'Why should Christians care about Twitter? Jesus doesn't care about Twitter. I mean, Instagram, sure. But Twitter?'
My friend was commenting on whether the news that Stephen Fry is leaving Twitter should be of any interest to the faithful, rather than suggesting that Jesus prefers one social network over another.
And of course, she is wrong. Jesus cares about all of life, particularly those areas of it that take a great deal of our time and attention. Plus, with his propensity to attract fanatical followers who obsessively dissect his every word and deed, he’s clearly a Tumblr man. Pinterest, as I’m sure we can all agree, is of the devil, being a hellscape of pre-diabetic craft projects and vacuous motivational posters. But beyond that, I think the theological import of social networks comes down to their effect on people, on society.
And that is, after all, what St Stephen was talking about in his announcement that he was leaving. He called the Twitter of the present day, 'a stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous who love to second-guess, to leap to conclusions and be offended – worse, to be offended on behalf of others they do not even know.' And, of course, he is right.
'Twitchfork mobs' – social media lynchings, most common on Twitter, have become a familiar feature, where concerned denizens of the social network use public shaming and bullying tactics to punish those whose opinions they disagree with. Lives have been destroyed, jobs lost, real human beings been sent into hiding due to death threats, often because some influential person (or some group of people) did not approve of a particular joke, lifestyle choice or expressed idea.
That Stephen Fry finds this odious is good, if moderately ironic. After all, the phrase 'thou shalt not question Stephen Fry' is a thing, both in pop culture and online. One irritated word from Pope Stephen the Fry, and you might have found the tweeting equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition descending upon you. And, contrary to the Python sketch, everybody would expect it.
And it’s not just that individuals on Twitter have such crowd-controlling power. It’s the tone of the place. It feels illiberal. Which is particularly unfortunate considering that the majority of the 'smell' that permeates Twitter (as identified by Fry) comes from people who would consider themselves liberals. People who, in their zeal to make the world a better place and stand as bastions against the prejudice, hate, belittling and fear-mongering of the Right, have forgotten the core principle all liberals should stand by: I disagree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.
That principle is not entirely at odds with what Twitter’s tone of politically correct censorship (which may, in truth, only exist if you surround yourself with online progressives) does to people that offend it. You have the right to say what you believe. They have the right to tell you you’re wrong. And a terrible person. And worthless as a human being. Over and over. Thousands of times. Free speech is not the right to have everyone agree with you, or even to be nice to you.
Much of the ready-to-be-offended tone of Twitter (and which you find offline with disappointing regularity in progressive circles, particularly those enamoured of identity politics) is motivated from a desire to protect people’s feelings. A belief that everyone’s right to equality means that making someone feel bad should be a crime. Or, at least, punished by online vigilantes taking making people feel bad to new and impressive depths.
This is obviously ridiculous. People’s feelings are not, nor should they be sacrosanct. If they were, disagreement would be impossible, along with debate, critique, plurality of views and any meaningful liberal society. Hiding illiberality behind the word ‘respect’ while actively working for a society in which certain questions can’t be asked, certain opinions not aired may achieve some progressive goals in the short term, but it will eventually backfire, and its instigators will be the first to lament its dominating, homogenising regime.
It’s also worth noting that for every one progressive bully, there seem to be two hundred right wing troglodytes, ready to spew genuine homophobic bile against gay or trans people for being open about who they are, make stupid and offensive arguments against black people for daring to ask for a fairer society, and make rape threats against women for, well, being women. And the Church is there, among both groups, amply represented.
And, really, the key take-home point from all this for Christians should not be the standard 'don’t occupy extreme points on any spectrum'. It’s that we too often are the ones stinking up the place – getting offended, policing other people’s behaviour, attacking those who dare to disagree with us (on left or right). We should be better than that. We’re called to be better than that.
Otherwise we’re no better than the human equivalent of Pinterest.