In the old days, when you saw something in your morning newspaper that bothered you, you could vent your ballooning anger with a minute or two of hearty breakfast-table grumbling. Today, we have Facebook for that.
I know I am not alone in experiencing the Facebook venting cycle:
1. First, a glowing screen that you are reading or watching projects some news that upsets you. Perhaps it was news from a cable channel that is engineered to ceaselessly produce anecdotes designed to upset you. Perhaps it was news from a comedy show whose most popular bit is to aggregate upsetting quotes from those cable channels. Perhaps it was news from a viral media website who curates clips from those comedy shows about that cable channel’s quotes about those upsetting anecdotes. Whatever the source, the process begins with a glowing screen making you upset (with, of course, the source raking in the advertising revenue).
2. Next, a tension builds inside of you. You cannot stand the thought of living in the same world where that news occurred or being part of the same human community as the person who committed the upsetting act. You feel like you need to do something about it all. You sometimes even feel as if you cannot continue your daily work or see your friends or care for your family until this tension is resolved.
3. Finally, you release the tension by posting a link and rant to the ever-present release valve that is your Facebook status update box. Some rants are long-winded, but even short bursts – like “This is horrible!” “I can’t believe this is happening in 2015!” or “Kids these days!” – do the trick: you have “raised awareness,” you have declared your opposition to the upsetting news, your conscience is cleared, the cycle is over and you may continue with your day.
I would be the last to think less of someone for getting sucked into the cycle — I myself have been through it repeatedly. We are susceptible to it because of good, civic impulses: we care enough about the world to be bothered by someone that is harming it; we feel responsible enough for the world that we believe we must do something about that harm. In a way, the presence of moralized venting on Facebook is evidence that these civic impulses are, despite the pile of Millennial-bashing op-eds arguing to the contrary, not dead yet — we ‘kids these days’ do in fact care about something bigger than ourselves.
Unfortunately, however, this goodwill is wasted – or worse, twisted – when we are disempowered. You can think of civic empowerment as the measure of how many paths of action we believe are available to channel our public ideas and sentiments. When participatory membership organizations have been traded for a national politics directed by centralized managers; when meeting our neighbors has been traded for learning about our fellow citizens and public problems through the lonely spectacle of glowing screens; and when local community development has been traded for propagating diffuse identity groups — we lose our ability to imagine serious ways of helping to address the present ills of society beyond vaguely “raising awareness” and declaring our personal opposition. In this state of mass disempowerment, the only path of action we can think up to channel our goodwill is the passing Facebook rant.
In the end, all this Facebook venting – like actual venting – leaves us with little more than a whole lot of hot air. Sure, we are “raising awareness,” but of what? About half of Facebook vents seem to be “raising awareness” about something too distant and specific to make our mass outrage useful: some person somewhere is speaking in a bad way; some parent somewhere is parenting in a bad way; some school somewhere is schooling in a bad way. The other half seem to be “raising awareness” about some partisan issue that fellow partisans already know about and the other side will ignore: some Fox News anchor said something insensitive again; some liberal college has approved a course with a heretical curriculum again; some politician is evil or stupid. In a way, all we are doing by Facebook venting is replicating the same process that the original news story initiated: getting people riled up without helping them begin to imagine a possible solution. We are not helping to heal the societal ills we have witnessed, we are just spreading the anger around, sucking our friends down into their own Facebook venting cycle.
If venting on Facebook does not help to solve the problems we are venting about, then why do we keep doing it? It all comes down to that mysterious tension that builds up when we hear news that bothers us — that pressure in our soul that needs to be resolved.
I have started to better understand this tension through a surprising source: a recent book by Joseph Bottum, one-time editor of the conservative religious journal First Things, on the decline and transformation of mainline Protestantism in America. In An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America, Bottum tells a three-part story: (1) mainline Protestantism has been, for most of American history, the “great river at the heart of American public life”; (2) as this river has dried up since the cultural revolutions of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, some Mainline Protestants became evangelicals or Catholics, but most have quit calling themselves “Christian” or “religious” at all; and (3) these “spiritual, but not religious” ‘post-Protestants’ form a new faith group at the heart of American public life in the 21st century.
Bottum argues that although this post-Protestant class may have shed their religious commitments, they held on to their forebears’ confidence in their own “essential moral rightness” — they did not leave behind, in Bottum’s words, their parents and grandparents’ “mainline, middle-class certainty that they held the most advanced view of modern social morality and manners.”
He traces their roots to the era of the Social Gospel movement, when Walter Rauschenbusch redefined sin as not just personal offense against God, but rather as social evils, like bigotry, power, militarism, and repression. Sin, to Bottum’s post-Protestants, is not a particular action, but a “shroud, a ‘treasonable force,’ that spreads across human society” in the form of such social ills. The supernatural realm of “angelic and demonic forces” that had been emptied in what Max Weber called the “Disenchantment of the World” is, in the post-Protestant’s mind, repopulated with the demons of injustice – like racism and patriarchy – lurking behind the social order.
Post-Protestant redemption, Bottum argues, comes not from atonement with God or even from actually fighting these societal demons, but rather from “personal, interior rejection” of these evils. What matters for salvation is not what one does, but rather whether one feels that they “oppose the social evils of bigotry and power and the groupthink of the mob.” For example, “the goodness of caring for the poor,” Bottum explains, becomes “much less about actually caring for the poor… and much more about feeling that the poor should be cared for.” If you simply acknowledge social evils and declare your opposition to them, you can rest assured that you are among the redeemed.
Perhaps Bottum’s interpretation of our spiritually “anxious age” explains that deep tension that builds up when the news upsets us. Perhaps we see in those upsetting anecdotes a post-Protestant demon — social sin peeking out from behind the social order. Perhaps the tension that must be vented is our uncertainty in the presence of such sin: Am I going to be tricked by this evil or am I going to be aware enough to see it at work? Am I going to become part of it or am I going to reject it? Am I on its side of the great divide or am I on the side of the redeemed?
Facebook venting resolves this uncertainty. By pasting a link to a news story and properly identifying the social evil at work – “This is racism!” “This is bigotry!” “This is evil!” – you stand at the digital altar and testify to your awareness of social sin. By ranting against the news story, you validate that you have rejected this sin, broadcasting that you belong among the redeemed. When you click submit, your uncertainty about your moral goodness is temporarily washed away: you can proceed with confidence that you are one of the elect.
This mindset – that there exists an elect few who are redeemed, that sin is best understood as a collection of discrete social evils, and that redemption is ensured by personally identifying and rejecting these evils – has, ironically, held many of us back from actually helping to ameliorate community problems.
First, the idea that there is an elect few who are aware and innocent of social sin is both wrong and dangerous. We all are susceptible to the patterns of thought and action that produce our social ills. To think that it is only the others, over there, who have fallen to racism, militarism or bigotry is to ignore our own weaknesses and to distract ourselves from preventing our own worst impulses from festering. The greatest atrocities in human history have been committed by those who believed themselves to be the chosen few, set apart from the ‘vulgar mob’ by God.
Second, the idea of social evils as demons lingering behind the social order gives social evils too much credit. Injustices in the social order are not metaphysical forces, but rather human situations that built up piecemeal over time due to a variety of processes: sets of fateful decisions by leaders at historic junctures, personal weaknesses, evolutionary processes gone haywire, a hodgepodge of cultural forces pushing against each other, religious patterns, perverse incentives, shifts in the natural and economic environment, and random coincidences. In turn, they can be similarly dislodged over time in piecemeal ways. However, if we treat them as metaphysical evils, we will feel powerless to help in their dislodging and eventually trade the hard but necessary work of collectively healing social ills for the far easier task of personally cleansing ourselves of them.
Finally, the idea that redemption comes from being able to personally identify and reject social ills is rendering inert our collective goodwill. Millions who are aware and concerned about public problems are failing to devote time, effort and money to projects aimed at addressing them, because they are already sitting satisfied with their own personal rejection of them. I will not venture to guess where redemption comes from, but I will say this: just like how we are all susceptible to weaknesses that produce social ills, we are also all graced with the strengths that can heal them. If responsibility is defined as the ability to respond, then perhaps at least part of our spiritual duty is to acknowledge our own strengths and deploy them to help respond to the public challenges of our time.
We are all graced with strengths beyond our anger and our fingertips.
If a news story reminds us of a heartbreaking social ill, we have the option to redirect the oncoming stirring in our soul away from the Facebook venting cycle and towards allocating time and effort to the deployment of our broader strengths in the service of public healing. If a social ill seems too large and menacing, here are three ways to cut it down to size: (1) Get Local: if you focus on how the problem manifests in your own town, you can immediately help those directly around you while modeling solutions for other towns to copy; (2) Get Specific: if you focus on a particular slice of the problem, it becomes much more concrete and manageable; and (3) Get Institutional: if you become concerned with how one civic institution – for example, the press, the schools, the government, the churches, etc. – is addressing the problem, you can focus and deepen your impact. Plus, pursuing any of these options has the added benefit of moving you away from spending time reacting to glowing screens and towards broadening your imagination of more paths through which to channel your public ideas and sentiments.
Of course, the reality is that we cannot be deeply involved in addressing every social ill that bothers us and we are still going to be tempted to rant on Facebook when we see upsetting news. For such moments, here’s an idea for an alternative form of Facebook venting: the next time we want to release the tension from an upsetting news story, we should (1) take time to find and research a person or organization actively working to heal the underlying social ill about which we are upset, (2) donate $5-10 to them and then (3) post about their work and our donation to them.
This type of Facebook philanthroventing has all the same personal benefits as standard-issue Facebook venting: you raise awareness about a social ill; you declare your opposition to it; and you feel like you did something about it. However, philanthroventing solves for most of the problems we identified with regular venting: instead of spreading the anger around, you spread positivity; instead of sucking your friends into their own Facebook venting cycle, you might inspire them to make their own donation; in putting solutions to public problems on display, you show how social ills need not be seen as unsolvable evils. Most importantly, you are materially supporting people who have gone beyond personally rejecting social ills to actively working to heal them. If you are not willing to part with $5-10 to help these leaders out, then you probably do not sincerely care enough about the problem about which you are ranting.*
In the past years, we have progressed from ranting about the news to our breakfast tablemates to ranting about the news to our Facebook friends. In the coming years, let’s progress beyond this type of ranting altogether — towards empowered alternative like those described above. Such a change may or may not redeem our anxious souls, but it will, at least, make better use of their abundant good will.
*Since this essay was an online rant against online ranting, I should practice what I preach and donate to an organization working against the social ill of online ranting. I could not find an organization with that specific mission, but Parker Palmer’s Center for Courage and Renewal gets close by focusing on the oft-ignored spiritual and interpersonal side of political activism. With hope that this is the first of many philanthrovents, I just donated $5 to them.