Introduction: A few months after this essay was published, a writer for Catholic Lane opined on why she was giving up Facebook for Lent. The fourth of her five reasons was “groupthink”: “We Catholics have fostered an electronic environment that demands absolute conformity. We all parrot the same ideas, the same news, the same opinions . . . and frankly I don’t think it’s a particularly creative environment.”
This was news to me, since I have found Facebook vastly stimulating for thinking outside the box, and for discussing ideas from multiple points of view. But one reason for that is that I am friends on Facebook with people of a variety of different backgrounds—Protestant, Jewish, atheist, conservative, liberal, apolitical. It started because I wanted to follow the Facebook updates of writers whose work I enjoy.
If you find yourself uncomfortable with the “groupthink” on your social media platform, there is a solution. . . .
Facebook is an intriguing social phenomenon for many reasons. One that has long fascinated me is Facebook Likes. For those of you who have resisted being sucked into Facebook, Likes are links to public pages on Facebook that are established by members based on their personal preferences. These links allow members to see in their personal newsfeed the updates from public pages that they have Liked.
When I have the time to play around on Facebook, I sometimes enjoy skimming through the Likes on other members’ personal pages. The reason it interests me to do so is that you can often get an accurate read on a person based on what he Likes. For example, a home schooling, pro-life Catholic mom of six often will Like home schooling pages, pro-life pages, conservative Catholic pages, and mommy blog pages. On the other hand an atheist professor of chemistry at an Ivy League university, who lives with his same-sex partner and raises cats, will have an entirely different set of Likes but ones that are largely based on his personality profile.
As amusing as scanning Likes of various personality types can be for the armchair sociologist, there is a dark side to this phenomenon. The danger here is that social media allows us to construct our own personal bubbles, through which we filter our experiences with the wider world. These bubbles are filled not just with personally approved interests but with people—yes, those we Friend—who confirm us in our prejudices. If we mistake someone for an ally and discover later that this person is not really a member of our “tribe,” it is all too easy to Unfriend that person. Because who wants to deal with different points of view in our little Facebook fiefdoms?
Taken to the extreme, this kind of attitude can destroy Christian charity, even among practicing Catholics who regularly go to Mass and to confession. Two examples:
Shortly before a recent presidential election, a Catholic speaker with a popular webcast took to cyberspace to rant about Catholic voters. His staff had discovered that an employee of a diocese located in a political “swing state,” who was being sent around to parishes to educate Catholics on principles of voting conscientiously, evidently had a shady background (by the standards of this webcast’s staff). The problem? Among other suspicious Likes on Facebook, the diocesan employee had clicked the Like button for the League of Women Voters. Who knew why this person Liked the League of Women Voters? The fact that she had clicked that Facebook site’s Like button was deemed sufficient for denouncing that person’s ability to teach Catholics about voting principles.
Then the other day I saw a Facebook post by a Catholic writer, prominent in conservative Catholic circles, who publicly declared:
Consider yourself a Marxist of any kind? Then you are my personal enemy. I will not engage you, dialogue with you, try to see the world through your eyes, any more than I would try that with a Social Darwinist or a Holocaust Revisionist. I will try by any means that is not sinful or illegal to DESTROY you. That is where we differ, you see. As a Marxist, your only morality is that of class conflict. You are a Machiavellian to the core. I am a Roman. I am Coriolanus, and I am coming for you.
Set aside the issue of Marxism. I have no interest in defending Marxism or its apologists. What caused my eyes to pop when I saw this post was the completely serious declaration, given without a twitch of satire or humor, by a Catholic who evidently thought it appropriate to set as a personal goal the destruction of another human being. That, and the complete lack of empathy from a Catholic who could not imagine the value of interaction with another human person who held viewpoints he deemed evil. (Whether or not this Catholic is correct in his assessment that the viewpoints he names here are evil is beside the point.) And then that this declaration was presented to the public as if it was completely in line with Catholic doctrine and morality.
Contrast these insular attitudes from modern Catholic speakers and writers with the saints.
St. Francis of Assisi, during the height of the Crusades, traveled to Egypt in hopes of either converting the Muslims or achieving martyrdom. Wikipedia tells the story of his meeting with the Sultan of Egypt:
The visit is reported in contemporary Crusader sources and in the earliest biographies of Francis, but they give no information about what transpired during the encounter beyond noting that the Sultan received Francis graciously and that Francis preached to the Saracens without effect, returning unharmed to the Crusader camp.
Pious legend asserts that the Sultan told St. Francis that “If all Christians were like you, I would convert.”
Meanwhile, St. Francis’s contemporary, St. Dominic, who founded the Order of Preachers (better known today as the Dominicans), met up with a different enemy of the faith. While traveling through an area held by the heretic Cathars, St. Dominic is believed to have stopped for the night at an inn owned by a Cathar. Did St. Dominic spit in the man’s face and spend the night under a tree rather than take shelter with this heretic? No. He stayed up all night talking to the man, answering the man’s belligerent denunciations of the Catholic faith. By morning it is said that the innkeeper, overcome by grace and by St. Dominic’s witness to the faith, confessed to St. Dominic and was received by Dominic back into communion with the Church.
In both of these stories, which it must be admitted have been gilded by legend over the centuries, the saints stepped outside their bubbles to engage men shaped by vastly different worldviews than their own. St. Dominic’s effort was rewarded with the grace of conversion; St. Francis’s effort was rewarded with the grace of newfound respect for the possibilities of what it means to be Christian.
One of the blessings of social media is that it has given us the ability to meet people through cyberspace whom we might never have the opportunity to meet in real life. It has given us the ability to be exposed to other viewpoints and worldviews. We are not necessarily obligated to respect those viewpoints or worldviews. The obligation is to respect the human dignity of every person and to respect every person’s freedom of conscience. There is no need to respect beliefs that violate logic or human decency. For example, someone who believes that the earth is flat deserves to be treated with kindness and personal dignity but he does not deserve to have his belief in a flat earth respected or affirmed. In like manner, someone who believes in worshipping Satan continues to have inalienable human dignity but should not expect Christians to respect or affirm beliefs that directly contradict the Christian gospel.
One must be careful though not to dismiss others’ beliefs lightly and without due consideration. Just because someone is a non-Christian does not mean he may not have valuable insights derived from beliefs that contain some truth. The challenge is to know your own faith well enough to be able to sift out what is incomplete or erroneous and to find the nuggets of wisdom buried within the beliefs others hold. The Second Vatican Council, in the document Nostra Aetate, taught:
[O]ther religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing “ways,” comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to himself.
The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve, and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men (NA 2).
So, take a chance. If you use social media then I encourage you to step outside any artificial bubble you may have constructed. Like a page or two or more that reflects a viewpoint you don’t share. Send a friend request or subscribe to the personal page of someone with whom you disagree on some issues. In my own case, over time I have developed real-life friendships with a couple of people who I otherwise would never have known. We disagree on some issues, but the connection that began through Facebook matters a great deal to me—and I like to think that it matters to them as well.
What is the alternative? Well, you could stay in your bubble. But life in a bubble is sterile and lonely. It cuts you off from the real world. And, ultimately, life in a bubble can be deadly.
Note: A version of this essay originally appeared on the Catholic Answers Blog (11/4/13). It is republished here with permission.