In our modern age of social media, you can learn a lot about someone without ever really meeting them. The minute someone accepts my friend request, they can learn some highly personal and controversial things about me. They immediately have the ability to know that I am Christian, I do not identify with either major political party and one of my favorite songs is Africa by Toto. This type of introduction is much more personal than any other method of meeting someone in the past. Fifty years ago, I might go to a dinner party and meet someone that I had never encountered before. Unless it was a highly specific setting for a specific purpose, the first thing I learned about that person would probably not be their deepest convictions and allegiances. We would probably start by talking about our families, sports, the weather or how we unfortunately got invited to this dinner party that we felt obligated to attend. We would have a tendency to start with pretty basic information, and as our relationship became more developed, we might then advance to more serious topics. Once we understood, based on the direction the conversation was heading in, that we were in the presence of friends, we might be willing to touch on more difficult issues because we understood that it was safe to discuss difficult topics with nice people.
Advancing to that stage of the conversation did not mean that we always agreed. In fact, we might say to our spouse on the way home, “I met John. He was a really nice guy, but I can’t believe that he supported that candidate last election.” In this rather simple exchange, there are a few important features. First, we had a personal connection with John. We got along good enough to have our conversation and advance to a level where we introduced a controversial topic. The connection came prior to the controversial topic. Second, we are quite aware that we might meet John again. After all, we apparently have a mutual friend who invited us to this dinner party. There might be more dinner parties, barbecues or picnics in the future, and we might see John again. Like it or not, he is a member of our community, and we understood that there were areas of divergence. We understood that we didn’t agree on everything, but we simultaneously understood that we might have to see him again.
Check My Profile
Compare that to social media. You see my Facebook profile, and you might know very little about me to begin with, but all of a sudden you know an awful lot about me. There are some things about me you might not like. You might have very strong antagonism towards Africa, and you might determine that we cannot be friends if that is representative of my taste in music. Never mind that we might get along very well as friends, but you know my highly personal taste in music, and you might write me off as one of “those people who like retro music.” You know you can’t be friends with one of those types of people.
You might be reading this article, and you might think of times that maybe you have done this in your own lives. I know I often times catch myself thinking, “I met this person, and we got along really good. However, if I only knew them by their Facebook profile, I don’t think I would like them very much at all. We’re just too different and have nothing in common.”
The difference is that, like my example of the dinner party, I have met these people in real life, and I know we are friends. I know that we have things in common. I know that when we were first introduced, we didn’t talk about anything controversial, but we became friends because of baseball or a love of history. I know there are differences, but I still consider them my friends because I know the bigger picture of that person’s personality. I know they are not just what articles or memes they share on their Facebook profile. They are much larger in my mind than the limited scope of their Facebook profile.
However, let’s advance this argument one step further because it is relevant in our age of social media. We tend to get kind of uptight about things that people post on their pages. However, we get uptight often times these people that we barely know. We have all of this controversial knowledge about them, but, in our world of social media, we often times don’t really know them. That causes us to write people off really quickly. If we only know them based on their social media presence, we are going to start writing them off, ignoring them and instead gravitating towards our own safe echo chambers. Because we have no relationship with these people beyond social media, we reject them as one of “those people” and instead listen to the voices that we prefer to listen to. We need to comfort our delicate ears.
Is it any surprise then that we have such a culture of toxic discourse? We establish no relationship with other people yet expect to be able to be able to civilly discuss difficult topics. That’s tough. We then might still try to discuss difficult topics with people we hardly know, and because there is no relationship to fall back on that reminds us that we actually like some of these people, we lump them all into a highly stereotyped and artificial group of “those people” who we subsequently isolate, stigmatize and ultimately ignore. We deny that their views have any value, and we continue to embrace our squad online because we can. On Facebook, it is really easy for me to block people I don’t like and highlight those I do. It is a large world, but I actually built myself a prison that makes this large world smaller than the world I would encounter if I just went and talk to my coworkers in the office.
I write this in 2018 in the midst of my own technocentric culture, but I also write this with full recognition that I am not the first one to recognize that when I try to make my own world bigger, all I really succeed in doing is finding excuses to justify why I am actually going to make my world smaller. I say that I want to encounter people of all different types and ideologies, but I am actually looking for people who are fundamentally more or less like me.
G.K. Chesterton's Remedy
G.K. Chesterton may be best known for his masterpiece, Orthodoxy, but some of you might not realize that this masterwork was actually written as a sequel to an earlier book. Heretics presents a collection of essays in which Chesterton, to put it rather crudely, demolishes many of the most popular ideologies of his day. George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling are just a few of the intellectuals who present arguments that Chesterton evaluates and ultimately dismantles with his own blend of wit and simplicity.
He understood the value of first of all developing relationships with people before advancing to more controversial topics. For example, in the opening chapter of Heretics, he provides his evaluation of Shaw. “I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a Heretic—that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.” He understood that he didn’t have to reject Shaw as a person, and he apparently had some relationship with him on a friendly level. He just happened to find his philosophy far off base. In fact, he had a similar thing to say about Kipling. “I am not concerned with Mr. Rudyard Kipling as a vivid artist or a vigorous personality; I am concerned with him as a Heretic—that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine.” He admired Kipling’s writing and personality, but his view of the world was simply incorrect.
We seem to be losing this capacity in modern society, and I think that a large reason why is because it is so easy to find other people who share our opinions. We don’t want to go through the difficulties of actually having friends who might be different than we are, so we go to Facebook and follow Occupy Democrats or Breitbart. Our preconceived notions are not going to be challenged there since they may already align with our political ideologies.
However, in these groups we create, we might have members from all over the country or all over the world. We can say that we have a diverse group of friends, but that diversity is largely a myth. They may be diverse in just about every way except for ideologically. They may look different, speak different languages or have different hometowns, but in these groups we create, they are largely ideologically uniform. A Republican from Alaska is probably going to be a lot more ideologically like a Republican from Georgia than he is like his Democratic neighbor in Anchorage. However, in just about every other way, the two Alaskans are going to be much more alike than the Republican in Georgia. They are just not going to realize that because they have already built boundaries on ideology that divide neighbor from neighbor.
Chesterton realized this as well in his essay, “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family.” He understood that communities are things that bring together different people who have to somehow figure out how to get along despite those differences. He wrote, “There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the wilfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.”
As an illustration of this type of microcosm, I could go to my office of approximately fifty people and find people who voted for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson or other third-party candidates. How do I know this? I have had these conversations with my coworkers. We have built relationships through working together where we have the appropriate level of familiarity to sometimes talk about difficult things. I feel comfortable talking to them, and they feel comfortable talking to me. Because we have to coexist in our small office community, we have experienced the benefit of a larger world that Chesterton mentions. I’m not in my own echo chamber of Christian conservatives. I’m hearing why some people might have chosen to vote for someone else. I’m hearing why some people might not want to go to church. I’m hearing why some people feel that they are spiritual but not religious. I have a larger world because of these people I interact with on a daily basis, but we were not put in this community by choice. In this small community, we were brought together by virtue of employment, but it is quite a bit like moving into a neighborhood where you don’t know anybody. As Chesterton wrote later in the same essay, “A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises.”
This may sound troubling for many people out there today. This isn’t safe. This isn’t the type of world where I can be comfortable in my own ideas. That is true. There are threats that inherently accompany having your ideology challenged. You might learn that you have something wrong. You might have a misunderstanding or a weak point in your own worldview. That is going to be exposed in this type of environment where you’re actually in the larger world of the small community.
However, as Christians specifically but really as human beings in general, if truth is important, coming to a better understanding of truth is valuable no matter how uncomfortable it is. As Christians, we believe that Jesus Christ is the Truth, and if our mission is to continually draw closer to him, then if we have something wrong (based on our own fallibility rather than God’s), it is good to experience that discomfort. It helps us draw closer to Truth which is indeed Jesus Christ.
And, as Chesterton would point out in his direct rebuttal to the philosophy of Kipling, the only way to truly learn something about a particular culture is to spend time there and become a part of it. You are not going to learn anything by going through and browsing. Just like you cannot learn everything you need to know about someone from a Facebook profile, you cannot learn everything by being a tourist. “He has been to England a great many times; he has stopped there for long visits. But he does not belong to it, or to any place; and the proof of it is this, that he thinks of England as a place. The moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes.”
Some Practical Conclusions
In our age of social media, it is far too common for us to “visit” other people. We look at someone’s Facebook profile, and we never really get to know them. We make instant judgments about what they must be like because of what they post or share. However, in my experience, there is something to be said for easing into relationships with people. Before diving into the most difficult topics with people we hardly know, how about we try to get to know them first? By doing that, we’re going to make people much larger than they are on their Facebook profile, and that is a good thing because, as Chesterton pointed out, you are probably going to find a larger world in your workplace then you will by retreating into a shriveled echo chamber that you have created with people who think just like you online.
This is a frightening prospect, but if we are truly committed to pursuing Truth, which as Christians we ought to be, this is part of the mission we ought to be on. Yes, we’re going to find a lot that is objectionable and have to be very careful to guard our own hearts because we certainly do not want to fall away from our faith, but if we are truly going to be the light of the world, then the people around us need to see us.
 G. K. Chesterton, Heretics (New York: John Lane Company, 1919), 6, Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., 77.
 Ibid., 78.
 Ibid., 18.