“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”
Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that more than half a century ago, when he could have had no idea how right he would become. Imagine Dr King’s frustration with the quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions if he was alive today.
The Internet generally, and social media more specifically, has completely reduced our attention spans, and our capacity to engage in the hard, solid thinking he was commending.
In a recent media lecture, journalist Waleed Aly admitted the two primary motivators for the creation of online news content is (a) speed and (b) shareability, and that both of these things are destroying the quality of contemporary journalism.
That makes sense. These days journalists have to produce stories at warp speed to keep up with our voracious desire for the ‘latest’ news. As Aly admits, this means journalists aren’t interested in a story that could take weeks or even days to research and write. It means our newsfeeds are full of pretty much the same content regurgitated by every news outlet and every journalist.
In other words, it’s the mindless repetition of received and already accepted ideas. There’s nothing challenging or stretching or even intriguing about it. Everyone sings from the same song sheet because no one has the time to write a new song.
But secondly, Aly says content has to be shareable. A detailed examination of a political candidate’s taxation policy won’t get shared. Neither will a complex argument about immigration policy. Online readers love gossip, lists, quizzes, memes, celebrities, emotive stories and simple solutions to complex problems.
And it’s killing journalism.
I’d want to suggest it’s killing the transfer of all complex ideas, whether by journalists or not.
Christians find themselves reading and sharing simplistic lists (“the 5 reasons why young people are leaving your church” has guaranteed virality) or signing on to clickactivist advocacy strategies (“Every time you click here a bag of rice will be sent to Cambodia”).
That’s because they’re simplistic, pre-digested responses to the overwhelming obstacles we face in the Information Age. There’s soooooo much information available to us we just want someone to give us an executive summary, a link to click, a Venn diagram to analyse, a questionnaire to complete.
It’s a kind of Christian clickbait and switch – propose a solution, draw eyeballs, but not offer anything much of any consequence. If only the seemingly insurmountable problems besetting the church and the world could be overcome so easily.
The danger with all this is that once we’ve signed a pledge to end child soldiering in the Congo, or clicked a link to express outrage about a particular injustice, we can be tempted to think we’ve done our bit to address the issue.
In a recent podcast Malcolm Gladwell spoke about the insidious nature of “moral licensing”. This is the situation where you do one good thing about a moral situation and then think that gives you the license not to have to worry about it again. For example, if you participate in a peace march you feel you’ve done your bit and don’t need to remain wedded to the cause of ending war any longer.
Even worse, says Gladwell, doing something moral for the betterment of others is actually more likely to lead you to justify immoral actions later down the line. You kind of pat yourself on the back for doing the right thing and then turn around and act in direct opposition to the thing you did rather than working for meaningful social change. Gladwell shows how sexism and racism can remain entrenched among people who once voted for a black man or a woman to be president. They think their one good deed has given them the moral license to remain racist or sexist.
As Christians we really need to be conscious of the temptations of speed and shareability. I think they’re killing our capacity for meaningful discourse, and for developing long-lasting godly responses to the challenges we face.
Alfred North Whitehead once quipped, “Simple solutions seldom are. It takes a very unusual mind to undertake analysis of the obvious.”
Is it too much to ask for the Christian community to converse slowly and respectfully, to engage with voices from a variety of perspectives, to mull ideas intentionally and deliberately, and to come up with complex but effective, biblical responses to the challenges of our day?
It’s gotta be better than just reading click-bait like, “The 10 reasons Jesus would get fired if he was your pastor”.