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Liberal Evangelicals and the Realities of Ubiquitous Social Connectivity

We all know the general narrative that is spun around social connectivity; as the world becomes more socially connected we expect social barriers to fall. As activists around the world use twitter and youtube to break free from state sanctioned media and connect us to the common woman on the street, our local enclaves will melt away and we’ll all become one big Internet family. I can tweet a shout out to my blog followers on Monday, share a picture of my garden on Tuesday, help topple a corrupt regime on Wednesday, and work with my strange sister-n-law to post her dating profile on Thursday. What a world we live in. But I fear that this happy narrative is a lie. Allow me to share an extended anecdote.

Twenty years ago this past summer I graduated from Ryle High School in Union, KY and prepared to head off to Transylvania University. My parents read LE blog and believe me, they are fighting tears because of that last sentence. I loved, ABSOLUTELY LOVED, my time at Transy. I sang in the choir, I played intermural sports, poorly. I joined a fraternity (no stories worth mentioning). I even managed to do some studying. It was the best four-year stretch of my life. But not everyone at Transy had the same experience. I had a girlfriend back home during part of that first year, and I wrote her occasionally and even drove home to visit every few weeks until she dumped me after her prom (wisest decision of your life S.N.). Despite the fact that I lived only an hour south of my parents and high school friends, I didn’t spend much time looking back. 99% of my thought and energy went into my new social and educational situation, but many of the people surrounding me didn’t break free. In 1994-1995 the Internet was just becoming a big thing. It wasn’t available in our dorm rooms until I was a sophomore, but we could e-mail and even have primitive chats in the computer labs. And these labs were frequently full of freshmen that would not or could not break free of friends and family back home. They lived and studied at Transy Monday through Friday but they went home whenever they had the chance. For many intents and purposes, they never really came to college. Their bodies were at Universities, their hearts and minds never left Harlan or Hazard or Dry Ridge.

Colleges and Universities know that one of the most important indicators of whether or not an alum will someday give back to the institution is to the degree to which they formlasting friendships and social bonds at college. In many ways, the dorms and cafeterias are more important educational tools than are the libraries and classrooms, because it is in these spaces that many young adults first meet and learn to deal with difference. I had zero African American or Hispanic friends growing up, all my friends and acquaintances were at least marginally Christian, and I knew no one who didn’t speak English as a first language. University changed all of that. However, as we talked about last time when discussing urbanization, these first encounters with radical difference can generate three responses: run, hide or embrace.

1) Run: I have hard data to support this point, but I can also tell you from personal experience that the summer between freshman and sophomore years is the real make or break season. So many second year students are never heard from again; they just don’t show up for their second Fall. These are the runners, those for whom the reality of social difference is just too much to integrate. I’m using higher education as an easy example here, but the same holds for folks who refuse to leave the small town or rural area. Of course I’m not talking about people who are genuinely content where they are, or folks who lack opportunities. I’m talking about people who encounter difference and simply “cannot deal” as the kids say. Difference is scary, so many of us run.

2) Hide: Here’s the thing about social connectivity; in many ways it isn’t new. It is quantitatively impressive insofar as it can handle orders of magnitude more data than can snail mail, and it is of course faster than snail mail. (Why are we always picking on snails?) But new world immigrants exchanged letters and pictures with relatives in Europe, and I bet passenger pigeons shared the occasional tweet. (Yikes, that was bad.) My point is that we’ve had social connectivity for centuries, the difference now is its ubiquity and the degree to which we can choose to surround ourselves with our chosen people wherever we are. I can “be with” my family in Kentucky and Texas even as I ride the subway in Montreal. College freshmen who find the diverse mix of people on campus firghtening can retreat to “be with” their friends from home and high school. The thing that worries me about young people and social connectivity through increasingly ubiquitous technology is that they will be LESS CONNECTED to a wide of array of different people and LESS SOCIALLY INVESTED in the people surrounding them.

Social media and technology allow us to curate our social experiences to a surprising degree. A crass analogy may help. I used to drive a 1984 Crown Victoria. It was a beast of a car, and the tape deck was broken so I had only the radio as an option. I could curate my music experience by choosing the station, but ultimately the DJ decided what I heard when so I was forced to encounter new music every now and again. Now, with my iPod, I never hear a song I haven’t intentionally downloaded – legally, always legally! We are becoming more and more able to do the same with people. Allow me to make the point as bluntly as possible. If I don’t want to interact with people of another race or creed or political bent then social media allows me to live inside a kind of hall of mirrors world in which only my selected friends and contacts get past the gate. (Fox News anyone?!) I can hide from difference in plain site, whether this happens on the subway, on a college campus, or on a farm. I can now be there, without really being there. I was really lucky to go to Transy when I did, because the fact of my physical location, a mere hours south of my former home, forced me to encounter different people and ideas. If I had had facebook and twitter and all the rest, I’m not sure I would have been able to achieve social escape velocity.

The point here is simple, social media and connectivity are great, so long as they are not used to avoid encountering difference. So I worry about the misuse of social media in the same way I worry about the misuse of certain housing policies on “progressive” campuses where honors students are housed together and students can opt for all Hispanic or all African American dorms. I understand the lure of maintaining close relationships and dense ties for hiding from the world of diverse people and religions and ideas and languages, then we should call them what they are.

3) Embrace: It seems like it should be a straightforward calculation. Our world is extremely diverse + we are increasingly socially connected = we will increasingly connect to a diverse group of people. But that is not the way things are shaking out. Many folks are using social connectivity, at least in my experience, to dodge and hide from diversity. We curate our social circle like we curate our music. But does it have to be this way? Can LiberalEvangelicals find ways of connecting AND embracing diversity? It’s going to take some work.

I want to take us to a strange place and share with you a short excerpt from one of my favorite classic works in world religions, The Chuang Tzu. I’ll skip the historical context and just give you the text.

When the springs dry up and the fish are left stranded on the ground, they spew each other with moisture and wet each other down with spit – but it would be much better if they could forget each other in the rivers and lakes. Instead of praising Yao and condemning Chieh, it would be better to forget both of them and transform yourself with the Way.

Without context, this is just a silly image, but with just a little bit of context, the image becomes profound. Chuang Tzu is criticizing those who work so hard to build the social institutions that are necessary to make cities livable. Living together in cramped quarters is difficult and we go to absurd extremes to make it possible. When we build subways, install stoplights, pass zoning regulations and collect taxes we are like fish in muddy puddles spiting on one another to keep each other moist. Why not leave the crowed cities and muddy puddles and “forget each other in the rivers and lakes?” Living together is tough, so why now live simply and live apart?

I love the image Chuang Tzu uses, but ultimately I disagree with both Chuang Tzu and his predecessor Lao Tzu. We cannot simply forget about one another and refuse to visit one another’s villages. Social diversity remains, whether we recognize it or not, so the question is not whether to live with it or not. The relevant question is whether we live well and elegantly with diversity, or whether we live poorly with difference. As LiberalEvangelicals we are committed to striving for elegant social solutions. The question, then, is whether or not we can respond elegantly to a world that is increasingly connected? I have one modest suggestion for how we might begin to do so.

Months ago in this blog I wrote,

“I’d like to make a recommendation to any readers who would accept the challenge of expanding their sense of the complexity of our world. Take some time each week to look at the Pew Forum News feed, even if you only glance at the headlines and pick a few choice pieces. But when you do so, try to avoid repeating your habitual reading patterns. Read a piece on Indian Buddhists, look at a story on Catholicism in the Philippines, or take the time to learn something about Sikh and Muslim relations in Pakistan and India. As a non-profit organization the Pew Forum does not have to worry about whether or not a story will generate page views or sell ad space, and so they are better able to reflect the true diversity of the religious world.”

At the time I was writing about proselytism, but now I see that this recommendation is also relevant to the theme of social connectivity. What I’m really asking is for those of you who routinely visit facebook and check twitter and do all the other things that my young hip readers do, to do something more. Force yourself to develop more inclusive and exploratory habits when you’re online. Conservatives, turn off Fox News. Liberals, put down Mother Jones. Read something or follow someone about or from another continent or religion. Get out of your social rut and engage difference. It will be uncomfortable, but as LiberalEvangelicals we must not shirk the tough task.

I’ll close with an anecdote about one of my favorite people. She once did something that is simultaneously absurd and beautiful. She is my mother, and when my brother married a black woman, she took up the habit of reading Ebony Magazine. Now, if you knew my mother, you’d be laughing right now, because you’d be envisioning her sitting in a coffee shop in rural Kentucky, a 60 year old 5’6 white woman reading Ebony. That is both ridiculous and exactly the kind of strange behavior that I wish more of us would embrace. She wanted to be able to embrace her daughter-n-law and live elegantly with difference, so she broke away from her usual habit of Good Houskeeping and Living. Now my mom has a little bit of a crush on Taye Diggs. See what I mean, there is no predicting where embracing difference may take us.

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