as well within any social context which James is addressing has become the social norm and is an acceptable social behavior across most if not all social media platforms.

What James is not talking is the healthy conflicts or dialogues that should be expected both within the church and without. What he is writing about is the “earthly, unspiritual, of the satanic” in origin, and he will call its perpetrators, “adulterers and adulteresses” (4:4). So serious a crime calls for a serious response.

When we Christians find ourselves embroiled in fights with each other, we should examine what we are doing in the light of this passage. James gives us great help by answering a few questions that are perhaps hard for us to face.

What Is the underlying condition?

Honestly facing what James says here is one of the most decisive steps of faith in all of a person’s life. For it requires tearing oneself away from self-justification and redirecting oneself toward self-examination. This is a violent uprooting of our selfishness. We try to justify our role in fights in terms of the high ideals, the critical issues and the injured rights we are supposedly defending.

James does not entertain any such talk. He drives right to the fact that the fights are, at bottom, about personal desires.

His point is reminiscent of 1:14, where he disallows any excuses for temptation. People are tempted when they are enticed by their own “lust.” There the term was epithymia; now in 4:1 the term for “lust” is hedone, which speaks more distinctly of pleasures.

We get into fights because of pleasures we desire for ourselves. An important self-examining question for Christians in conflict is “What personal desire am I trying to protect or to gain?” Self recognition? Self-aggrandizing? Affirmation from your peers? Unwillingness to admit wrong? Or perhaps you suffer from the Schadenfreude syndrome wherein you derive great pleasure from belittling or seeing those you stand against suffer or being maligned.

James does not specify examples of the lust/desire. What he does say however could refer to conflict in group relationships, such as within a church or otherwise: inflexibility about issues (from a desire to have one’s own way), maneuvering for position of authority (from a desire for status and admiration within the community) or criticizing others (from a desire to make oneself look good). It is equally applicable in individual relationships, such as a marital conflict: constantly exchanging hurtful words (from a desire to get even). Unfortunately all of these dire symptoms are ubiquitous on social media forums and Christian churches and Christian marriages also are not exempt.

James also refers to the fighting “adulterers and adulteresses” as being akin to having “friendships of the world” or being “ friend of the world”. Let’s think for a moment about how do the “worldly” individuals, politicians, political pundits, news reporters fight (namely with words) ? Are we emulating the world in terms of how we engage with others? Are we adopting the same spirit of those who we often find ourselves regurgitating? Are the choice of words or phrases we use conducive to civil and respectful dialogue or do they invoke sentiments calculated to belittle, ridicule or tear down your opponents?

I will admit here that I am certainly guilty!

James concludes the passage with an admonition and a call for humility: “But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble.” I think we would do well to heed this call. For receiving grace is incumbent upon us being humble. And if there’s a time we need God’s grace, it is right now!

I think the following quotations are applicable whether we are talking about spiritual matter or the affairs of the world:

“If a brother differs with you on some points of truth, do not stoop to ridicule, do not place him in a false light or misconstrue his words, making sport of them; do not misinterpret his words and wrest them of their true meaning. This is not conscientious argument. Do not present him before others as a heretic, when you have not with him investigated his positions, taking the Scriptures text-by-text in the spirit of Christ to show him what is truth. You do not yourself really know the evidence he has for his faith, and you cannot clearly define your own position. Take your Bible, and in a kindly spirit weigh every argument that he presents, and show him by the Scriptures if he is in error. When you do this without unkind feelings, you will do only that which is your duty and the duty of every minister of Jesus Christ.” {Ellen White, 12MR 376.1}

“Those who sincerely desire truth will not be reluctant to lay open their positions for investigation and criticism, and will not be annoyed if their opinions and ideas are crossed. We are in the school of the Master here, that we may be trained for the school above. We must learn to bear disappointment in a Christ-like manner, and the lesson taught by this will be of great importance to us. We have many lessons to learn, and many, many to unlearn. God and heaven alone are infallible. Those who think that they will never have to give up a cherished view, never have occasion to change an opinion, will be disappointed. As long as we hold to our own ideas and opinions with determined persistency, we cannot have the unity for which Christ prayed.” {Ellen White, Review and Herald, July 26, 1892}

In closing, I would just remind us that “A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1).

God bless!