How I Talk About Politics Online

It seems that each day we discover a new thing to make us angry about partisan-politics. The more partisan we become, the harder it is to see our friends, family, and neighbors in three- (or even two-) dimensional ways. Mask-wearers want to sacrifice the freedom our troops fought for. Anti-maskers might as well shove my grandma into the grave. Our Republican uncles simply adore that immigrant children are in cages where they belong. Our Democrat cousins think it's wonderful that thousands of full-term babies are murdered. And so on.

In just a few months it will be time to vote. It's the most important election of our generation (so was the last one; the next one will be too). As I prepare to cast or mail-in my ballot, I know I will spend likely too much time on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook taking in passionate opinions, hot takes, and reductionistic memes. I will want to comment, share, and post my own thoughts.

Why? Because it matters. **[[Politics]] matter because politics affect policies. And policies affect people. And people matter. **

It's normal and right to want to make arguments, change minds, and influence the conversation. Even conflict about these topics is normal and right. We can disagree so fiercely about political topics because we truly believe that real harm will happen if we stand by and do or say nothing. Of course we fight about this stuff; of course family meals (or Zoom meetings or text threads) can get awkward. Things get tense because we care.

But how am I going to engage about this stuff in a way that actually leads to listening and learning? How do I refuse to dehumanize the people I engage with? How do I not merely preach to the choir or alienate everyone with whom I disagree?

And, as a Christian pastor, how will I do this in a way that imitates the way of Jesus and falls in line with God's kingdom coming and God's will being done on earth as it is in heaven?

I can't pretend that there's easy answers to any of these questions. Or that I can instantly fix the quality of online discourse. But I'll share some of my commitments of how I will engage online. And maybe you can try these commitments to.

1. I will assume that we are both looking out for the common good.

It's now an unfortunately common practice to state that The Other Party is actively working for the destruction of America. Republicans want to line the pockets of the rich to punish the poor for being lazy. Democrats want to put everyone on welfare so they can control everything we do.

I've yet to talk to a real live person who thinks this way about their own views. Republicans honestly believe conservative tax policies will lift everyone's boats; that strict immigration policies are best not only for our nation but for others as well. Democrats honestly believe that a large social safety net will equal the playing field for all; that a generous immigration policy will make both immigrants and citizens more prosperous. I'm not alone or unique in seeking the common good. This is what the majority of people are looking for in their government. We just have (sometimes dramatically) different ways of going about it.

I'm sure some will find this hopelessly naive. And I'm also sure there are American citizens who genuinely want to harm a large group of people. But unless you say otherwise, I will assume that you genuinely want life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people. Let's argue about the means of pursuit, not the ends we most likely already agree on.

2. I won't push you down a slippery slope.

Let's say you believe that every household should be within 1 block of a Neapolitan pizza joint so that all Americans can enjoy equal access to woodfired deliciousness. It would be wrong of me to accuse, "You clearly want everyone to die of obesity; enjoy the torture of pigs; and desire the thoughtless cultural appropriation of the culture of Naples."

Now those may or may not be the implications of your policy. And there are appropriate ways to say that. But in an argument, I should hold you accountable for the things you actually say – not for what I believe are the implications of what you say.

When I argue about possible implications – instead of your actual position–- I'm engaging in a slippery slope fallacy. The wonderful website states, "The problem with this reasoning is that it avoids engaging with the issue at hand, and instead shifts attention to extreme hypotheticals...This fallacy has the form of an appeal to emotion fallacy by leveraging fear."

If you support a policy that closes down abortion clinics, I won't assume that you want the government to control female bodies. If you support the reduction of the military budget, I won't assume you want the nation to be conquered by militant jihadists. I will engage you on the issue itself, not accuse you of extreme hypotheticals.

3. I will prefer to talk about policies, not personalities.

A politician's actions and rhetoric matters. Their words can create unity or division. Their actions reveal something about their character, which reveals something about the policies they pursue. We should absolutely vote based on a combination of a politician's policies, character, and past behavior.

But, unless I'm in the position to personally mentor or advise that politician, it does little good to publicly criticize their character, rhetoric, or personality.

It's not that I think character shouldn't influence how we vote. It should. We should reject an "ends-justify-the-means" mentality that excuses poor behavior as long as we get the bills passed and judges appointed that we want.

I just think that a politician's character and rhetoric makes for poor online conversation. We're likely to get distracted from talking about policies that will actually help or harm people. And we're very likely to create double-standards that we'll end up making excuses for when a candidate of our preferred ideology comes along. So I will do my best to keep policy at the center of political conversation.

4. I will read – probably not watch – the news from a variety of trusted sources.

I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a household without cable and therefore without cable news. I've never paid for a cable subscription. Whenever I find television news foisted upon me (thanks airports and waiting rooms), I generally find it to be overly dramatized, shallow, and repetitive, regardless the source.

I know exceptions exist, that there are fine reporters doing important television journalism. But – for me – the medium of television is rarely the most time-efficient way for me to gain perspective about the world.

So I will always prefer to read the news. I make sure that the newspapers and magazines I read from print corrections and have editorial review boards. I use tools like The Factual to check a publication's quality and historical accuracy. I fact-check religiously. I won't share an article without reading it and finding at least one other article that can corroborate what it says. And I will do my best to read broadly, from a variety of political perspectives.

5. I will not reduce a complicated topic to a jokey meme.

Shareable, viral-ready images have their place on social media. I've shared them. Heck, I've made them. At their best, they serve as an invitation to learn and discuss more. But too often they're used instead to shut down conversation and shame any who disagree. They can frame issues in such a way to make any who would dare disagree seem stupid or ignorant.

I am allergic to reductionism. If someone tries to reduce a complex issue into a single image, sentence, or joke, then you will probably feel that you can't have a constructive conversation with them about that issue. So I will do my best to not share images that grossly boil issues down to Tweet-length bites. And I will definitely not post memes that make a joke out of someone else's perspective or experience.

6. I will pray for God to bless my political leaders and even their electoral opponents.

When Jesus said to pray for our enemies, he didn't mean pray for their demise. "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you" (Luke 6:27-28). Jesus gave us an example of this when he prayed for those who nailed him to the cross. His prayer was, "Forgive them."

When I pray for my elected officials and government employees, I will do my best to remember that they are human beings. They're someone's daughter or son. Someone's friend. Possibly someone's parent, spouse, or sibling. And, to the person, every single one of them is made in God's image. Every President, senator, representative, mayor, or even king or dictator has – in some broken, imperfect way – reflected something true about God's character. And every single one of them God loves, desires to redeem, and does not desire to see perish.

If I can remember this as I pray for them, this will have a transformative effect on how I talk about them in public and on social media. If I can see my political leaders and their opponents in this way, then I will be more likely to see the people I have political discussions with in this way too.

But if I find myself reducing politicians – or people on social media – down to a one-dimensional image of their worst selves, then I know I have not prayed for them enough.

I pray for my leaders (and my potential leaders) because I truly believe it can have an effect, both on them and on me. God is already working for the good of President Trump, Vice President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader McConnell – it is up to them if they will cooperate with God's good will. And God is working to transform my heart into one that is more kind, loving, and gracious. When I pray, seeing my current and potential political leaders as human beings, I am more likely to view them in the gracious way God sees them.

Of course that does not mean that God agrees with everything they do and all the policies they pursue. Our prayers ought to call for the end of the evils perpetrated by our government. God is able to listen to our anger, our sadness, our rage. And God may even share those feelings. But if allow myself a steady diet of only praying rage towards someone, then I'm fooling myself if I believe that that is all God feels towards them as well. We may have the emotional range of a teaspoon. God does not.

I believe God calls us to prayer, but not only to prayer. Our prayers should lead to contemplation; our contemplation to action. Our actions should reveal God's will and God's Kingdom.

So let's do that this election season, our words seasoned with grace, our pushback marked with good faith, and our conversation known for its reason and civility.

"By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another," John 13:35.
Anthony Parrott

Anthony Parrott

Washington, DC