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Seeking Wisdom Among Straw Men

James Hoskins

Wisdom defending the Youth, by Meynier (1810) — Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Wisdom defending the Youth, by Meynier (1810) — Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

If there’s one word that could describe American society these last few years, it’s divided. A quick login to Facebook or Twitter reveals a cacophonous flood of spiteful memes, political rants, and presumptuous commentary rushing through our news feeds. The sheer spectacle of it draws us in and gives us the illusion that we urgently need to let everyone know where we stand on the issue, whatever that may happen to be. Sadly, it appears our culture is polarizing into angry, hyper-partisan tribes at an alarming rate. And there is growing evidence that foreign powers have been covertly working to amplify this division.

How can we resist the urge to get caught up into divisive, unproductive controversies? How can we seek wisdom and peace amidst an ocean of fake news and straw men? There are some passages in the Bible that I return to often for help in this regard. These passages should be especially convicting for Christians. But I think they are useful no matter what your beliefs are.

James 3:17-18

The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

For Christians, this is the kind of wisdom we should all be aiming for. Sadly, our conduct online is often the opposite of what James describes. Many of the things we share on social media are impure, contentious, harsh, closed to reason, unforgiving, partisan, and sarcastic. Christians need to repent of such behavior, even if they’re merely sharing an article or meme they didn’t write themselves, but that nonetheless expresses their opinion.

So, how can we move away from mockery and bickering, and toward the kind of wisdom described above? Proverbs 18 has some practical truths that are helpful.

Proverbs 18:2

A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.

Ask yourself: Am I too impatient to hear an opponent’s argument all the way through? Am I anxiously waiting, sometimes interrupting, to tell people what I think? Do I assume I already know what people are going to say? Do I talk more than I listen? If so, you may be a fool, in the biblical definition — you may be seeking merely to express your opinion, not to understand.

There’s an old saying: “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.” Better to be in the former group, not the latter. Seek understanding first, so that you may have something worthwhile to say.

Proverbs 18:13

If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.

Before you share your opinion on a controversial topic, stop and think: Do I actually know what I’m talking about? Do I really understand the view I’m about to criticize? Have I genuinely listened to a thoughtful proponent of this view state their case? And did I interpret them charitably, trying my best to understand their perspective? If not, you may be guilty of the Straw Man fallacy and it’s probably best to stay silent. Simply having an opinion does not mean it is worth sharing.

Proverbs 18:17

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.

Whenever some public controversy happens, there is an immediate flood of blog posts, op-Ed’s, and hot takes that follow. And the first out of the gate seem to have the most influence in forming public opinion. We are pressured to have instant outrage, draw immediate conclusions. But it’s the analysis that comes days or weeks after an event — after people have had time to reflect on what happened — that is usually the most insightful and nuanced. Unfortunately, by that time we are all too fatigued to care, and so our presumptuous conclusions go unchallenged.

Examine one of your strongly held opinions, and ask yourself: Have I studied both sides of this issue, weighed the facts, and come to an informed conclusion? Do I only feed myself with media that confirms my biases? Do I maintain relationships with people who strongly disagree with me? If the answer to these is “no,” then you’re opinion is probably not as trustworthy as you think. And perhaps you need to balance it by genuinely hearing the other side.

Don’t get me wrong, there are times of grave and obvious injustice which ought to provoke instant outrage. And people should be generally thicker-skinned and able to handle criticism of their view without taking it so personally. But if everything is outrageous to us, if we spout off about everything that offends us, then the times of true injustice get lost in the noise.

When we find ourselves more upset about our resources being imposed on — or our self-identity being disrespected — than we are about real injustice against the vulnerable, then something is terribly wrong. With us. And we need to do some deep self-reflection.

May Scripture guide us to wisdom, and may God save us from our foolishness and pride.

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