So we’re now about two weeks into the whole furor over the revelations that “Planned Parenthood Sells Baby Parts.” Whether or not you think that that description is precisely accurate, it is not after all really the point of the furor. To anyone convinced that abortion is the wicked and callous ending of a human life for convenience, it is really only natural that those performing the procedure would try to get the most out of it, up to and including generous compensation for the body parts. The revelations of the past couple weeks, to that extent, should not really be that shocking to most of those most professing their shock. The outpouring of outrage within the conservative blogosphere and social media, then, can easily provoke a counter-outpouring of cynicism: is anyone really listening? If they are, are we really just making ourselves look worse, like obsessed right-wing crazies? If we really cared so much about the problem to begin with, why don’t we shut up and do something about it, rather than just sounding off in an echo chamber? In the current case, I have followed the story closely and with genuine outrage, and have tried to repress my natural predilection for cynicism, especially given my sense that this time, at least, there was the potential to pierce the walls of the echo chamber and affect a broader cultural change of heart.
When a friend, however, last night voiced these cynical worries on Facebook, I collected my thoughts into six points in response. Here they are, fleshed out a bit and with a seventh added, in deference, of course, to good biblical precedent:
1) Yes, social media outrage is cheap. It is very easy to sit on our asses in front of our computers and share a link and a hashtag, whether it’s #PPSellsBabyParts or #BlackLivesMatter or any cause celébre, and pat ourselves on the back for having scored a hit for the cause of righteousness, and then get on with whatever else we were doing. This is bad enough; perhaps it is even worse to get feverishly caught up in sharing links on our computer in the midst of the outrage-storm, three or five or ten posts per day, and convince ourselves that we have suddenly been elevated from whatever pointless thing we were doing and have now become part of something Bigger and More Meaningful. Too too often, there is a bit of the Pharisee’s prayer in all such shares: “I thank you, Lord God, that I am not like these wicked people I am sharing about, and I hope they meet their just deserts.” Or even if there’s not that, there may be more than a bit of the fear of being left off of the bandwagon, of not sharing the outrageous link when everyone else is sharing it. A petty enough vice, but a vice all the same.
2) But outrage about social media outrage is cheap. It is very easy to sit on our asses in front of our computers and feel superior to the million and one other people out there getting cheaply outraged, because we know better and can see through the superficiality of their outrage. We understand that these are Complex Problems that cannot be solved with Just Talk, and that we need to make our rhetoric a lot more Sophisticated, and talk a lot about Poverty, which we care about and others don’t. We know better. Again, the prayer of the Pharisee is not far off.
3) Doing something little isn’t doing nothing. One shouldn’t necessarily assume Pharisaical motives or bandwagon-jumping. Nor should one be too hasty to pooh-pooh the very limited value of such social media campaigns. To be sure, we can do a lot more for the kingdom of Christ, and strike much more powerful blows against abortion, by getting down into the trenches and caring for the fatherless and widow, but that does not mean there is no value in much more modest gestures. Lots of us have many enormous pressures on our time, and lots of other forms of service that God has called us to. He hasn’t called us all to volunteer at the crisis pregnancy center. But if we can accomplish something little by spreading more widely news of this outrage in hopes of changing hearts and minds, then maybe we should do our part, while recognizing that it is a very little part.
4) Outrage can have its uses. As much as I hate social media frenzies, and fashionable cries of outrage, the fact remains that they can be quite powerful—usually for evil, alas, but sometimes for good. The algorithms that drive public opinion depend on volume—the more people sharing something, the more likely it is to become newsworthy, the more likely it is to break out of a little sub-culture and impact the culture at large. So I know quite a number of people have felt that they have something of a moral duty to share the PP videos on FB and Twitter, or comment on them on blogdom, just to keep the avalanche rolling, just to increase the chances that this story gets on more and more people’s radar, and changes hearts and minds. That may not be enough to change the world, but it’s not nothing either.
5) Beware the echo chamber. However, there are more and less strategic ways of raising awareness, and when you are tempted to share every video and article you come across on the scandal, it is worth pausing to ask yourself, “Exactly who am I sharing this for?” Do you even have enough non-Christian friends on Facebook or Twitter that you’re likely to impact any? And if you do, you’re probably likely to accomplish more by strategically sharing one or two really well-written, balanced pieces, than by posting 10X a day as the scandal develops. To anyone who doesn’t already share your priorities, this doesn’t look like concern, it looks like obsession. Mildly deranged obsession. Someone who might’ve started off listening sympathetically will quickly turn a deaf ear to what they see as an unrestrained orgy of outrage. True, as I said, the algorithms of media visibility are based on volume, but in the end, quality usually wins out over quantity.
6) #DefundPlannedParenthood? Oh dear… All that said, I am thoroughly cynical about what this story can accomplish in our current hyper-partisan cultural and political moment. In particular, I think the turn toward “#DefundPlannedParenthood” was a bad one. We have turned what needed to remain a moral and cultural and spiritual issue into a political issue. And the sad fact is that due to the impoverished and profoundly polarized character of the American political landscape, the only people willing to take this issue up as a political issue are Republicans. Which means it becomes a partisan issue. Which means that a lot of people check out of the discussion right away, just because it is now perceived as being an opportunity for Republicans to sound off and score points with their base. What makes this much worse is that the Republican leaders who are making everything they can out of this wave of outrage are leaders who long ago forfeited almost all their moral credibility. I mean, seriously, who is going to trust these guys as men of conscience, people who care above all for the weak and downtrodden? No sensible person. Which makes their outrage over this issue look like cheap opportunism. Which means that people who might otherwise have been won over by the issue itself, and the horrors that have been exposed, most likely will shut off altogether, seeing in it a cynical ploy by Republican hypocrites to gain credibility with the “right-wing crazies.”
7) We are reaping what we’ve sown. That realization—and I think we really do need to let that realization sink in, and realize how screwed we are now as the “Religious Right”—needs to be a call to repentance. For way way too long the Religious Right has been willing to live with profound hypocrisy, and profound schizophrenia, oppressing the fatherless and the widow with the right hand while we decried their oppression with the left hand, and actively reinforcing an “us vs. them” mentality that left us no allies on the other side of the aisle. Now we find that because of this, we not only have no real political capital, but we have *negative* political capital, so that the only way we can hope to be effective on an issue such as this is by trying to keep it from becoming politicized. But in principle, it should be a political issue—it is a matter of injustice, and the rectification of injustice is a matter for the law, and changing the law requires politics. But we who have spent so many years undermining or ignoring the foundations of politics and law find ourselves in a very awkward and powerless situation indeed when we suddenly wish to call upon the law for justice.
Edit (couldn’t resist): (8) Is anything more eloquent evidence of just how bankrupt we are than the fact the chief media outlet we’re relying on for coverage of and commentary on this scandal is the Federalist? I mean, really, is that what we’re reduced to?