5 Better Ways to “Argue” About Social Justice

by Jared C. Wilson September 14, 2018

. . . Or Anything Else Online

This will be a short post, not about social justice per se, but about why some of us are having trouble seeing any fruitful conversations taking place online about it — or any other subject of controversy within the Church — and are reluctant to contribute.

First, one thing I think contributes to the problems with an online "conversation" is that there really is no conversation. It's multiple people trying to speak across multiple streams with multiple others chiming in. It's less two, three, four people sitting across a table conversing and more eight hundred people trying to shout at each other over the din of eight hundred thousand around them cheering or jeering them on. 

Secondly, there are multiple views within each of the two major "pro" or "anti" sides of an issue. This is certainly true on most political matters, including the debate over social justice, and it's also true of many theological debates as well. To key in on the social justice conversation, here are 4 subsets of conversationalists within each of the two major views that I see:

Side A – Pro Social Justice

1. Faithful evangelicals who believe social justice in relation to the gospel simply refers to the general interpersonal obedience of loving one's neighbor and may include corporate or systemic categories. It also may — or may not — refer to seeking legislative/governmental influence in providing for the welfare of the needy.

2. Faithful evangelicals who believe social justice in relation to the gospel refers to both general interpersonal obedience of love and governmental institution of policies related to care for the needy.

3. Religious folks of different persuasions who (unfortunately) genuinely affirm the social gospel.

4. Secular leftists who openly advocate socialism or Marxism, etc.

Side B – Anti Social Justice

1. Faithful evangelicals who believe the only justice the Bible speaks of that is bearing on Christians today is interpersonal fairness with each other, and that primarily and overwhelmingly justice should be spoken of in relation to Christ's satisfaction of the wages of sin at the cross. 

2. Faithful evangelicals who may or may not be concerned about so-called "social justice" issues but who are largely concerned about the misuse of corporate or systemic categories to refer to sin or justice and who are concerned about the appeal to governmental or legislative remedies specifically.

3. Religious folks of different persuasions who oppose social justice-related issues through genuine affirmation of radical individualism, etc.

4. Rightists who openly advocate white supremacy, ethnic nationalism, etc. (And also online trolls, frequently but not always anonymous, who may or may not purport to have a religious affiliation.)

There are more subsets of folks in each side, and there is admittedly some overlap between some of the subcategories, but those are, as I see it, the 8 major categories of folks trying to have this "conversation" with each other. Aside from the obvious problem of different motivations and foundations even within our own "side," here is another problem this breakdown has demonstrated in practice: people tend to borrow ideas or even spokespeople from subcategories within their side to advance their own argument, which causes even more confusion. For example, you will see folks from A1 quoting writers from A3 or A4 to make their case. Those quotes may not be anything egregious in themselves, but the source material or context can be, opening A1 folks up to the charge that they are advancing Marxism. 

Similarly, I regularly see folks from B1 and B2 buddying up with folks from B4, and even if they are finding common ground in opposing social justice, the impression can be given that B1 and B2 don't have much problem with B4's advocacy of a white ethnostate, arguments that non-white races are mentally inferior, that chattel slavery was a blessing for the enslaved, and that any and every evangelical institutional leader is a cuck, a soyboy, or whatever stupid insult they've cooked up in their 4Chan basement lately.

So how do we fix this? Probably let the Lord sort it out. I'm not convinced this thing can be settled online at all. But it's affecting real life relationships and it's affecting local churches, so the least we can do is start thinking and rethinking in terms of our online discourse. If you just can't help yourself, here are 5 short tips I'd like to suggest for better online arguing.

1. Articulate your opponent's view in such a way that they would recognize it themselves. 

Nothing is gained from either ignorant or willful misrepresentation except for Amens from your side.  A part of this, too, is being specific in your examples in criticism. Ranting about "those white supremacists" in relation to the social justice argument is understandable but the natural question is, "Which ones? Are you saying they're all white supremacists?" Similarly, saying anybody who advocates for social justice is by use of that very phrase a socialist is simply lazy.

2. Don't assume that all Side A or Side B people believe the same thing, even if they use some similar language.

Most Side A folks are not Marxists, and nearly none of the evangelical ones are. Most Side B folks are not white supremacists, and nearly none of the evangelical ones are. They may find similar aims with those dark subcategories of their side, but broadbrushing doesn't serve the aim of Christian conversation (assuming that's what you want to have).

3. Listen more than you speak.

I've seen some folks in the conversation make fun of the appeal by others to "lean in and listen" but there are actual Bible verses about this. A huge part of the problem is that everybody's talking at each other and hardly anyone's listening. One example? I see almost daily people in my Twitter and Facebook streams say Colin Kaepernick was protesting the flag and/or veterans. Proof that people aren't listening. You don't have to agree, but you have to know what you're disagreeing on.

4. Ignore the trolls.

Absolutely nothing — nothing — is gained from either engaging in argument with harrassing, insulting, or otherwise ungodly social media accounts or befriending them in the interest of your own side. This applies to both anonymous and non-anonymous accounts. If you're a Side B conversationalist, I have to tell you that you've brought some of the rejection of your views on yourself by freely associating wtih and even platforming divisive watchbloggers, religious shockjocks, conspiracy theorists, and anonymous mockers. If you want to be heard, you have to be just as vocally condemnatory of unchristian speech on your side as you are "cultural Marxism" on the other. And this goes for both sides: treating the trolls like they offer anything substantive, pro or con, gives them oxygen and helps them proliferate. Have nothing to do with them.

5. Practice the Christian arts of repentance and forgiveness.

Own your sin. Judge according to the measure you want to be judged. Forgive when apologized to. Let your words be seasoned with salt, yes, but remember the tongue is a fire. 

In other words, remember not to talk first as a pro or anti social justice tweeter, but as a Christian.