Book excerpt: Memes worth sharing

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

As I search for an appropriate Christian response to the polarization ripping apart our society, one question in particular confronts me: What can I do personally to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem?

I’ve decided one small step I can take is to examine my relationship with social media. As I’ve done so, I’ve come to an inescapable conclusion: I need to pay more conscious attention to what I post, share and “like” on sites such as Facebook. 

My research suggests that several culprits contribute to social media’s role in dividing us. Algorithms that create “echo chamber” bubbles of one-sided information and opinions. Viral spread of false or misleading information in “fake news” stories with click-bait headlines. Political “discussions” that amount to little more than judgmental blaming and shaming, name-calling, insults, character assassination and demonization of opponents.

But one of the biggest culprits? Endless memes promoting hateful and inflammatory messages.

On any given day when I go on Facebook, I can count on seeing at least a dozen memes from progressives and conservatives hurling insults and accusations at each other. The typical fare has become as predictable as rain in April.

Republicans are people too: Mean, selfish, greedy people.

It was so cold this morning I actually saw a Democrat with his hands in his own pockets.

Folks on both sides of the divide seem to relish in-your-face rudeness.

Excu-u-u-use me if my posts offend you, but the future of my country is more important than your precious feelings.

Misanthropes of all stripes show off their generalized contempt for anyone anywhere who disagrees with them about anything.

I lose track of how many times per day I want to say, “You can’t seriously be that stupid.”

The worst part? I have to admit I’ve been part of the problem from time to time. 

Until recently, I often found myself getting sucked into social media fights – even with people I ordinarily liked – over politics and contentious “hot-button” ideological issues.

Whenever a Facebook skirmish erupted – whether the trigger was a Supreme Court decision, debates about a political candidate’s suitability for office, or a crisis playing out in the news – my first instinct was to try and stay out of the fray. 

Alas, I tend to have strong opinions about a lot of issues (imagine that!) and sooner or later, someone would post a meme I couldn’t seem to resist sharing against my better judgment. Okay, I knew it was snarky. Maybe a bit judgmental or even mean. But it was SO clever.

Then, of course, someone on “the other side” would beg to differ with my assessment of the meme’s cleverness, and before I knew it, I was bogged down in another argument.

Finally, I made a decision: I would no longer post memes that “called out” or in any way disparaged other individuals or groups of people – even public figures considered to be fair game. I’ve been pretty disciplined about sticking with that resolution for the past couple of years.

I’ve also started to ask myself this question: What am I encouraging others to post by hitting the “like” button? Am I inadvertently enabling and rewarding name-calling, character assassination or polarizing comments? With that in mind, I no longer react to others’ memes that do any of these things.

On the other hand, I’m not totally against memes in and of themselves. Some make me laugh out loud, and we can all use a bit of humor after a stressful day – especially if we can have a good laugh without it being at someone else’s expense.

Here’s one of my all-time favorites.

So, in addition to avoiding negativity, I’ve decided to take a proactive approach to the meme-war issue. I’ve begun collecting positive memes and posting them on my own Facebook page’s newsfeed when the feuding gets especially fierce or obnoxious.

If I feel I must respond to a political meme (for example, one that I believe promotes dangerous misinformation), I make a conscientious effort not to insult the person who posted it.

For example, I love this meme. Unlike those that try to shame people who resist COVID safety measures, it uses humor to get the point across about the importance of masking without calling anyone names or assaulting their character.

When the meme wars on Facebook get particularly heated or nasty, I occasionally like to drop this favorite into my news feed, with some words of wisdom “attributed” to our 16th president.

However, I’ve come to believe that part of the problem fueling our culture wars is our modern emphasis on brevity.

It is hard to give a complex issue the depth it deserves when our communication is limited to 15-second sound bites, 280-character tweets, bumper stickers and t-shirt slogans. Or memes. And most hot-button issues are complex or they wouldn’t be “hot button.”

With that in mind, I usually prefer to post memes that have nothing whatsoever to do with political/ideological hot-button issues.

Cute animals are one of my favorite go-to subjects when I’m looking for something innocuously funny to share. I mean, who can resist this adorable kitten?

I can also change the subject to the weather. When I post this meme, Facebook friends like to dicker with me over whether the caption should read “Weather in Kansas” or “Weather in Colorado” rather than “Weather in Illinois.” But at least it’s a friendly argument.

I’ve found that Bible-verse memes can be a bit tricky – such a meme in direct response to someone else’s post can come across as hitting people with a “clobber verse.” (And we certainly wouldn’t want to do that, would we??)

But an occasional meme posted to my personal newsfeed – on its own rather than in response to anyone else’s post – can be a subtle, unobtrusive way to share Biblical wisdom in a society that needs to hear it.

Or I can demonstrate love of neighbor by posting a cheery feel-good message.

Religious memes can also be seriously funny. (Who says Christians don’t have a sense of humor?)

If I want to avoid Facebook nastiness, I’ve found I can’t go wrong with a bad pun – especially with some of my friends and relatives of all political stripes (they know who they are).

For a twofer, how about a bad pun that doubles as religious humor – with a cute animal tossed in for good measure?

I’ve found memes that help us laugh at our own foibles are great for sharing – like this one that gently ribs my urge to correct other peoples’ grammar.

Or my “old-timer” frustration with technology.

Finally, there’s always this piece of sage advice, which I may preface with the words “Note to Self.”

Just to clarify: When I say I no longer plan to “like” or share memes that keep the culture wars going, this doesn’t mean I plan to retreat from the political arena altogether.

I don’t plan to stop discussing hot-button issues in appropriate settings such as personal conversations, Bible study sessions or religious education classes. And I certainly don’t plan to look the other way in the face of injustice or forsake my favorite causes.

However, I do plan to stop enabling the trolling, the name-calling, the insults, the character assassination, the demonizing and scapegoating, and the gratuitous rudeness that have become a mind-numbingly routine part of our social media interactions. 

Fear-mongering, blame-gaming, and self-righteous outrage may be the norm on social media these days, but I have a choice whether to participate. Increasingly, I’m choosing not to.

The good news: If I want to share something on Facebook, I’m finding there are all kinds of memes that can make us laugh – or brighten our day or provide a bit of inspiration – without ridiculing or insulting or otherwise bashing anyone.

More good news: I now waste a lot less time arguing about politics with total strangers on Facebook.

Question for readers: What are some positive steps you’ve taken to avoid being part of the culture wars problem? I’d love to hear your response to this question, as well as your comments on the article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: Creating God in our own image

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

During my participation in Bible study groups, 12-Step meetings and spiritual direction sessions, I have frequently been encouraged to evaluate different concepts of God. Most discussions have tended to focus on a pair of competing images – Loving God versus Angry God.

The benevolent Loving God provides for our every need and wants us to love and care for each other. John 3:16 tells us God “so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

The Angry God of my childhood understanding, on the other hand, was a short-tempered bully who frankly hated people and regretted having created us. This ‘God’ reserved an especially hot place in you-know-where for kids who asked “Why?” when told by an adult to do something.

Critically evaluating the ideas we hold about God can be a valuable exercise. Many of us who grew up with the image of a perpetually angry and capricious bully have benefitted from advice often heard around the tables at 12-Step meetings: “It may be time to fire the ‘God’ of our childhood understanding and meet the real one.”

Lately, I’ve noticed another “God” wreaking havoc in the U.S.: The Culture Warrior God. This false god, I’ve come to believe, is responsible for fueling much of the toxic polarization in both our churches and our secular society.

CULTURE WARRIOR GOD appeals to our self-righteous instincts and our resentments, as well as our desire to fit in with peers. This god has many faces:

  • The god who plays favorites. Culture Warrior God favors one special group of people over all others, and – by some stroke of luck, coincidence or superior righteousness – the favored group just happens to be the group we belong to or identify with. This group may be our own church congregation or denomination. (Not to worry: Culture Warrior God assures us that members of those other denominations aren’t real Christians anyway.) But the favored group may also be a nation, a racial or ethnic group, a political party or followers of an ideological movement.
  • The god who dabbles in politics. Culture Warrior God just happens to be a card-carrying member of our own political party or ideological camp and – to make it easier for us to conflate our religious beliefs with our political agenda – has personally authored a creed that includes 650 boxes for us to check. We may suspect parts of the “creed” were developed by bending and twisting Biblical teachings until they conform to our political party’s platform. But if this editing process makes us nervous, it’s best not to say anything, lest we be cast into the outer darkness for eternity. Or canceled by our peers in Culture Warrior God’s chosen group. (Peer pressure is certainly not limited to junior high school.)
  • The god who hates Those People. Culture Warrior God encourages us to reject and condemn anyone who votes for the wrong candidate in an election, refuses to check every single one of the above-mentioned 780 boxes, or otherwise fails to look, act and think the way we do. One way to hold these nefarious transgressors accountable is to publicly call out their sins on a social media site such as Facebook or Twitter and invite others to pile on. Yes, we know the Bible says that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, and only those who haven’t sinned should cast stones. But Culture Warrior God assures us that Those People’s sins are WAY more egregious than our own. Besides, stone-casting helps signal to our peers how virtuous we are.
  • The god whose “messengers” mustn’t be questioned. If the leaders of Culture Warrior God’s chosen group say something is true, then it’s true. Period. Never mind if the Bible says something a bit different. We must never challenge even one of the 870 boxes we are asked to check as a condition of sitting at the popular kids’ table. (Ever notice how the number of boxes keeps growing? Best not to mention that little detail either.) Unlike the members of all those hundreds of other Christian denominations, we can trust we have the corner on the Ultimate Truth because Culture Warrior God has told us repeatedly our group is the only one that really “gets it.”

I HAVE TO ADMIT  that the contrarian in me often finds it easier to articulate what I don’t believe than to discern what I do believe. But I think I can safely say it’s time to fire the Culture Warrior God of our adult creation, right along with the Angry Bully God of our childhood nightmares.

What the many faces of Culture Warrior God add up to is a god created in our own image.

It’s tempting to believe this particular form of idolatry is limited to fringe cults like Westboro Baptist Church or white Christian nationalist movements. But if we’re completely honest, we must admit this thinking can pose a challenge for all of us, even if we identify ourselves with a traditional brand of Christianity such as mainline Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, Pentecostal or Orthodox. And Culture Warrior God’s siren song can appeal to us whether we lean toward the conservative or progressive side of the political spectrum.

One problem is that many of us subconsciously anthropomorphize God – that is, give God human characteristics. (Does an elderly white man with a long beard and flowing robes come to mind?) We also tend to cherry-pick Biblical teachings that match our biases – whether intentionally or not – while reflexively ignoring those inconvenient passages that challenge our cherished worldview.

Given the combination of our human limitations and our human egos, is there a way for us not to create God in our own image, at least to some extent? Is there a way to avoid putting our own spin on Biblical teachings? How do we know when we – or the group we belong to – might be doing these things?

Here are some clues I’ve come to recognize as red flags:

  • When any belief system claims God favors one group of people exclusively. (If I’m interpreting Romans 10:12, Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 correctly, God does not favor any one group of people over any others.)
  • When God starts sounding too much like a conservative Republican, a progressive Democrat or a member of any other secular political party or ideological movement. (We’d do well to focus on following the Lamb, not an elephant or a donkey.)
  • When we secretly believe in our heart of hearts that our own little group of believers – out of the thousands in existence – is the only one that gets everything completely right.
  • When we choose our congregation based on how closely its interpretation of Biblical truth aligns with our political beliefs – or at least refrains from challenging them. (For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine,” warns 2 Timothy 4:3-4. “But having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.”)
  • When a group or leader discourages questions. (A group whose leaders or truth claims can’t be scrutinized or challenged is not a religion – or even a legitimate political party or ideological movement. It’s a cult.)
  • When we feel a bit too much glee at the prospect of God punishing someone who doesn’t share our views. (A former pastor at my church once observed that some people take as much comfort in the idea of certain other peoples’ eternal damnation as they do in the idea of their own salvation.)
  • When God agrees with us on every single controversial issue and disapproves of all the same people we do. (This should be a dead giveaway.)
  • When a group hands us one of those lists titled “People God Hates.” (We can confidently pitch said list in the recycle bin. ’Nuff said.)

PERHAPS ONE ANTIDOTE to our tendency to create God in our own image is a dose of humility. While I do believe there is an Ultimate Truth, no mere human being, including me, will ever have a corner on it – at least not on this side of eternity. “For now we see through a glass darkly,” 1 Corinthians 13:12 reminds us.

We can also use the mind God gave us to develop our critical thinking skills. When people say we mustn’t question God’s will, I suspect what some of them really mean is, “Don’t question my interpretation of God’s will.” Whether or not we question God’s will, we can certainly question another human being’s interpretation of it. Sometimes this is exactly what we need to do.

If we want to take the first step toward healing the divisions in our churches and our larger society, we need to stop asking, “Is God on our side?” Instead, we need to ask, “Are we on God’s side?”

Question for readers: What helps you avoid the pitfall of creating God in your own image? I’d love to hear your response to this question, as well as your comments on the article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book Excerpt: More resources

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my other excerpts, click HERE.

As I’ve been conducting research for my book, I have come across some great resources for navigating the culture wars. In my last excerpt, I listed several thought-provoking books I’ve been reading.

In this excerpt, I include some additional resources. They range from organizations that help us have better conversations and improve our news media literacy to web sites that let us evaluate a public official’s truthfulness and fact check what we see on Facebook and other social media.

More in Common

With teams in the U.S., the United Kingdom, France and Germany, this organization seeks to counter polarization and build bridges across dividing lines through research, publications and other initiatives. Their detailed research into what drives fracturing and polarization incorporates insights from political science, psychology, sociology and other fields to map different segments of the population according to their values, beliefs and sense of group attachments. Their research is summarized in a number of publications on topics ranging from immigration to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of their most widely-quoted publications is Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, in which they identify an “exhausted majority” of Americans who are fed up with this country’s endless culture wars. Link HERE.

Braver Angels

Braver Angels (formerly Better Angels) seeks to depolarize the American public through grassroots organizing. The group offers a range of experiences including online and in-person workshops, documentary screenings, book discussions and one-to-one conversations on a variety of polarization-related topics. The group’s premise is not that we must change our mind on issues we’re passionate about in order to agree with people on the other side, but that we learn how to have more reasoned conversations. The organization emphasizes engaging those we disagree with, trying to understand the other side’s point of view even if we don’t agree with it, and supporting principles that bring us together rather than divide us. Link HERE.

Living Room Conversations

Dialogue experts have developed Living Room Conversations as a conversational model to help people bridge their differences by identifying areas of common ground and shared understanding. Within this model, the nonprofit organization has developed over 100 conversation guides on topics ranging from politics in faith communities to abortion, immigration, race and gender issues that can otherwise be tense to talk about. The conversations can take place in person or online. The organization has a Faith Community Team to help church congregations that want to host these conversations. Link HERE.

The Flip Side

The Flip Side promises to help us get out of our media bubbles and analyze important issues by presenting the best points from both sides of the political spectrum. An editorial team – consisting of both progressives and conservatives – sifts through more than 30 news publications daily, chooses one or two issues to focus on, and reads the recent op-eds and analyses about these issues, choosing the most thoughtful and informative articles from each side. The team then chooses the most representative excerpts and quotes from each side, has each of these fact-checked by at least one progressive and one conservative team member, and compiles them into an email that can be read in about five minutes. Link HERE.

AllSides

The mission of AllSides is to expose people to information and ideas from all sides of the political spectrum so we can better understand each other. The site takes each day’s top news stories from the left, center and right of the political spectrum and displays them side by side so readers can get a feel for how each side’s news media may be slanting their coverage. The site also provides media bias ratings for over 800 media outlets and writers, so the reader can easily identify different perspectives. Their “Red Blue Dictionary” explains differences in perspectives on hot-button issues like climate change and racism. In addition, they offer “civil dialogue partnerships” to provide opportunities for respectful dialogue across political divides, and a school program to help students from middle school through college learn media literacy skills. Link HERE.

FactCheck.org

A project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, FactCheck.org bills itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. The organization monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. The web site also offers a guide on how to spot fake or misleading news, as well as step-by-step instructions on how to flag fake news on Facebook. Link HERE for the organization’s web site, HERE for the fake news guide, and HERE for instructions on flagging fake news.

American Psychological Association: Stress in America

Since 2007, APA has commissioned an annual nationwide survey to examine the level of stress across the U.S. and understand its impact. The annual Stress in America survey measures perceptions of stress among the general public and identifies leading sources of stress, common behaviors used to manage stress and the impact of stress on our daily lives. In recent years, the APA has consistently found that significant numbers of U.S. citizens feel stressed by the current political and social divisiveness. If nothing else, the survey results make clear that the culture wars are more than simply a petty irritant and draw attention to the serious physical and emotional implications of the stress caused by constant conflict. Link HERE.

Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

The center, at Columbia University, offers programs which integrate the theory of conflict resolution with its actual practice. The center publishes an extensive list of more than 100 organizations/groups/web sites seeking solutions to toxic polarization. The focus of the organizations on this list ranges from government, news media and business/economics to education, the environment, technology/social media and faith-based initiatives. Link HERE.

Question for readers: Do you know of any additional organizations/web sites – particularly faith-based groups – that help the public navigate the culture wars constructively? I’d love to hear your recommendations. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: Books to help us navigate the culture wars

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my other excerpts, click HERE.

As I’ve been conducting research for my book, I have come across some great resources for understanding and navigating the culture wars, ranging from books and academic research to web sites created by organizations working for change in the way we relate to each other. 

Following are some books I’ve found especially thought-provoking. The authors include ministers and theologians, academic researchers, historians and journalists. They span the ideological spectrum from those who lean conservative to those who lean progressive to those earnestly trying to remain nonpartisan.

Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, by James Davison Hunter. This is the book that introduced the phrase “culture wars” to our vocabulary when it was first published in 1991. Reading it now reminds us that the polarization tearing apart our society has actually been developing for decades. Hunter, a sociologist, uses the term to describe how conservative Christians (Protestant and Catholic) and Orthodox Jews joined forces in a battle against their progressive counterparts – secularist, reform Jews and liberal Catholics and Protestants – to gain control over the family, art, education, law and politics. The term not only captures a political struggle over cultural issues, but a conflict over “the meaning of America,” he says. 

The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue, by Deborah Tannen. This eye-opening book is, if anything, even more relevant today than when it was originally published in 1998. Tannen, a linguistics professor, describes “a pervasive warlike atmosphere” that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight: The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to settle disputes is litigation; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you’re really thinking is to criticize. The author demonstrates how our use of language reflects this mindset (the war on drugs, the war on cancer) and shows how our determination to pursue truth by setting up a fight between two sides keeps us from recognizing and remaining open to other options.

Why We’re Polarized, by Ezra Klein. Using insights from political scientists, media commentators, and cultural critics, this book aims to show how America’s political system is polarizing us — and how we are polarizing it — with disastrous results. In the past, says the journalist and political analyst, parties separated over their ideas for dealing with specific issues. But now the name of the game is “negative partisanship,” where we hate the other party more than we like our own. Klein describes the feedback loops between polarized political identities and polarized political institutions that he believes are driving our system toward crisis, and shows how these feedback loops reinforce each other.

Uncivil agreement: How politics became our identity, by Lilliana Mason. Political polarization has moved beyond disagreements about matters of policy, says Mason, a political scientist and professor. The author explains how the growing social gulf across racial, religious, and cultural lines has recently come to divide neatly between the two major political parties, then shows how our current “us versus them” conflicts are rooted in partisan “mega-identities” that tap into a powerful current of anger and resentment. She warns that, although the polarizing effects of social divisions have simplified our electoral choices and increased political engagement, these divisions have not been a force that is, on balance, helpful for American democracy. 

Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, by Arthur C. Brooks. Today in the U.S., there is an “outrage industrial complex” that prospers by setting American against American, says Brooks. This has created a “culture of contempt” – the habit of seeing people who disagree with us not as merely incorrect, but as worthless and defective. Brooks, a social scientist, uses a combination of behavioral research and his experience as head of a policy think tank to argue that our only choices are not to simply play along or be left behind. Instead, he offers suggestions for how to love and respect one another despite our differences.

Thou Shalt Not Be A Jerk: A Christian’s Guide to Engaging Politics, by Eugene Cho. According to Cho, an evangelical pastor and president/CEO of the Christian advocacy organization Bread for the World, Christians should never profess blind loyalty to any political party, but should engage with politics because politics inform policies which impact people. Cho urges readers to stop vilifying those they disagree with – especially the vulnerable – and to remember that hope arrived not in a politician or system or great nation, but in the person of Jesus Christ. “When we stay in the Scriptures, pray for wisdom, and advocate for the vulnerable, our love for politics, ideology, philosophy, or even theology, stop superseding our love for God and neighbor,” he says.

God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, by Jim Wallis. This book focuses on what Wallis considers to be the role of religious hypocrisy in politics, and critiques both the “religious right” and the “secular left.” Clearly, God is not a Republican or a Democrat, says the theologian and founder of Sojourners magazine. He argues that America’s separation of church and state does not require banishing moral and religious values from the public square. But he also believes the best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable or loyally partisan but to maintain the moral independence to critique both the Left and the Right. 

Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility, by George Yancey. Christians have struggled with racial issues for centuries and often inadvertently contribute to the problem, Yancey says. He adds that the situation is made more complex by the fact that Christians of different races see the issues differently. A sociologist and consultant for a variety of churches on racial diversity, Yancey analyzes secular models of addressing race promoted by conservatives (colorblindness, Anglo-conformity) and progressives (multiculturalism, white responsibility) and explains what he sees as the advantages and limitations of each. He then offers a new model for moving forward, urging people of all races to walk together on a shared path – not as adversaries, but as partners.

Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People, by Charles Camosy. Camosy, a professor of theological and social ethics, promotes a Consistent Life Ethic that goes beyond a narrow focus on abortion to include such issues as poverty, immigration, mass incarceration and treatment of the environment. He believes a new moral vision, especially one which embraces Pope Francis’ challenge to resist “throwaway culture,” has the capacity to help us find common ground and move beyond stale and lazy arguments which artificially pit progressives and conservatives against each other. He calls for a culture of encounter and hospitality to replace a consumer culture in which powerful people profit from ideological conflict and the most vulnerable get used and discarded like so much trash.

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch. This epic saga may be more than 1,000 pages long, but it turns out to be a fascinating read. MacCulloch – an ecclesiastical historian – traces in stunning detail the origins of the Hebrew Bible, how Jesus’ message spread through the ancient world, how the New Testament was formed, and how the three main strands of the Christian faith (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) developed and spread through every continent. In his section about Christianity in the U.S., he charts the surprising beliefs of the founding fathers, the rise of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, and religion’s role in the present culture wars. In the process, he helps us discover Christianity’s essential role in shaping human history. We also gain an understanding of how Christianity came to have so many denominations, and an appreciation for the fact that our recent splits and schisms are certainly not a new phenomenon.

Question for readers: Have you read any good books on navigating the culture wars constructively? I’d love to hear your recommendations. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: Clarification and some definitions

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my other excerpts, click HERE.

When I express my desire to step back from the culture wars and find less-polarizing ways of addressing societal problems, I get a pair of common responses.

Some folks who identify as progressive will say sarcastically, “Oh, I see. You think we should all be NICE.” They practically spit out the word nice, then accuse me of wanting to look the other way in the face of injustice. Some who identify as conservative will suggest that what I really want is for everyone to simply ignore sinful behavior.

My spiritual director – a wise woman who had a talent for posing questions most people don’t think to ask – challenged me with this question: “What, exactly, do you mean by culture wars?” And this one: “What would you consider to be polarizing behavior?” She made an important point. Those words may not mean the same thing to everyone who hears them.

So I’d like to clarify: When I speak of the culture wars and the resulting polarization in our society, I’m not talking about honest disagreements between people of good will who just happen to have differing ideas about the best way to resolve issues. I’m not saying we should look the other way in the face of injustice or cease discussing sin in sermons, Bible study sessions and religious education classes. I not suggesting we should retreat from the political arena, refrain from sharing opinions on social media about issues we feel strongly about, forsake our favorite causes or stop working to resolve problems such as poverty and hunger.

When I speak of the culture wars and the resulting polarization in our society, I am talking about the trolling, the name-calling, the insults, the character assassination, the demonizing and scapegoating, and the gratuitous rudeness that have become a mind-numbingly routine part of our daily conversations and social media interactions. I’m talking about activist groups doctoring videos and jerking quotes out of context to make ideological opponents look sinister, candidates for public office deliberately playing on fears and divisions to score political points and get votes, ordinary folks combing through comments on Facebook or Twitter looking for “gotcha” opportunities so they can pounce, and extremists phoning in death threats to people who say or do something they disagree with.

Dictionary.com defines culture war as “a conflict or struggle for dominance between groups within a society, or between societies, arising from their differing beliefs and practices.” Wikipedia points out that “in American usage the term culture war may imply a conflict between those values considered traditionalist or conservative and those considered progressive or liberal.” Dictionary.com defines polarization as “a sharp division, as of a population or group, into opposing factions.” Urban Dictionary defines culture warrior as “a member of one of the two major political tribes who have come to dominate political discussion in the U.S. with their divisive, polarizing conflict.”

A key concept for me in these definitions is dominance. The competing factions in our culture wars aren’t so much concerned with actually resolving issues as they are with winning – at any cost – by humiliating and annihilating people perceived to be their opponents. These “opponents” are no longer simply misguided or mistaken, they are stupid, crazy or just plain evil.

When I express my desire to step back from the culture wars, I also get another common response. Some equally exhausted folks enthusiastically nod their heads and suggest I should turn off the TV, log off the Internet and disengage from the larger society. Some will argue that even talking about politics or hot-button social issues is poor etiquette. That getting involved in causes is the province of people afraid to look too closely at their personal problems. That marches, rallies and boycotts are inherently divisive. That civil discussion is a waste of time since most of us already have our minds made up. That special interests control our government to the point where voting is futile, so why bother?

I would respectfully disagree with the idea of simply “dropping out.” The Constitution guarantees our right to petition our government for the redress of grievances. Participating in the political process is not only a right, but one of our responsibilities as citizens. Supporting a good cause with our time or money beats sitting in front of our screens mindlessly surfing the Internet or playing one video game after another. Too many problems need addressing for us to move in the direction of apathy and disconnection. We do need to stay engaged.

But could we please, please, please stop the vitriol? If we really want to change hearts and minds, we must stop the name-calling, the scapegoating and the demonizing. It’s one thing to write a politely-worded letter to an elected official. It’s another to send a profanity-laced screed containing death threats. It’s one thing to attend a candidate forum or town hall meeting and ask an intelligent question when it’s our turn to do so. It’s another to shout down a lawmaker or candidate who is trying to speak. It’s one thing to participate in a march or rally in which organizers have obtained all the proper permits. It’s another to vandalize property, set fire to a police station or bomb a clinic.  

Name-calling and other rude behavior stop genuine discussion and problem solving in their tracks. Lashing out gives others an excuse to ignore our concerns, discount us and dismiss our issues. For those of us who claim to be people of faith, spewing snarky insults gives people ammunition to call us hypocrites and declare they want nothing to do with either us or our religion. And violence only begets more violence.

In my own case, I actually have changed my mind now and then over the years, even on some fairly important issues. When I did so, it was because someone presented factual information in such a way that I could listen without becoming defensive. It also helped if the other person was willing to hear my side of the story, shared their personal experience of the issue in question, or showed me how I could come around to their way of thinking without sacrificing important values.

But I can promise I have never, EVER changed my mind about anything because someone called me names, insulted me or tried to convince me they were morally superior to me. All yelling and character assassination ever did for me was encourage me to dig in my heels or walk away. People of all political stripes have let me know I’m not alone in this regard.

In our current environment, we are so often presented with only two alternatives – be “in-your-face” reactionary or be apathetic. I’d like to see a third option. I’d like to see all of us eliminate the name-calling, the trolling and the flaming, and have a respectful discussion about serious issues. We need to replace our desire to be right and come out on top with a desire to solve problems. That way, instead of our side winning, perhaps we can all win.

Questions for readers: Have you found a constructive way to address pressing social issues without getting caught up in the vitriol that characterizes the culture wars? I’d love to hear your response to this question, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: Little epiphanies

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my other excerpts, click HERE.

Insight doesn’t usually come to me in big EUREKA! moments, but tends to creep into my awareness through a series of little epiphanies. And so it was with the realization that our society’s culture wars were wreaking real damage, both in our communities and in my personal life. Even worse, I began to discern – albeit more slowly – that my own attitudes and behavior might be contributing to the problem.

The first of these little epiphanies came during my 20-year career in human services. Between my paid employment and my volunteer commitments, it was hard to avoid the fallout from our larger society’s political battles because the never-ending conflict so often affected my ability to simply do my job. Government funding to the social service agencies where I worked would be cut or delayed on a regular basis because elected officials liked to hold state and federal budgets hostage until they got their way on ideological priorities. This often resulted in staffing shortages and a reduction in the level of services we were able to provide for people in need.

“Philosophical differences” within the social service system itself sometimes kept helping professionals from working together for the benefit of people who sought assistance for problems ranging from drug addiction and homelessness to domestic violence and mental health issues. Conservative colleagues said poor choices and lack of personal responsibility were to blame for these individuals’ problems, while progressive colleagues insisted bad luck and social oppression were the culprits. My own experience told me the cause of most client problems was a complex combination of poor choices, bad luck and social oppression, but I often felt pressured by colleagues on both the left and the right to deny the reality in front of me when certain details of a person’s situation were not “ideologically correct.” 

Outside of work, I frequently found myself sucked into arguments with friends, relatives and even strangers over contentious “hot-button” issues such as abortion, gun violence, climate change and racial unrest. Sometimes online squabbles would get sufficiently nasty for me to block or “snooze” Facebook friends – both progressive and conservative – who refused to stop insulting my other Facebook friends. This situation got more pronounced after the 2016 election, with some friends actually pressuring me to stop associating with people on the “wrong” side of the ideological divide. 

However, I have to admit I wasn’t always the innocent victim or bystander in these skirmishes. For years, I had been repelled by the culture wars and yet attracted like the proverbial moth to a flame.

One sign that I might be a bit too invested in the culture wars came when I realized I had just wasted an entire afternoon arguing with total strangers about jello. Yes, jello. Progressives and conservatives on one Christian denomination’s Facebook page had been wrangling for days over this question: “Is it racist to make jokes about jello at church potlucks?” I further realized it wasn’t the first time this had happened. Conservative and progressive Christians frequently mauled and skewered each other on Web sites such as Patheos, gleefully calling each other names and dropping F-bombs on people left and right. While I didn’t resort to insults or profanity myself, I confess to participating in too many of these “discussions” for longer than I should have. 

Another “Aha!” moment came during election season when I realized I hadn’t done my morning meditation in several days. Morning meditation was one of my favorite prayer rituals. I settled in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee by my side and a cat in my lap and asked for God’s protection and guidance as I journaled about my priorities for the coming day. Sometimes my husband serenaded Oley Cat and me with sacred songs on his dulcimer. So why was I missing out? Not because of early doctor appointments or work commitments. Before I even had my morning coffee, I would rush to my computer and click into Real Clear Politics or FiveThirtyEight.com to see who was ahead in the polls. Housework and my writing also languished while I aimlessly surfed the web, looking for that news story or editorial that would magically reassure me the right side was winning.

One beautiful October day, I was taking a twilight walk when I suddenly stopped short. Mother Nature’s handiwork prompted me to gasp. Fall leaves flashed yellow-orange-crimson. Light from the setting sun bounced off the tops of trees in even more vivid colors. The sky competed with the trees for sheer outrageousness – the sun painting the clouds red, orange, yellow, pink, purple. A still-warm breeze blew gently across my face. Then I stopped short again. I realized I had been walking for several minutes before I noticed what was in front of me. While God was putting on this living fireworks display, I had been gazing at the sidewalk, my mind flitting from one surly thought to another: I wish our elected officials would stop acting like children. … What kind of people would vote for a monster like that? … What on earth is wrong with people?! … How can they think that way?  

The final straw that convinced me I’d had enough of the culture wars came with the COVID-19 pandemic. Here we were, facing a virus that was killing hundreds of thousands of people, and our elected officials would not stop brawling long enough to develop a coherent plan for addressing this urgent public health issue. One would think the general public might urge lawmakers to put aside their political differences and collaborate on ways to get personal protective equipment to our frontline workers, ensure ICU beds were available for everyone who needed one, and help families and small businesses affected by our shutdown orders. Instead, all we could seem to do was bicker about face masks and shame each other with Facebook memes while we retreated further into our ideological camps and dug in our heels.

So what could one person do to stop the lunacy? I was pretty sure the answer was not to retreat from the political arena, look the other way in the face of injustice or stop working to resolve problems such as poverty and hunger. On the other hand, something clearly wasn’t working – either in our society or in my responses to the endless strife. At the very least, my own responses needed to change. 

Unfortunately, the church community – where one might hope to find some guidance – seemed only to provoke more confusion and discord. Many Christian denominations were drawing progressive-versus-conservative battle lines that matched those of secular society. As people on either end of the political/ideological divide pressured me to take sides, I often found myself performing mental gymnastics to make my religious beliefs about an issue fit a particular political party’s platform. And I came to realize how much my own beliefs were being shaped by my desire to fit in with the people around me rather than by an objective search for truth. 

This internal tug-of-war brought on by the increasing divisiveness in our society prompted me to ask myself several questions: What were my own beliefs about the hot-button issues that consumed our nation’s culture warriors? Should I continue holding onto these beliefs and values, or should some of them be changed or discarded? How could I avoid the continual pressure to “choose sides” and do more of my own thinking? What was my role as a Christian in fighting or mitigating society’s political battles? How should I engage people who disagreed with me, while keeping in mind God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves? And perhaps most importantly, how did I avoid becoming part of the problem as our society grew ever more partisan and angry? How could I be part of the solution?

To help me sort through these questions, I engaged a spiritual director shortly after the 2016 election. With her encouragement, I began questioning many things I thought I knew. I questioned values other people wanted me to hold – whether they be conservative or progressive. I began asking myself how much I really believed everything I claimed to believe concerning church dogma and secular political ideologies. Was it possible I was merely paying lip service to certain ideas to please my peer group? I decided for the time being to ignore what academic “experts” thought. I did not want a value system that simply let me fit in chameleon-like with my surroundings. Ultimately, I wanted a personal faith that would stand up to reason, scrutiny and pressure from the various culture warriors in my life. 

In 1 Thessalonians 5:21, the Apostle Paul said, “Test all things; hold fast to that which is good.” 

I certainly haven’t figured out all the answers. But I do think one key to finding an appropriate Christian response to our society’s polarization problem is to avoid knee-jerk ideological responses to heated controversies, hear people out on all sides and keep asking those pesky questions.

Questions for readers: How has our society’s polarization impacted you personally? How do we become part of the solution rather than part of the problem? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: How did we get so polarized?

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

Some blame the news media. Some blame our political leaders. Many blame folks on the other side of the culture wars. But my research shows that a variety of interrelated factors contribute to the extreme polarization in our society, including some influences that creep in beneath our conscious awareness:

  • Social media. If there’s one thing most people actually agree on, it is that social media can exacerbate polarization. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter provide the ideal forum for the moral grandstanding and flame-throwing that fuel our culture wars. Some folks love a good fight and make a hobby of keeping everyone stirred up through deliberate trolling. For more of us, the relative anonymity of a screen allows us to share sentiments we’d never dream of expressing out loud to someone in a face-to-face conversation. 
  • Ideological bubbles and echo chambers. In his book The Big Sort, journalist Bill Bishop describes a demographic trend in which Americans have segregated themselves into homogenous communities, choosing everything from cable news networks to civic organizations and church denominations compatible with their lifestyles and beliefs. We have even separated geographically from those who differ from us ideologically. The result, Bishop says, is “a country that has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred, the people don’t know and can’t understand those who live a few miles away.” Meanwhile, on the Internet, sophisticated algorithms create “echo chambers” that ensure we are exposed mostly to people and sites promoting our own worldview and shielded from conflicting ideas or viewpoints.
  • Manipulation. We are relentlessly manipulated, often without realizing it, by folks who profit handsomely from keeping us polarized. Social media advertisers know the most salacious headlines get the most clicks – and generate the most ad revenue. Politicians whip us into an us-versus-them frenzy to secure our votes. Cable news networks boost their ratings by keeping people angry and divided. Online businesses appeal to our partisan divisions with in-your-face merchandise – a Deplorable University coffee mug or Safe Spaces Are for Snowflakes bumper sticker for conservatives, a Jesus was Progressive car magnet or Democrats Cleaning Up Republican Messes Since 1933 dog sweater for progressives (or their pets). 
  • Groupthink and our need for belonging. Kids begin forming in-groups as early as kindergarten and our cliquish behavior unfortunately doesn’t end when we leave high school. “The human mind is exquisitely tuned to group affiliation and group difference,” says political analyst Ezra Klein in his book Why We’re Polarized. “It takes almost nothing for us to form a group identity, and once that happens, we naturally assume ourselves in competition with other groups.” The more we identify with a group, the more we feel pressured to agree with its dogma – a party line that seems to include 650 boxes which must all be checked or we risk rejection by our chosen peers. The deeper our commitment to an identity group, the more vulnerable we are to the effects of “group polarization” – the tendency for the group as a whole to adopt attitudes or actions that are more extreme than the initial inclination of its individual members.
  • Projection and scapegoating. We humans have a distressing tendency to project our own less-than-admirable thoughts, behaviors and forbidden impulses onto others. Christians and non-Christians alike “are at times behaving horribly in the ways they engage in our political discourse,” says the Rev. Eugene Cho in his book Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk. “We want to preach to others, but we don’t preach to ourselves. We love to flip tables, but not our own. We love to expose the privilege in others, while rarely considering our own.” The concept of scapegoating first appears in Leviticus 16:8-10 – a goat would literally be cast into the desert to carry away the community’s sins – and the word “scapegoat” has since developed to indicate a person or group of people blamed and punished for the sins of others. Once we’ve blamed someone for all of society’s problems, it’s a short step toward demonizing and dehumanizing them.
  • Our soundbite culture. One problem that keeps us from discussing and resolving issues appropriately is our modern emphasis on brevity, which is often designed to accommodate our increasingly short attention spans. According to the Rev. Cho, our failure to engage issues more intelligently prevents us from fully understanding the “why” behind our convictions. (“Don’t just be a headline reader,” he urges us.) It is nearly impossible to give an issue the depth it deserves when we limit our communication to bumper stickers, 15-second sound bites and 280-character tweets.
  • Our inability to tolerate ambiguity or acknowledge moral complexity. Moral and ethical questions don’t always lend themselves to simplistic answers, and honest people can honestly disagree about the best way to resolve complex issues. A current example of this dilemma is our struggle over the best way to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. How do we protect people who are more vulnerable to severe illness or death without destroying the jobs that allow other people to feed their families, keep a roof over their heads and afford basic health care? When we don’t have enough of a life-saving vaccine to go around, who gets priority? Adding to the dilemma, scientists’ changing understanding of the virus has made it difficult for public health experts to offer consistent advice on safety measures. But rather than remain open to new research, too many of us prefer to dig in our heels and stick with whatever our identity group decrees to be “the truth.”
  • Our oppositional mindset. We often hear how it’s easier to unite Americans against something than to unite them for something. In The Argument Culture, linguistics professor Deborah Tannen describes “a pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight.” She explains that our society constantly urges us to engage the world in an adversarial frame of mind: “The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to cover news is to find spokespeople who express the most extreme, polarized views and present them as ‘both sides’; the best way to settle disputes is litigation that pits one party against the other; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you’re really thinking is to criticize.” Our use of language reflects this mindset, she adds: “The war on drugs, the war on cancer … war metaphors pervade our talk and shape our thinking.” 
  • Relentless pressure to take sides. Our determination to pursue truth by setting up a fight between two sides leads us to believe every issue has two sides – no more and no less, Tannen says. But opposition “does not lead to truth when an issue is not composed of two opposing sides but is a crystal of many sides. Often the truth is in the complex middle, not the oversimplified extremes.” In other words, an issue may not actually have two sides, but rather, three or four or seventeen sides. Pressure to choose between the two sides presented to us keeps us from recognizing and remaining open to other options.
  • Negative partisanship and defining-by-opposition. Partisan behavior is often driven not by positive feelings toward the political party we support but by negative feelings toward the party we oppose, according to Klein. You might be guilty of negative partisanship, he says, “if you’ve ever voted in an election feeling a bit bleh about the candidate you backed, but fearful of the troglodyte or socialist running against her.” Charles C. Camosy describes “the politics of defining-by-opposition” in his book Resisting Throwaway Culture. “We almost always view the ideological communities to which we belong through the lens of a narrow progressive/conservative binary – a binary into which all issues, regardless of their complexity, are shoved and made to fit,” he explains. “We define ourselves by our opposition to ‘the other side’ well before we even engage their ideas and arguments.”
  • Logical fallacies. The dualistic, oppositional, either/or mindset outlined above is an example of a logical fallacy – a thinking error that distorts our perceptions and leads to inaccurate conclusions. Other logical fallacies that contribute to polarization include zero-sum thinking (we insist that one side’s gain must be the other side’s loss); fundamental attribution error (when bad things happen to other people, we believe they are personally at fault, but when bad things happen to us, we blame the situation and circumstances beyond our control); confirmation bias (we embrace information that supports our viewpoints, while ignoring information that doesn’t); and all-or-nothing thinking (if we change our mind about one issue, it will mean everything we’ve ever believed in is wrong, so we’ll be forced to change our entire worldview). 
  • Addiction to outrage and contempt. There certainly are plenty of issues to be legitimately angry about in our society right now. But face it, outrage and contempt can help us feel so superior to others that many of us are hopelessly addicted. We live in a culture of contempt, says Arthur C. Brooks in his book Love Your Enemies. Brooks variously defines contempt as “anger mixed with disgust,” “an enduring attitude of complete disdain,” and “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another.” While most of us hate what unbridled outrage and contempt are doing to our society, he says many of us “compulsively consume the ideological equivalent of meth from elected officials, academics, entertainers and some of the news media.” 
  • Our sinful nature. Many Christians believe sin can ultimately be defined as separation. And what word would describe extreme polarization better than separation? Several “sins of separation” contribute to the polarization tearing our society apart. We commit idolatry when we turn the conservative/progressive movements into quasi-religions and place our loyalty to a political ideology or party ahead of our loyalty to God. We take God’s name in vain when we use it to promote hatred toward people or groups we oppose. We bear false witness against our neighbors when we deliberately twist their words and distort their positions on various issues so we can portray them as terrible people. We ignore the plank in our own eye while focusing obsessively on the speck in our perceived opponent’s eye. Most of all, we fail to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially if they voted for the wrong candidate in the last election.

Unfortunately, polarization can be self-reinforcing, creating an endless feedback loop, according to Klein. To appeal to a polarized public, political institutions, cable news networks and other public entities behave in more polarized ways. As the political institutions and other actors behave in more polarized ways, they further polarize the public. To appeal to a further polarized public, institutions must polarize even more. The cycle becomes a downward spiral.

If we want to stop this depressing cycle, a good first step might be paying attention to the ways we are pressured and manipulated to take sides in situations where taking sides may not be the best idea, as well as recognizing the logical fallacies that encourage polarized thinking and behavior. I’m also thinking those of us who identify as Christians may need to renew our commitment to follow the Lamb rather than the elephant or the donkey.

Questions for readers: What factors do you see leading to the extreme polarization in our society? What would help alleviate this? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: Is this criticism constructive or abusive?

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

Most of us would agree that a hallmark of maturity is the ability to give and take constructive criticism without getting defensive or provoking defensiveness in others. Proverbs 9:8 and 17:10 commend people wise enough to profit from correction. If we must criticize others, Ephesians 4:15 reminds us to speak the truth in love.

Unfortunately, what some people call “constructive criticism” isn’t really all that constructive. Sometimes criticism can be a form of abuse. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than with the “critiquing” so characteristic of the culture wars in recent years. 

In a previous excerpt, I shared my theory that the extreme polarization in our society – along with the constant vitriol – has rendered many of us more defensive than we used to be. I don’t think this is entirely a matter of fragile egos. How many times can we hear words like “moron” and “Nazi” directed toward ourselves before the most thick-skinned among us shuts down?

When we react defensively to criticism, are we being overly sensitive, or is our reaction a signal that we’re being abused? When we deliver the criticism, are we speaking the truth in love or are we abusing others? 

Here are some of the guidelines I was taught by parents, teachers and various mentors about giving and receiving constructive criticism. I invite readers to compare and contrast these examples with the “criticism” so often dished out by our society’s culture warriors on both the right and the left.

Constructive criticism stems from a genuine desire to help the recipient. The motive might be to help the recipient resolve a problem, be more successful at work, gain a different perspective on an issue or improve relationships with others.

Abusive criticism stems from less than honorable motives. The moral grandstanding so prevalent among culture warriors offers a prime example of criticism designed to help participants look good at other people’s expense in order to gain approval from their identity group or tribe.

Constructive criticism attacks the problem, not the person. Criticism focuses on the recipient’s actions or ideas, rather than on the recipient as a human being – for example, “I feel like I must challenge what you just said” vs. “anyone who thinks the way you do is a moron.”

Abusive criticism attacks the recipient personally. Examples of personal (ad hominem) attacks include the name-calling, ridicule and demonization of opponents so characteristic of our culture wars. People don’t just have wrong or misguided ideas. They are stupid, crazy or downright evil.

Constructive criticism respects the recipient’s dignity. The critic may take the recipient aside or raise concerns in a private message, thus allowing the recipient to avoid embarrassment.

Abusive criticism disregards the recipient’s feelings. The critic “calls out” the recipient in a public forum such as Facebook or Twitter, and may get others to join in and pile on. For culture warriors on both sides, public humiliation is often the whole point. Some folks actually make loud pronouncements like, “I don’t care about your hurt feelings.”

Constructive criticism is even-handed. The critic notices strengths as well as weaknesses, and offers praise for things the recipient does right.

Abusive criticism is unbalanced. In our polarized society, we’re discouraged from acknowledging that someone perceived as an opponent might have any redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Constructive criticism happens only occasionally. The criticism might take place in the context of a workplace performance review or a private discussion in which the recipient has asked for feedback.

Abusive criticism happens too frequently. The critic finds something wrong no matter what the recipient does, and the criticism is relentless. On a societal level, the “criticism” sounds more like a steady drumbeat of bashing than an honest critique. “Gotcha” games abound.

Constructive criticism is fair. The critic targets things the recipient can realistically change, such as a faulty idea or an inconsiderate action, rather than things beyond the recipient’s personal control such as race, gender or someone else’s behavior.

Abusive criticism is unfair. Culture warriors on both the right and the left often resort to stereotyping and scapegoating entire groups of people, blaming individuals who belong to these groups for all of society’s ills. 

Constructive criticism is stated calmly and respectfully. The critic speaks in a normal tone of voice and treats the recipient like a reasonably intelligent person.

Abusive criticism often feels condescending or threatening. The critic yells, constantly interrupts, stands over the recipient, makes threats, or talks down to the recipient in a patronizing manner. These behaviors have been on frequent display by members of both parties during political debates in recent years.

Constructive criticism is specific and relevant to the situation at hand. Criticism focuses on current issues or concerns, and the critic offers concrete suggestions or solutions for any problems raised.

Abusive criticism resembles a fishing expedition. Culture warriors may dredge up everything an “opponent” has done in the past 30 or 40 years, including mistakes the individual has long since atoned for. The goal is not so much to resolve a problem, but rather to demonize, discount or destroy a perceived enemy.

Constructive criticism is a two-way street. The critic understands there are at least two sides to most issues and is able to look for their own part – or their own side’s part – in any problems being addressed.

Abusive criticism is all one-way. The critic can dish it out but can’t take it. Culture warriors often dodge a gentle invitation to look in the mirror by offering up accusations of “false equivalence” or “whataboutism.” 

“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up,” 1 Thessalonians 5:11 reminds us. 

I truly believe the heat generated by our society’s intense polarization could be turned down several notches if people on all sides of our culture wars could learn how to distinguish constructive criticism, which builds up, from the abusive variety, which tears down. We could all profit from more building up and less tearing down.

Questions for readers: What are some examples of abusive criticism you’ve encountered? What would make the criticism more constructive? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: The Wide World of Anger

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

One of the biggest factors underlying today’s extreme polarization is the bottomless pit of seething resentment and rage running through our society like hot lava.

I mentioned in a previous post that many people I encounter these days seem more cranky and defensive than they used to be, and some seem to be spoiling for a fight. We have Road Rage, Airport Rage, Parking Lot Rage and Starbucks Rage. We have Climate Wars, Health Care Wars, Class Wars, Mommy Wars and even Worship Wars. We spew our in-your-face venom onto everything from t-shirts, lapel pins and bumper stickers to coffee cups, refrigerator magnets and doormats like this one sold at Amazon.com:

“The easiest thing you’ll do all day is get ticked off at something,” Jeffrey Kluger writes in a Time magazine article titled America’s Anger Is Out of Control (link HERE). “Someone cuts ahead of you in traffic? Ticked off. Guy in front of you at Starbucks needs his entire order remade because his mocha half-caf, double frap had the wrong frigging number of espresso shots in it even though you know full well nobody can taste the bloody difference? Exceedingly ticked off. We’re all that way – and that’s a problem. Anger is … quick, it’s binary, it’s delicious. And more and more, we’re gorging on it.” 

The gratuitously nasty responses to a popular bumper sticker handed out by school districts offer a perfect illustration of this free-floating over-the-top anger. Personally, I think proud of my honor student bumper stickers are a nice way for schools to show appreciation to hardworking students and promote academic achievement. But apparently some folks beg to differ, judging from their own bumper stickers. My kid beat up your honor student and my kid got your honor student pregnant are just a couple of the snarky “statements” that leave me shaking my head. Good grief! If we don’t want our young people using drugs, joining gangs or making other unfortunate choices, why the hostility toward kids who are doing something right?

Lloyd Vries at CBS News (link HERE) shares, “A reader wrote to me, ‘Just do the country a favor and shoot yourself.’ … How angry does someone have to be to write something like that? And ‘Mr. Go Shoot Yourself’ is not atypical. Surf the Internet for a second or two, and you’ll see the venom pouring out from those who verbally attack each other.” At my computer I type the words, “Why is everyone so angry?” The Google search yields nearly 150,000 entries and an inescapable conclusion: Vries is correct. There sure are a lot of angry people out there.

A short browse through just a few of the 150,000 entries reveals that the population of folks gorging on anger isn’t limited to the U.S.

The British are vexed about Brexit, among other things. Some display their fury in ways that rival their U.S. counterparts on the rage-o-meter, according toan article for The Daily Telegraph in London (Short-Fuse Britain: Why is Everyone So Bloody Angry? – link HERE). Judith Woods writes, “Last weekend, my children and I were nearly knocked into the canal by a cyclist incandescent with rage that I was walking by the canal. He was followed by a peleton of similarly rude men in a tearing hurry who refused to give way to pedestrians, as they are supposed to. I was sorely tempted to lie across the path in a gesture of defiance, but I couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t have pedaled straight over me, leaving cartoon tyre marks, so instead I shouted at them. Of course I did: I’m as cross as everyone else.” 

What do people get cracked about in Australia? Blogger Jacqueline Lunn (link HERE) relates: “In the space of a week I’ve seen people get twitchy at each other as they wait in the line for ice cream. I’ve seen scenes of obvious, quite nasty, frustration due to an elderly man exiting a bus. I’ve watched three grown men, not one but three, push past my 10-year-old daughter to be served before her at the counter. Brows furrowed, on a mission, about to snap. Her older sister had to stand with her so pushing past was thwarted. I’ve completely cracked it because the dishwasher wasn’t unpacked when I’ve come home from work. Cracked like an egg rolling off a benchtop.” 

In a feature article on the Web site Modern Ghana (link HERE), Nicholas Ameyaw-Akumfi recites a litany of angsty issues that will sound familiar to most Americans. “Why are people so angry these days?” he asks.“It seems as though everything challenging in life is hitting them faster and from every direction. Changes in technologies and communications have caused their lives to move faster. Unemployment prevails as the cost of living keeps rising. Sleep doesn’t come as easy as it used to.” His account of how Ghanaians respond will sound familiar as well: “A spilled cup of coffee in the morning can ruin the better portion of a person’s day and a ringing telephone or barking dog can set their nerves on edge.” 

Meanwhile in India: “How have rage and vitriol become so addictive?” asks blogger Manika Raikwar Ahirwal, managing editor for that country’s NDTV (link HERE). “We need our daily dose of rant. And if it’s angry and full of abuse, even better. … In this new world of hatred, your mission, if you so choose, is to destroy without prejudice. Anything, everything is fair game. We will target you and by association anything we can get our hands on.” 

As my husband would say, “Ay, covfefe!” And to think some of us here in the good ol’ U.S.A. thought we might be able to escape from our own Fury Festival by fleeing to another country …

All this frenzy calls to mind the parable of the boiled frog – a cautionary tale most of us will hear sooner or later if we attend enough business conferences or stress management seminars. The storyline goes like this: If a frog is suddenly tossed into a kettle of boiling water, it will jump out and save itself from impending death. But if the frog is happily swimming around in lukewarm water, with the temperature turned up gradually, it will not perceive danger and will be cooked to death. 

Turns out the boiled frog story may actually be nothing more than an urban legend. In reality, say some experts, the frog will be smart enough to hop out of the water in the nick of time, no matter how slowly one turns up the heat. I’m left wondering, however, whether we humans will be so sensible.

Questions for readers: What factors do you see leading to so much anger? If you live outside the U.S., is there similar anger and polarization going on your country? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Book excerpt: How the Culture Wars affect us

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

Some would argue that the extreme polarization in our society is normal and relatively harmless. We must simply learn to ignore the drama. Turn off the TV. Spend less time on social media sites.

If only it were that simple. 

Around the tables at 12-Step group meetings, people say it’s important to distinguish between “normal” and “healthy.” Some situations and behaviors considered all-too-normal in our society are actually anything but healthy, they warn.

For example, it would be bad enough if the tide of anger and disrespect swirling around us served merely to put people in a surly, antisocial mood. Unfortunately, the damage doesn’t stop there. On a societal level, our finger-pointing epidemic leads to everything from Congressional gridlock and loss of trust in our institutions to violence against individuals who belong to maligned groups. On a personal level, people report damaged relationships and higher levels of stress. Perhaps worst of all, our children are watching us. 

Here are some of the ways I see the Culture Wars affecting us, both personally and as a community.

  • Our relationships. In a study published by the journal PLOS ONE (link HERE), about 20 percent of respondents reported that political animosity had damaged their friendships. Nearly 40 percent of registered voters – both Democrat and Republican – surveyed by the Pew Research Center (link HERE) said they do not have a single close friend from the opposing party. I’ve watched some of my own Facebook friends – both conservative and progressive – shred each other on my news feed to the point where I needed to block them. Others have pressured me to “unfriend” or stop associating with people who voted the “wrong” way in an election. I’ve fretted about who to invite to gatherings at my house because I worried that one of my more opinionated guests might insult or offend another guest. Sadly, I’ve had loved ones decide they’re “done” with me because “we don’t agree on anything” politically. 
  • Our livelihoods. Polarization can impact our jobs, along with our ability to support ourselves and our families. At the national level, our elected officials regularly threaten to “shut down the government” unless they get their way on hot-button priorities. In the past few years, government shutdowns have resulted in workers getting furloughed until the impasse is resolved. In Illinois, where I live, social service agencies were forced to conduct massive layoffs when our legislators and the governor held the state budget hostage for two years while fighting over ideological agendas. 
  • Our civic engagement. The Culture Wars may boost TV ratings and generate clicks for social media advertisers. But the toxic nature of our conflicts leaves too many of us wanting to drop out of the civic arena entirely. Hidden Tribes (link HERE), a survey of public opinion by the organization More in Common, says two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans belong to a group the authors have dubbed “the Exhausted Majority.” Although members of this group have many political and ideological differences, they share fatigue with the current state of U.S. politics. The relentless back-and-forth arguments have rendered many folks just plain fed up and wondering if the U.S. can move beyond division, according to the report. At least a quarter (26 percent) of those surveyed report feeling detached, distrustful and disengaged. On a personal level, the warring factions leave me wanting to grab a good book and a flashlight and dive under the bed with my cat.
  • Our conversations. No matter how innocuous or trivial the topic, many of us have become reluctant to express our true thoughts. Personally, I’m not afraid that people might disagree with me, which is fine, or even that someone might prove me wrong, which I can live with. But I do tend to avoid speaking up in situations where I might get name-called or otherwise bullied, and several friends have reported having similar experiences. I don’t think this makes us snowflakes. It means we practice good self-care. Unfortunately, this situation puts a damper on our ability to engage in anything more than the most superficial small talk with others.
  • Our credibility. Name-calling, flaming, trolling and other rude behavior don’t just stop genuine discussion in its tracks. Obnoxious behavior invites others to take us less than seriously. When we lash out with insults toward those who disagree with us, we only give others an excuse to discount us and dismiss our message. 
  • Our ability to profit from advice. Lately I’ve noticed that the constant vitriol has made both me and others more reactive, less able to tolerate even the mildest, most constructive criticism. I don’t think this is entirely a matter of our having overly delicate egos. What passes for criticism is so pervasive and so relentless that we all feel like we’ve had our lifetime quota and cannot bear even one more iota of “feedback.” How many times can we hear words like “moron” and “Nazi” directed toward ourselves before even the most thick-skinned among us gets defensive and shuts down?
  • Our ability to fix or learn from mistakes. People these days find it almost impossible to admit when they are wrong. Again, I think this goes beyond fragile egos. I suspect one factor is that the punishment so often exceeds the crime. We don’t just ask people to repair the damage when they make mistakes. We sue them for everything they’ve got so we can make an example of them. We don’t just fire people. We seek to ruin their entire careers in the name of “accountability.” We “call them out,” target them for public humiliation and attempt to “cancel” them like credit cards. No wonder people are afraid of even the appearance of being wrong.
  • Our ability to resolve real problems. While we bicker incessantly, genuine problems go unaddressed. Raging war in various global hotspots creates millions of refugees. Thousands of children worldwide die each day of starvation and/or totally preventable diseases. Nearly a third of all children in the U.S. live in poverty. Because of Congressional gridlock, our elected officials are completely unable to come up with sensible policy on issues ranging from immigration, health care and our crumbling infrastructure to criminal justice reform and how to manage a pandemic.
  • Our trust. We don’t trust anyone these days – not the government, not the press, not the police, not doctors or scientists, and not even the church. According to a recent Gallup poll (link HERE), barely half (51 percent) of Americans expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the medical system. Fewer than half expressed similar confidence in the police (48 percent), the church/organized religion (42 percent), public schools (41 percent), the Supreme Court (40 percent), banks (38 percent), or large technology companies (32 percent). Fewer than a quarter expressed confidence in the criminal justice system (24 percent), big businesses (19 percent), newspapers (24 percent) or television news (18 percent). A measly 13 percent of us expressed confidence in Congress.
  • Our physical health. It would be nice if our elected officials could sit down like mature adults and work out a comprehensive policy to ensure appropriate health care is available to everyone, regardless of income or pre-existing medical conditions. Instead, members of Congress insist on turning our health care into a political wedge issue. Disastrously, the Culture Wars have rendered our national and state governments totally unable to effectively address either the medical or the economic fallout of COVID-19. The tricky part for the rest of us is figuring out how to separate the progressive-versus-conservative political spin from the medical information we need to know in order to protect ourselves from a potentially deadly virus. 
  • Our mental health. In “Stress in America 2020,” an annual survey published by the American Psychological Association (link HERE), 68 percent of adults named the current political climate in the U.S. as a source of stress. Republicans and Democrats were equally likely to say this was true for them. Three in five (60 percent) say the sheer number of issues America faces currently – ranging from racism and immigration to health care, the economy and climate change – is overwhelming to them. As anxiety arising from the COVID-19 pandemic has been added to our tension over these already existing conflicts, our stress levels have skyrocketed to the point that APA has sounded an alarm: “We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.”
  • Our faith. The Culture Wars have literally split congregations down the middle in recent years, and major denominations have faced schisms over such issues as LGBTQ rights, abortion and the role of women. How do we have conversations about genuine moral issues such as racism or poverty when important Biblical passages are labelled “too political” and therefore off-limits for discussion? For those of us who claim to be people of faith, spewing hurtful and gratuitous snark on Christian social media sites gives the increasing numbers of young people who identify as “none” ammunition to call us hypocrites and declare they want nothing to do with either us or our religion. 
  • Our safety. Taken to extremes, polarization can promote dehumanization and lower the threshold for violence. Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Republican Congressman Steve Scalise were shot by mentally unstable individuals who took our society’s heated political rhetoric too literally. Other elected officials from both parties routinely receive death threats in response to their policy decisions. We have groups on both the left (such as Antifa) and the right (such as the Proud Boys) who endorse violence as a legitimate way to achieve political ends. Perhaps more disturbing, a Voter Study Group survey (link HERE) found that 16 percent of ordinary Americans felt that violence is sometimes justified to advance political goals. We’re not even safe in our places of worship – mass shootings have occurred in Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques and a Sikh temple. 
  • Our children. Do we really think our kids don’t notice the mudslinging we’ve come to regard as normal for political campaigns? Or the car with the middle-aged driver and the bumper sticker that tells us what we can eat if we don’t like the owner’s driving? Or the (alleged) adults who consider “flaming” a popular sport on social media? Or the talk show host who refers to ideological opponents as “wackos”? I’ve heard parents and teachers alike share concerns about children and adolescents watching political debates because of the abundance of name-calling, constant interruptions and generally uncivil behavior. Young people looking to adults for an example of how to behave could be excused for concluding that rudeness is clever. Kids who take their cues from their elders might also get this message: Consideration for others is passé.

So, is extreme polarization normal in our society? Unfortunately. Is it healthy or harmless? Hardly.

Questions for readers: How has our society’s polarization impacted you personally? How do we become part of the solution rather than part of the problem? I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).