On Controversy and Social Media and Making a Difference

Point Arena at night

There’s another controversy brewing, this time regarding a new state law and a major corporation and bathrooms. Angry (and, to be fair, not-so-angry) voices spew their opinions across the Internet, telling us to love our neighbor and to stand for truth and to act like Jesus. (That last one gets to me. Both sides of this debate, at least in Christian circles, claim that He would act most like them in this matter, that theirs is the right way, the divine way. But that is another issue for another time.)

Truth be told, I’m tired of it all. All the noise. All the outrage. All the social media campaigning for one side or the other, the pithy statements, the 140-character encapsulations that condense a complex issue into easy talking points. In today’s ever-awake, always-connected world, this is just one more attention-grabbing headline in a long line of flash-in-the-pan issues.

Each time the next big controversy comes, we rally to our respective sides. We talk and we rail and we feel righteous because we’ve stood for what’s right, because we’ve said our piece, when in reality, nothing at all has changed.

I understand the drive to do something, to say something, to make a difference. I do. These are real issues, affecting real people, resulting in real changes to society and to culture. Social media does, to some extent, raise awareness. As a lover of words, I believe language has the power to motivate and to inspire and to heal. Though I don’t make it a regular practice here in this space, I have written about controversial issues in the past, added my voice to the conversations surrounding Planned Parenthood and the Syrian refugee crisis, and I’ve no doubt similar topics will find their way onto my blog in the future.

But here’s the problem, the truth that forces me to hesitate when I’m tempted to write about the latest hot-button issue:

Our attention span is far too short, even for those things that matter most to us. These issues arise, splash their way across the front pages of news outlets, blaze their way through social media, and then die a rapid death, disappearing in the noise of the next big thing.

Take the two issues I wrote about last fall – Planned Parenthood and the Syrian refugees. For all the fervor that surrounded the discussion of such things last fall, they’re no longer a part of the national discourse. The latest update on the House Republicans’ page about the investigation into Planned Parenthood is from October. The last action on a bill addressing refugee security in either the House or the Senate took place in January. Those fleeing the violence in the Middle East continue to come to the US – since October, 1000 Syrians have begun a new life in this country.

Did you know that both of these issues had stalled out in Congress? Did you know that many politicians spoke out about these things when the public cared, that they promised action and change, and then followed it with a great bunch of silence? I didn’t. I’d lost track. Though I stand by what I said at the time, though I still believe these are important issues, deserving careful thought and consideration, I stopped paying attention. Once the discussion moved on to other things, so did I.

I moved on to other things and, while a part of me wishes I could sustain interest in and passion for those things that don’t directly affect my life or the lives of those I love, I wonder whether I am only acting in accordance with how I’m created. I wonder whether we’re meant to care about big causes, about huge societal issues – or if we’re supposed to see those issues through the lenses of the lives around us. Maybe, instead of giving large amounts of time and energy to the scandals surrounding Planned Parenthood, I should show tangible love to the pregnant teen in my community. Instead of pouring myself into legislation that deals with Syrian refugees, I should reach out to the immigrant who lives down the street.

Perhaps we’re supposed to live quiet and humble lives, seeking justice and loving mercy for the people we meet in the normal course of living. Perhaps we’re designed to be caught up in the day-to-day, in the seemingly inconsequential minutiae of the regular rhythms of eating and sleeping and working and playing that make up our lives. Perhaps, with the exception of a few public figures, a few loud and prophetic voices, our best means of furthering the Kingdom is to act within our own small circles of influence. To love those we meet – be they strangers or friends or family – well. To see the broken places in our local communities, our local churches, our local families, and to do what we can to bring health and justice to them.

Speaking out about the wrongs in our world, standing for truth and beauty and love – these are good activities, noble and true, and we should do them. But in the end, I wonder whether our blog posts and our tweets and our status updates make much – if any – difference, if they really do anything beyond assuaging our own pain when we see something wrong with the world.

I will continue to speak when something moves me, to add my words to the cacophony of voices surrounding the issue of the day. But may I never sit back, thinking that words are enough. May I never mistake such things for the work that matters, for the true opportunity I have to serve and to love, right here, in this time and place in which I find myself. May I remember that this small life, when lived with an open hand and an open heart in the Presence of the One who loves me most, is a beautiful and wonderful and world-changing thing, even (or especially?) if my online words go unheeded and unheard.

P.S. After writing this post, I came across this article about the humanitarian work westerners often try to do in other countries. The specific issues it raises are slightly different than those I’ve raised here, but I believe that, at the core, we’re talking about the same thing. 

2 response to "On Controversy and Social Media and Making a Difference"

  1. By: jywatkins Posted: May 5, 2016

    Jenn, this post reminds me so much of recent conversations I’ve had in my grad school class, Globalization, Media and Social Change. The class looks at the ways in which activism and social justice are changing with the advent of technology and social media (among other topics). We were talking about Occupy Wall Street the other day and why it didn’t seem to make any lasting difference and why many social media campaigns (with catchy hashtags) don’t– and what we came up with was the fact that social media gives people the impression that they are participating in a social movement, when actually adding your own arguments online or changing your profile picture to match a cause do little more than make you feel like you’re participating without actually having to participate. The real activism and social justice work uses social media as one tool, not the main agent of change. Real action still needs to be done in the physical world. And yes, like you said, things are fleeting in the online space, so we rally around a cause and then tomorrow there will be a new one. There’s not a lot of follow-through, not a lot of people seeing issues through to the end. It’s been a really interesting class!

    To be sure, our voices on social media and blogs do help in many instances to raise some awareness and give varying perspectives– and inspire passion. After all, many of the greatest activist campaigns have been backed and/or started by strong writing and powerful speeches, but they can’t make a huge difference unless there’s more concrete goals and actions backing them up.

    • By: Jenn Posted: May 5, 2016

      Yes, Jamie, exactly. I love what you say – that social media is one tool, not the main agent of change. That’s most of what I was trying to say, and where most of my frustration comes in (mostly directed at myself, for not working harder for change): that the social aspect, on its own, isn’t enough.

      That sounds like a fascinating class! Such interesting conversations.

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