The Trouble with Meme Activism: Sometimes to Speak is Not to Speak

In the past couple of years, I have noticed that periods of social unrest are often accompanied by a corresponding outbreak of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am referring, of course, to the accompanying blizzard of memes on Facebook and Twitter that display a quote famously (and probably incorrectly) attributed to Bonhoeffer: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

In most cases where it appears, the quote stands as a comprehensive indictment of anyone who has not yet expressed public outrage over some event that has captured the attention of the current news cycle. The meme is a cultural syllogism: A terrible thing has occurred. You have not said that it was terrible on Facebook or Twitter. You are a terrible person. The reasoning seems to be that if you have not publicly condemned it on social media, you are complicit in its terribleness.

I suppose we should not be surprised by such reasoning. In the age of social media, it is not enough to possess moral convictions. There are no longer any unpublished thoughts. We are now expected to leave a public record, especially of those things about which we disapprove. Public statements, especially in social media, are now considered to be a form of social action.

But in most cases where quotes like this appear, they are usually something less than meaningful action. They are merely a form of virtue signaling intended to place social pressure on those who do not hold the “right view” of whatever incident prompted the post. Of course, social pressure like this is nothing new. Nor is it necessarily bad. Public expressions of disapproval have always established the boundaries of right and wrong. The lessons begin in infancy and continue throughout our entire lifetime. In social systems, both large and small, the rules of acceptable behavior are taught by suffering the frowns and slights of others. Shame works hand in hand with acceptance to bind people together. And to get them to do the right thing.

The real problem with meme morality is its tendency toward reductionism. What is intended as a manifesto proves only to be a cliché. It is a statement of the obvious. We think we are thundering like God on Sinai when in reality we are only expressing a mundane truism. War is bad. Racism is evil. Be nice to others. Treating such assertions as a form of social activism reduces moral behavior to mere sentimentalism. It is the kind of speech that James 2:16 condemns–the digital equivalent to “be ye warmed and filled.” It makes a demand without offering any corresponding action that will address the problem.

Sentimentalized language is trite. It states the obvious but so broadly that it offers no real help to the reader or the listener. Sentimentalized speech is characterized by what Wendell Berry calls “the sickly beauty of generalized emotionalism.”[1] This sort of vagueness is a common feature, not only of social media but of bad preaching. Such preaching paints with a broad brush. Its target is so large that it aims at nothing at all. It may make us feel, but it will not help us to act.

There are, of course, contexts where the mere assertion of an idea is an act of bravery. To speak the truth aloud lies at the heart of the Christian act of preaching. Speaking can be a form of activism, but for that to be the case, it must be speech that goes against the grain. There must be a potential cost to the speaker, as well as a genuine interest in the welfare of those who disagree. Without these, it is cheerleading at best and the voice of the mob at worst.

We should not be surprised to find that many confuse sentimentalism with activism. Croatian sociologist Stjepan Mestrovic has observed that emotions are the primary object of manipulation in postmodern culture. “Today, everyone knows that emotions carry no burden, no responsibility to act, and above all, that emotions are accessible to everyone,” Mestrovic writes.[2] One result of this is something Jeremy Begbie has called “conspicuous compassion,” an emotional expression that becomes an end in itself and produces “very little in the way of positive, practical action.”[3]

Emotion can be a wellspring of action, but it is not always necessary. It is possible to act apart from feeling or even contrary to feeling, a condition that is sometimes called duty. Like Jesus, we are at times called upon to do that which we would prefer not to do (cf. Luke 22:42). Or we may refuse to do what we would like to do (Col. 3:5). Sentimentalism believes that feeling by itself is action. More than this, for the sentimentalist, emotion is an end in itself. The aim is to feel, and feeling is enough. “Sentimentalists typically resist any challenge to their way of life,” Begbie observes. “They are much more often moved by strangers than by those close to them, since the former require no personal sacrifice.”[4]

True activism not only seeks to change the situation but also aims to change thinking.

Meme activism often fails on another critical level. It tends to be coercive. The aim of such statements is not to engage, debate, or persuade but to silence. True activism is persuasive rather than coercive. It not only seeks to change the situation but also aims to change thinking. To do this, the language that accompanies activism must seek to elicit rather than impose the desired response. Speaking that is coercive throws off the persuasive responsibility of speech and employs language as an instrument of brute force. Theologian Joseph Pieper rightly calls this form of communication propaganda and notes that its use is not limited to the official power structure of a dictatorship. In his essay “Abuse of Language–Abuse of Power,” Pieper explains, “It can be found wherever a powerful organization, an ideological clique, a special interest, or a pressure group uses the word as their ‘weapon’.”[5]

An essential component of propagandistic speech is the element of implied threat. But Pieper notes that the threat can take many forms. In this category of threat, he includes “all the forms and levels of defamation, or public ridicule, or reducing someone to a nonperson–all of which are accomplished by means of the word, even the word not spoken.”[6] It is not its strength of statement, the fact that it may disagree with the viewpoint of others, or even its emotional tone that renders such speech abusive. It is the desire to squash all opposing viewpoints merely by force of statement alone and to demean those who disagree. “The common element in all of this is the degeneration of language into an instrument of rape,” Pieper explains. “It does contain violence, albeit in latent form.”[7]

Today’s public discourse is not only inclined toward coercion; it is addicted to flattery. By flattery, I mean more than the practice of empty praise. That is indeed a form of flattery. But more broadly, flattery is the habit of telling others what they want to hear in return for gain. It is speech, as Joseph Pieper, explains, whose main objective is one of “courting favor to win success.”[8] Pieper wrote his essay a decade before the birth of the internet and nearly two decades before the founding of Facebook. Yet he anticipates the era of social media, observing that this craving for approval may reduce theology to mere entertainment whose primary purpose is to gain a following. Flattery in this broad sense is the language of choice for all whose primary objective is to gain a large audience. It is especially the lingua franca of social media, where being heard is often a function of likes and shares.

The pandering that is a mark of flattery may seem far removed from the bullying of coercive speech, yet they are actually two sides of the same coin. Both are the stock and trade false prophets and false teachers. The apostle Paul criticized the Corinthians for being smitten by false apostles who sought to use them to build their platform. He observed, “. . . you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face” (2 Cor. 11:20). The pandering of these false teachers catered to the audience’s expectation not only in the content of their teaching, which avoided those aspects the Corinthians found offensive but in their manner and mode of delivery. In this case, the audience wanted to be treated in a demanding and arrogant way. A manner which they mistook for authority.

Whether or not Bonhoeffer said the quote attributed to him makes little difference. It is often true. To speak is to act. But it is equally true that our speaking may also be acting in the theatrical sense. We are not trying to change anything. We are trying to build a platform. We are curating an image. We are seeking an audience. We are collecting likes and shares the way we hope to collect crowns in heaven.

[1] Wendell Berry, Standing By Words, (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1983), 33.

[2] Jeremy S. Begbie, “Beauty, Sentimentalityand the Arts,” in The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2007), 53.

[3] Ibid., 54.

[4] Ibid., 52–53.

[5] Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1992), 32.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. 28.

Stop Shouting: A Few Quiet Thoughts About Writing & Publishing

If I had to give a label to the year that just passed, it would probably be the “year of shouting.” From that internet lady who is always pointing her finger at the cat to both sides of the aisle in the United States Congress and the Senate, everybody seems to be trying to make an emphatic point. But was last year louder than any other? I’m not sure. Sometimes I feel like we are all shouting all the time.

Some years ago, when I was preaching every Sunday, someone came up to me after the morning service and began, “Don’t take this the wrong way. . . .” This is a phrase that nobody really wants to hear. Especially pastors.  Especially after the sermon. Painful experience has shown that every time someone says this, there is a high degree of likelihood that you will take it the wrong way, even if what the other person is saying happens to be true.

‘Don’t take this the wrong way . . . .’ This is a phrase that nobody really wants to hear.

In this case, the concern had to do with my tone. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” the person said, “but lately, it seems like you are always yelling at us.” I was bothered by the comment because I knew it was true. I had noticed the same thing myself. Every once in a while, during a blast of prophetic fervor, the detached part me which has the capacity to step outside and listen to the sermon as it is being preached, would ask, “Why are you talking so loud?”

Most of the time, the honest explanation was not that I was angry, or even being prophetic, it was that I was nervous. Some in the audience were beginning to look bored. They appeared to be drifting. One or two were even asleep. Without thinking about it, I tried to compensate by cranking the volume. I probably got the idea from J. C. Ryle’s account of George Whitefield’s ministry. One day as Whitefield was preaching, he noticed a man in the front row who had fallen asleep.  Whitefield stomped his foot, and the man awoke with a sudden start. “I have waked you up, have I?” Whitefield said. “I meant to do it. I am not come here to preach to stocks and stones. I have come to you in the name of the Lord God of Hosts and I must and will have an audience.” The man woke up and so did the audience. “The hearers were stripped of their apathy at once,” Ryle declares. “Every word of the sermon was attended to.”

My attempts to follow Whitefield’s example were never as successful. The sleepers occasionally awoke, sometimes with a start, but more often than not, the result was a sheepish grin and a shake, rather than a look of mournful contrition. You can demand that the audience listen but you cannot compel them. Like it or not, “haters gonna hate” and sleepers gonna sleep. Not everyone has ears to hear. But such knowledge never seems to make me less anxious or less loud. In an age where everyone seems to be speaking at maximum volume, I feel the pressure to get noticed.

Like it or not, “haters gonna hate” and sleepers gonna sleep.

Digital culture has not helped matters. Publishing has never been easier. Just pay a few dollars and press a few keys, and before you know it, you have a website. With a click of the mouse, you can push your most reluctant thoughts out onto the stage for all to see. Eventually, you realize how crowded that stage actually is. You thought it would be enough just to put your thoughts out there. Now you find that you also have to get someone’s attention. You must say or do something to stand out from the rest.

The most common strategy is to lean into the extreme. Craft a startling lead. Say something outrageous. Take off your clothes (both literally and figuratively). It may seem like a good strategy until it dawns on you that everyone else is doing the same. Besides, you don’t look all that glamorous naked. So you decide to Photoshop your image. You employ a little poetic license. You favor hyperbole or magnify something at the margin of your story until it looks like it’s at the center. You don’t exactly lie about yourself, at least not consciously, but the result isn’t entirely honest either. What is worse, the steps you’ve taken don’t seem to make a difference. You still fail to stand out from the crowd.

I used to think that writing and publishing were the same. The two are related, of course. But the main difference between them is that writing has to do with art, and publishing is concerned with marketing. I am not saying that publishers don’t care about art. They do. But publishing costs money. Quite a bit of money, it turns out, which means that publishers must concern themselves with selling in order to support the art. This inevitably squeezes publishing into the territory of production. No matter how high its aspirations, as long as publishing depends upon selling for its survival, it has to deal with the cold realities of markets, margins, and cost. Publishing is a world of charts and statistics as much as it is a world of ideas.

Art is something else. Art belongs to the realm of contemplation. It involves work. But it is the kind of work that, as theologian Josef Pieper observes, is “meaningful in itself.” Pieper describes it as “an activity that does not need something other for its justification, that is not defined as producing useful goods and objective results.” Publishing, because it has to do with costs and return, cannot hope to meet this definition.

As long as publishing depends upon selling for its survival, it has to deal with the cold realities of markets, margins, and cost.

One practical implication of this distinction (practical for the writer at least) is that writing is not the same thing as getting published. It’s easy to see how a writer might confuse the two. I always felt that getting published validated my writing. It exposed my art to the world. In the best-case scenario, I got paid as a result. When I started writing, I did not think that I could legitimately call myself a writer until somebody published my work and paid me for it. These days we don’t need a publisher to present our art to the world. The internet has handed the power of the publisher over to the author.

Unfortunately, the fact that anybody can write a blog or record a podcast has not made it any easier for writers to find an audience. It has had the opposite effect. With so many voices speaking at once, ours cannot help but get lost in the clamor. Meanwhile, those who are looking for something to read or hear find themselves overwhelmed by so many options. This is one of the things that makes writing so difficult. We never know whether our labor is going to be “productive.” Will we be able to finish the project once we have started? Will we find an outlet for our work? Will we get paid for it? Even if it does get published, can we be certain that anyone will actually read it? What if, like Emily Dickinson, we die without seeing the bulk of what we have written published? The romantic in me says that it doesn’t matter. I am a writer. Therefore, I must write. But it is often the pragmatist who sits at the keyboard. I am afraid I am wasting my time. I worry that no one is listening. I begin to increase the volume, and it won’t be long before I start to shout.

There is only one solution for this. We need to learn how to view this act of writing as something meaningful in itself. Three conditions must be met before this can be true. First, we need to allow ourselves to be unproductive. It is important to me that others read what I have written, but the absence of a reader does not necessarily make the act of writing less meaningful. Writing has worth all its own apart from being published. I won’t deny that I still want to be published. And I like getting paid. But the real value is in the writing. Second, we need to learn how to take pleasure in our craft. Writing is hard work. It can be tedious. Yet at its worst, there is still a kind of joy that the writer experiences when putting words, phrases, and clauses together to express a thought. The painter takes pleasure in the stroke of the brush and the potter in the feel of the clay. The writer finds pleasure in crafting sentences. Third, we need to stop worrying about whether we will be noticed.

This is easier said than done. Maybe it’s impossible. But the truth is that most of those who write will not enjoy recognition. The majority of people who want to write never do. Of those who do write, only a minority get published. Of the few who are published, only a very small handful turn out to be popular. Keep writing but try to stop worrying. It doesn’t increase your chances of getting noticed. And stop shouting. It isn’t helping your art.