Friday, April 13, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: The Virtual Soapbox

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

IC and I watched a video the other day. Not in the same room, because we live many miles apart and can’t get together as often as we’d like. But we share many interests and tend to bounce links back and forth, and this was one of them.

I’d like to think we could learn something from it.

Tom: IC, I think we might be better off leaving out the names of the principals, because I’m going to be blunt about issues that have to do with body language and manner, as opposed to the content of a man’s argument, and since ‘the internet is forever’, I’d rather not go on record with those sorts of criticisms of people whose overall Christian testimony and handling of the word of God I respect and value. Cool?

The Apologist and Two Professors

Immanuel Can: Oh; you mean the thing with the apologist and the two other professors?

Tom: Precisely. Maybe you could describe what we were looking at a bit.

IC: Well, it was a bit of a hash, actually. I think that the apologist’s idea was that he would be required to give a little argument in favor of God being essential to life having a meaning. Then there was a woman whose focus seemed to be divided between arguing that she felt herself to have meaning anyway, and that she knew just enough about philosophy to name-drop a few ideas about it. And the last guy seemed a little asleep, and wanted to redefine meaning a different way: not as feelings or subjective choices, but rather as a sort of anthropological myth. And none of them were really speaking the other’s language.

What the audience thought, I suspect, was something different again.

YouTube and Information Exchange

Tom: Right. Let’s keep using “the apologist” for our Christian friend, because he had all my sympathies in this exchange, most of which was with the accredited feminist you mention. And I wondered how he ended up in this mess in the first place.

Here’s why I think this is important. Social media is taking over the world. YouTube is the new virtual soapbox. It’s one of the most vital and effective mediums of information exchange on the planet and as long as it remains even a little uncensored, Christians are going to air their views on it. Further, anyone with the will and a laptop with a camera and microphone can do it, which is both the best and worst thing about it. But when we put ourselves out there, we are in an entirely new world, and most of us — frankly, the BEST of us — haven’t a clue how to handle ourselves effectively. And when you’re standing on a soapbox, you don’t want to take a tumble.

So maybe there’s value in discussing what we might do and not do as Christians in a hostile new media world to best present the words of life with which we have been entrusted.

Dominant Impressions Trump Truth Value

IC: Okay. Well, Rule 1: In that world, the dominant impressions given off by a speaker tend to be more influential than the truth value of what he or she says.

Tom: Now, this is admittedly a sad reality. We Christians would like (and often expect) a world in which you show up looking like you look, being who you are when you get out of bed in the morning — being “authentic”, if you prefer — and everyone is awed by the effervescent, inarguable truth of your words. Because we DO have better arguments, and we’ve all seen other Christians use them convincingly on video. So it’s hard to grasp the fact that people may actually pay more attention to your orange shoes or the way you crossed your legs at a weird angle than to what you have to say.

But that’s YouTube ... or any other visual medium.

IC: The camera has its own rules. I’m not saying they’re good rules, or that a Christian can always play by them. But the fact is that most of what we view on computers is composed of what is called “impulses”. And that’s true in more than one sense. So if we are going to be on YouTube, we need to be aware that that’s how people process things: by impulse first, and usually only by reason second.

Who’s Got the Last Edit?

Tom: This is a particularly important consideration when engaging in debates. It’s one thing if you’re doing your own video and have control of the various production elements and of how you appear onscreen. It’s another if you’re debating someone in a friendly forum, and it’s another thing entirely if you’re debating in a situation where someone promoting an adversarial agenda controls the camera and the editing. In the latter situation, bad optics can dwarf a terrific message. How you sit, what you wear, body language and so on can be huge. And you may not find out until after the thing is airing that you have been made to look awkward or ridiculous, or that the normal courtesies a production team would extend to people whose views they agree with have simply been ignored in your case because it was useful to make you look … off, in some way.

Now, I suppose we might argue that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong,” so maybe we shouldn’t care about such things as camera angles, posture and lighting … but they can be a major distraction to a viewing audience, to the point where in some cases the net effect is such that you might have been better off not to show up at all.

Should We Care?

IC: I believe that biblically speaking, the world’s perception of “foolishness” is to come from “the message preached”, not from clothes, posture, haircut, facial expressions, and so on. So I don’t think that verse is an excuse to appear silly or out of place on principle. Rather, we need to think about how NOT to make those things any issue at all, in order that any offence we give comes solely from the truth of the Word, no?

Tom: Oh, I think so. And even if I come across on camera as an awkward, goofy nerd, if I am speaking the truth of God, the audience is accountable for what they do with that message. So I’m not knocking people who are less-than-stellar physical specimens and telling them they have no place in front of a camera speaking for God. It sounds like both the Lord Jesus and the apostle Paul were likely somewhere between physically unimpressive and nondescript. In fact, someone who is too good-looking or especially compelling can also be a distraction. The ideal scenario is when we create no impediments to communication at all with our appearance and manner.

This is something Chesterton and C.S. Lewis worried less about, I’m sure, in the days when persuasion was primarily written rather than visual.

IC: What’s the next rule, Tom?

Be Careful of Debating Women

Tom: Rule 2: There is no good way for a man to debate a woman in a public forum. You will lose every time.

IC: True, for two reasons. Firstly, the political environment in which we live takes a dim view of any situation in which a man one-ups a woman: so if you lose, you lose; and if you win, you lose. There is no good reason to engage at all when truth will be trumped by politics in this way.

Secondly, for a man even to question a woman’s views, opinions, claims and other diversions from the discussion comes across as ill-tempered. Man-to-man controversies are expected to include a level of verbal combat and sparring, but sparring with someone who is clearly female, physically smaller and dealing in feelings rather than data looks like bullying. So to avoid appearing misogynistic and mean, you are forced to respond to both logical and irrational statements with beyond-polite deference, and a feigned receptivity to weak ideas, if that’s what's being offered.

Tom: Now, there are rare exceptions. You or I, for instance, could have a go at debating someone like Camille Paglia, because the perception would be that we’re punching up rather than punching down, and because she debates like a man. But I’m not sure Camille would be all that interested …

IC: Well, actually I wasn’t thinking this was a problem that was created by any particular women being incapable or unworthy of debate. As you say, there are some very able female debaters around. But Camille Paglia is one of the few women who has absolutely no chance of coming off as a victim ... ever.

No, the problem has to do instead with the dynamic that is created when a man and a woman are pitted against one another in a public forum: from an audience perspective, it just tends to ends up looking bad on the man, no matter whether his arguments are weaker or stronger than hers. This danger often forces the man to feign excessive receptivity and deference, regardless of the quality of the ideas being offered; and pulling one’s intellectual punches to avoid being seen as a bully is simply dishonest.

Lean In?

Tom: Incidentally, this is precisely the dilemma you and I observed in the video. Our friend the apologist was leaning in deferentially the entire time, even when his opponent was spouting irrelevancies or falsehoods. He couldn’t even bring himself to roll his eyes. And the problem with giving that sort of riveted attention to substandard arguments is that while it may be intended as nothing more than politeness and respect, it may come across to the audience as giving tacit assent to false propositions. He was doing nothing of the sort with the other (male) professor, with whom I’m sure he disagreed as well.

Now, I think it can be done. The Lord did it. A woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” We can’t read his tone into Luke’s account, but he flatly contradicted her (“Blessed rather”) and moved right on. If you’re going to do it, that’s the way. But I don’t know that many of us are cut out for it.

If the format, or politics, or the person you’re debating, or your own natural politeness make it impossible to bluntly refute a point when the point is crazy, you’re in the wrong place.

IC: Fair enough. So I think the general principle is this: it's not worth debating if the debating cannot be done in an honest, frank, truth-seeking, and where necessary, direct and even confrontational way.

Truth requires confronting error. It just does.

Now, what else?

A Subject in Hand is Worth Two in the Debate Notes

Tom: One more. Rule 3: Stick to the subject being discussed, even if it isn’t what you came to talk about. All these folks seem to have shown up with something to say to the audience, and then insisted on saying it even when it had nothing to do with what the previous person was talking about. So you had three different, unrelated conversations going on, with only the slightest bit of logical connective tissue holding them together.

If you want to have a profitable engagement, you need to answer the questions you are asked, not the ones you wish you were being asked. Christians would be well served to learn to apply that one in situations outside of YouTube too.

IC: Oh, yes … and here’s another rule: Learn to listen, and listen very carefully. Proverbs tells us that it’s very foolish to answer a matter before one has heard what it actually is, but I’ve got to think it’s even more foolish to be trying to answer questions that nobody has asked at all.

Tom: Absolutely. You’re better off to respond to a question as asked, and clarify it if necessary, than to assume the other person’s intent based on your own preconceived notions about a subject, even if your answer is only “I don’t know” or “That’s not really my area of expertise”. At least that responds to the question directly. Controlling the other guy is the moderator’s job, and a discussion is a whole lot easier to follow if it has some intellectual coherence and flow.

Let’s call it a day there, IC. What do you think: do we go weekly on YouTube once you retire?

IC: Our own? Maybe. But not everybody’s, and not in every way. As a Christian, you’ve got to be smart about both the messages you’re conveying, and the metamessages — the little peripherals, such as manner, attire, responsiveness and so on, that either adorn or inhibit the message you hope to send.

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