The late Neil Postman wrote, “The clearest way to see through a culture is to attend to its tools for conversation.” And today, our primary tools for conversation are smartphones, computer screens, and various social media platforms. As I scroll through my timelines and feeds, I have to agree with Nicholas Carr:
“Social media favors the bitty over the meaty, the cutting over the considered. It also prizes emotionalism over reason… The net reinforce[s] the polarizing effect that broadcast media, particularly talk radio and cable news, [have] been having for many years. What is a surprise is that social media, for all the participation it inspires among users, is turning out to be more encompassing and controlling, more totalizing, than earlier media ever was. The social networks operated by companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google don’t just regulate the messages we receive. They regulate our responses. They shape, through the design of their apps and their information-filtering regimes, the forms of our discourse.”
After the election season, I came to a sobering realization of how these electronic networks had come to regulate my responses and shape the way I talk about things – not just online but in person.
Like many non-White people, I processed the presidential election outcome as a kind of death. Which meant having to enter into a grieving process. And grieving is hard because every time we submit to it, it resurrects the cumulative grief of all our previous losses and marries them to our unfulfilled hopes. It involves physical sensations and undignified postures. It requires safe spaces and time. Attempting to express acute grief in the flattening and unpredictable medium of the internet is like trying to pour water into a photograph of a glass, while surrounded by all your childhood bullies. It simply doesn’t do it justice. So I kept my grief off the interwebs.
But I did process it at home with my husband, Peter. And I learned some important things about myself.
Neither Peter nor I voted for Mr. Trump; but Peter, who is White, processed Trump’s victory and its implications quite differently from the way I did as a Taiwanese-American woman. As we crawled into bed at 2:30 a.m. on November 9th, Peter voiced a sort of stunned but muted disbelief, while I curled up into the fetal position and sobbed. Six hours later, he was shrugging and saying, “Oh, well. We’ll see what happens.” In contrast, I was still trudging through a thick fog of negative emotions.
As the week went on and I heard accounts of racist incidents directed at people of color around the nation and in my city – some of them first-hand – I grew anxious. As the President-elect began announcing appointments to his transition team and cabinet, I grew more anxious still. I discussed my unease with Peter by sharing articles, stories, and videos (I became his personal social media newsfeed), but to my dismay, he consistently reached different conclusions than I did. Even after my attempts to provoke him into an emotional response that mirrored mine reached a fevered pitch, he remained resolutely unruffled and skeptical of any narratives being presented in either mainstream or social media.
Meanwhile, I was following the post-election civil war that was raging on Facebook and Twitter. People who felt the way I did were disavowing both brothers and sisters of the faith who had voted for Trump, as well as those who, like Peter, were responding with a wait-and-see attitude. They were using phrases like complicit with evil, white supremacy, and white privilege. I was familiar with all the arguments, having used them myself in other contexts. Living at the intersection of two different worlds, however, I felt the reductive, ineffective, and discarnate nature of those online arguments.
As differently as Peter and I see things, it’s impossible for me to reduce him to a category of privilege or to a handful of complicit attitudes and behaviors. When my mom was critically ill in the ICU in July 2014, he insisted on taking the night shift four days in a row so that my brother and I could recover from our exhaustion. Without hesitation, he welcomed my mentally struggling dad to come live with us in Atlanta for 3 months so that my brother and his wife could focus on caring for my mom in Houston. He read James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree just because I recommended it. And it was he who suggested that we buy a condo across from the train station nearby to help alleviate the housing and transportation crisis of our homeless and impoverished friends – which we did, together.
And yet, by Thanksgiving Day, a dark cloud had settled between us. We spent much of the day in cordial but tense silence. Then, as I was putting the finishing touches on the mashed potatoes, he looked at me tenderly across the kitchen island and asked, “How are you doing?”
His loving directness disarmed me, broke the ice. I matched it with, “I feel so much pain over this distance between us.”
He answered, “I do too. It’s not just you.”
I went on, “It seems like the harder I try to make you see what I see or feel what I feel, the more hardened you get. You know, it’s pretty discouraging for me as a writer to feel like my words have no power.” He chuckled. We talked some more.
After a few minutes, he said, “Look, you’re probably mostly right about things, but I need to be able to talk to you without feeling like I’m being bombarded by a hundred other voices from the internet. I need sanctuary from all that.”
“I see what you’re saying,” I replied, “I’m so sorry I’ve let that happen.”
And just like that, the dark cloud dissipated – not through forcefulness or polemics, not because we suddenly saw everything eye-to-eye, but through vulnerability, emotional presence, and mutual submission.
I had indeed allowed my social media feed to become an interloper and provocateur in our marriage. It makes me wonder about the extent to which the health and stability of all our face-to-face interactions, especially with people who are different from us, are being threatened by the endless electronic stream of quips, memes, rants, demands, news (both real and fake, trivial and earth-shattering), entertainment, propaganda, and sensationalism. If the best-selling book EAT THIS, NOT THAT! helps people make healthier food choices that benefit their bodies, we need a similar guide for healthier internet consumption that benefits our souls, psyches, and bridge-building work. A good start would be to choose the meaty over the bitty, the considered over the cutting, and reason over emotionalism.
We have a choice. We can consume everything in our path that provokes outrage and mortal fear – there’s no shortage of content there – or we can submit to the “Come, Lord Jesus” spirit of Advent, which is not a fatalistic call to submit to evil or ignore injustice, but a call to embrace our finiteness. The former feeds feelings of alienation that, if I regularly nurtured, would ultimately kill my marriage; the latter helps me lean into even the difficult aspects of it. The former widens and reinforces the divisions among us; the latter creates space for Christ to enter and heal them. Richard Rohr wrote the following:
“When we demand satisfaction of one another, when we demand any completion to history on our terms, when we demand that our anxiety or dissatisfaction be taken away, saying as it were, ‘Why weren’t you this for me? Why didn’t life do that for me?’ we are refusing to say, ‘Come, Lord Jesus.’ We are refusing to hold out for the full picture that is always given by God.”
This Advent season, I’m taking time to consider the pregnant implications of “Come, Lord Jesus” in every endeavor. I hope you’ll join me.