Gauging Our Emotional Correctness

Josh Danielson is director of mobilization and contemporary worship at Arvada (Colorado) Covenant Church.

Now a reading from the book of James, chapter 3, verses 9-11; I will be reading from the New Social Media Version: “With our emails and Facebook pages and Twitter accounts we praise the Lord and Father, and with them we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same electronic communication streams come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”

Sometimes I think social media is great, and other times I want to blame Facebook for all that is wrong in today’s society. Social media is such a handy tool for instant communication, but therein lies the rub: sometimes our desire for immediate interaction gets us into trouble because we aren’t required to exercise any patience or spend time pondering before we inflict our ideas on the world around us. Comedian Louis C.K. has commented that technological interactions allow us to say things that are hateful and mean without observing the devastation we can cause to another person’s psyche. Because texting or commenting on a Facebook page lacks the observable human responses of face-to-face conversations, we have become much more comfortable being much more mean.

I like to consider myself better than those who can’t exercise self-control in their Internet communications, but my Facebook wall might reveal that I have a tendency to fall squarely in that category. When I see something online I disagree with, or even something I just don’t like, I tend to respond quickly – sometimes slipping into those all-too-common scorched earth tactics. I like to argue, and I like to do it in such a way that I leave those on the other (wrong!) side of the debate with nothing but bus fare to retreat back from whence they came. I like to be right and I like to win. Surely any emotional or relational fallout is merely the cost of doing business – right?

Yet I know better. Even if I’m right – which, it turns out, often I am not – and even if I win – which often I do not – I’m left standing alone in my victor’s circle with nothing to keep me company but my own rightness. In fact, neither I nor my opponent wins the day. Instead we both leave the interaction bristling, unsatisfied, and unlikely to move forward in healthy relationship with one another. When our last interaction includes a lambasting from me on Facebook, how is it going to play out the next time I see that person?

If we’re honest, we have to admit that we see this time and time again in our interactions on all kinds of issues with all kinds of people – including church issues with church people. I know I’ve crossed the line in posts I’ve written, I’ve seen others cross the line, and maybe you’ve crossed the line as well. Have you ever gotten into it on some issue with someone at church and your relationship has never been the same? I know you were right and I know the other person was being unreasonable, but did you really need to add that last word? Did you really need to say it that way?

In a New York City TED Talk last October, progressive political commentator Sally Kohn (who worked for FOX News at the time) spoke about her experience engaging people who vehemently oppose not only her politics but also even her as a person. Kohn suggested that we all employ what she called “emotional correctness.”

She said, “Emotional correctness is the tone, the feeling, how we say what we say, the respect and compassion we show one another. You can’t get anyone to agree with you if they don’t want to listen to you first. We spend so much time talking past each other, and not enough time talking through our disagreements. And if we can start to find compassion for one another, then we have a shot at building common ground…Our challenge is to find the compassion for others that we want them to have for us. That is emotional correctness.”

If that last part sounds familiar, it’s because Kohn’s challenge closely mirrors something Jesus said: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

In the second season of the award-winning television series The West Wing, Ainsley Hayes, a Republican lawyer, finds herself at odds with Sam Seaborn, a Democratic White House staffer. When Ainsley is summoned to the White House and offered a job, she and Sam have a heated interaction that includes, among other issues, their opposing views regarding gun control.

Sam: “It’s not about personal freedom, and it certainly has nothing to do with public safety. It’s just that some people like guns.”

Ainsley: “Yes, they do. But you know what’s more insidious than that? Your gun control position doesn’t have anything to do with public safety, and it’s certainly not about personal freedom. It’s about you don’t like the people who like guns. You don’t like the people. Think about that, the next time you make a joke about the South.”

Her point: maybe Sam was politically correct, but he wasn’t being emotionally correct.

Before anyone thinks I’m advocating for spinelessness or life as a proverbial doormat, please hear me out. We can and should engage in passionate discussions about complicated issues. We can and should come up with the best possible reasoning to support what we believe, and we can and should present that reasoning in dynamic debates.

But in all our research and reading and debates and discussions, we can and should search the Scriptures and ask God to show us what it looks like to live as kingdom people. Kingdom people don’t get to hate other people. Spirited conversation and high-minded debate can quickly descend into vitriolic condemnation of “the other side,” and those who might espouse a view different from one’s own are transformed from discussion partners into enemies. Yet as followers of Jesus, we are called to love even our enemy.

Jesus calls us to radical, other-minded love, and perhaps as a sort of icing on that cake, the Covenant embraces the theological practice of a via media, a middle way. As a denomination, we have made the decision to seek unity over uniformity and to offer grace and latitude on nonessential issues. I will admit that this middle way can be both inspiring and infuriating to me – inspiring when it creates space for my views, infuriating when it requires me to make space for views other than my own. But that’s one of the beautiful hallmarks of the Covenant – we’re “in it together,” and we choose not to let diversity become divisiveness. I think this via media calls us to practice emotional correctness while still living in the tension of dialogue and relationship.

Anne Lamott once wrote, “You can either practice being right or practice being kind.” I don’t know if the two are mutually exclusive, but if a situation calls for one over the other, kindness needs to win the day. My rightness on an issue must not supplant my love for people.

Jesus seemed to reassuringly meet the basic desire to feel loved in the people he encountered. Yes, he may have given them instructions or commands or invitations into sacrifice and uncertainty, but kindness and the assurance of love always came first.

Fear is a huge barrier. Someone who disagrees with us and dares to call us wrong can evoke deep fear – yet perfect love drives out fear. If I love people, there is a much greater chance that I can move beyond fear – theirs and mine – and actually have a conversation.

So I come back to the observations of Louis C.K. Social media, it seems, does not always aid us in the worthy pursuit of emotional correctness. Passionate debate without personal interaction can make it easy to get mean. Yet when I post on Facebook, there are real people reading these exchanges – real people on both sides of the discussion – and the immediate gratification of seeing my righteous words on a screen can make it easy to forget that human element.

So the next time I find myself on Facebook feeling the urge to crush the opposition, the next time I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am right and they are wrong, I will take a moment. Pause. I will consider the human being or human beings I am addressing. Am I treating them the way I want to be treated? Am I extending to them the compassion I hope they will extend to me?

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