A few days after New York State’s decision to revise its law governing abortions in order to align with federal law, I noticed a number of my Facebook friends had posted comments on the decision. They included reactions like these:
“New York is murdering babies!!!!”
“Women can have an abortion up to the minute of birth!!! Evil!”
“Every life matters!”
“There is no medical reason to terminate a pregnancy after 24 weeks.”
“Women should be in control of their bodies!”
“Trump is the only one who cares about pro-lifers.”
“If you’re a Christian, you can’t support abortion. This is madness!”
I wondered whether it would be productive to enter into an online conversation about such a highly charged topic. I have friends who do not support abortion under any circumstances. I have friends who support abortion in cases of rape or incest or if the life of the mother is in danger. I have friends who believe that women should have control over their bodies, including decisions about conception. And I have friends who don’t fit neatly into any of those positions.
“It became obvious that if I was not ‘for’ them, or did not join in their chorus, I was against them and their cause.”
With some trepidation, I decided to engage my Facebook friends about abortion. Instead of joining the chorus on one side or the other, I decided on a different approach. I thought, “What if we could reframe this conversation on social media? What if, rather than attacking one another, we chose to listen and then engage?”
Here’s what I discovered:
1. Anger – and lots of it – is degrading online discourse. When I dived into the pool of my Facebook feed on the topic of abortion, I found that anger was the dominant tone. Whether the comments were from a “pro-life” or “pro-choice” friend, anyone else who expressed a viewpoint other than one’s own were recipients of anger pique. Certainly, within Judeo-Christian tradition, there is a history of righteous religious indignation for people who are oppressed, unjustly treated and marginalized. But most of what I was reading were angry words that painted other Facebook commenters as “murderous,” “evil,” “misogynistic” or “oppressive.”
2. Most people who comment on social media invest their energy in broadcasting their own stance. The posts I read on New York State’s abortion law, and on the issue of abortion more broadly, spoke very little of actionable change, suggestions for spiritual guidance, how to foster meaningful discussion and debate, ideas for lobbying effectively or how to love people who don’t agree with you on abortion. Very few were interested in seeking practical ways to further their perspective or to seek solutions to this important issue. I did not observe anyone talking about attending forums, creating discussion groups or encouraging others to attend community panels of ethicists, doctors and clergy.
I decided to be more inquiring with questions like, “You seem to be expressing a lot of anger. How do you think we can love people who don’t agree with us?” Or, “If all life is sacred, then should Christians support the death penalty?”
“Can people have meaningful Facebook conversations? I think the simple answer is no, or at least only rarely.”
What was clear from the responses was that people really were not interested in answering these questions. It became obvious that if I was not “for” them, or did not join in their chorus, I was against them and their cause. “Come on man, you’re a pastor,” wrote one commenter. “You should get it.” When did Jesus ever tell people they had to “get it,” I wondered. Any attempt to frame the conversation, express a sentiment that was not in total agreement or offer an alternative insight was met with hostility or rejection.
Other Facebook friends were not willing to jump into the conversation because it had quickly become too toxic and vitriolic. It seemed the loudest voices did not represent a majority on my Facebook feed. Who else was not engaging in this conversation because of the tenor of the comments?
3. Changing hearts and minds rarely happens online. After reading, listening and engaging with my Facebook friends, I saw no indications that people were open to re-evaluating, much less changing, their position on abortion. In fact, most were doubling down and becoming more entrenched.
Can people have meaningful Facebook conversations? I think the simple answer is no, or at least only rarely. Think about it. How many times have you changed your political, religious or an ethical position because of a Facebook meme, diatribe or a shared news or opinion article? In my 10 years of writing for print and online media outlets, I have learned that the majority of people will say things online that they would never say to someone’s face. When I used to write about faith and culture for the Albany Times Union, I got troll emails and comments that were vile and hostile. I replied to many with an offer to meet for coffee (I know, risky, right?). After years of these messages, only one person took me up on my offer. Eventually, I had to stop reading the messages.
4. Online conversation is limited. More than ever, we need face-to face conversations that humanize one another. It seems that any issue as sensitive as abortion results in religious and politically-charged messages on social media that do not yield fruit. The reason why such conversations on Facebook are not productive is that we are not having the right kind of discussions.
“More than ever, we need face-to face conversations that humanize one another.”
Online conversations are inherently limited. You cannot observe the person as you would face to face. You cannot read the other person’s body language, see their expressions, shake their hand, hug them, listen to the tone of their voice or look into their eyes. Studies have shown that 60 percent of face-to-face communication is facial expressions and 40 percent vocal messages. Without non-verbal input, we often fill in the lines of interpretation.
Online, it easy to take out the “humanness” of conversations. If the person on Facebook is just a picture and a name then it easier to demonize, insult and taunt them. According to MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation:
. . . conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do. It’s where empathy is born, where intimacy is born – because of eye contact, because we can hear the tones of another person’s voice, sense their body movements, sense their presence. It’s where we learn about other people. But, without meaning to, without having made a plan, we’ve actually moved away from conversation in a way that my research was showing is hurting us.
In the Gospels, Jesus met people face to face. Jesus met people where they were: on the street, at the well, in the temple, in their homes, and where they worked. Jesus met with his fans, detractors, and bystanders. This type of behavior of how to engage and hold a conversation is a model we Christians need to model. Jesus brought dignity, respect, and patience to those who opposed his views. Facebook is good for starting a conversation or sharing, but face to face sit downs are where real collaboration can occur. Facebook is not the end game, it is the beginning. No matter if we are talking about abortion, LGBTQI issues, or the current political state of affairs, we need to stop thinking we can change the world with an angry Facebook post or writing or sharing a partisan online article.
Looking to the example of Christ’s way of relating to others, we need to sit down face to face with another person to listen first and then to engage the conversation with humility and respect.
Susan M. Shaw | Can Christians come together to reduce the need for abortion?