Moscow, Idaho and the Internet

CALEB JOSEPH WARNER

Earlier today, I got coffee with Toby Sumpter, my previous pastor, just to catch up. There was no agenda on the table or anything, which makes small talk with anyone a difficult and awkward business. Next time with anyone, I’ll try to remember to have some questions ready.

I wanted to meet, because we had met for coffee in the past, as in months ago, and he knows me and I know him and I feel it is important to reconnect threads even if you now have different daily life patterns.

Anyway, a few days ago, I was putting out the sign for the consignment store I work at, The Storm Cellar, only to see Toby walk by. So on a whim I said, “Let’s get coffee.” Toby works just two buildings down from where I work most days.

We got coffee at One World Café on the corner of the same street we both work on. A friend came by and interrupted us for a moment, which was good, and then another friend came by and interrupted us for a moment, which was good, too. Five or six people walked by and we both waved at them. One of the people was Douglas Wilson, who like these other people, are the kinds of people that seem to have their assigned paths in downtown Moscow as a sort of rotating menagerie of personalities.

This might all seem like random information, but let me paint the picture. Toby and I have a good hourlong conversation. We succeed in catching up! When I go back to Bucer’s Coffeehouse to finish my remaining copyediting work that I am behind on for the day, I log into Messenger. There in Messenger, a group of friends are dialoging about some spat that happened between Toby and Austin Storm, co-owner of The Storm Cellar, on the internet.

“Crap,” I say, because I hate it when things like this happen. I have no idea what my friends are talking and making jokes about, but it is falling in line with patterns of past arguments. Arguments not between Toby and Austin exclusively, but arguments that exist on the internet between small town folk that have an insane amount of emotional charge to them that result in talking about what was said and why for the next week—depending on the charge loaded into the battery of words.

These internet spats have always been a discouragement to me. Maybe that means I am weak or that I can’t handle the heat. What I think it means more is that there is some systemic failure at play with how we do discussions. And these systemic failures seem inextricably woven into small town dynamics.

For me to make a blog post like this might smack of small town tabloid, but so be it. I am trying to help myself and others in treading as wisely as possible what seem to me systemic failures of how people speak about each other in Moscow. I am dead to emotion about this. My only emotion is tiredness and exasperation when I have for the fifth time someone ask me, “So, did you see what *blank* said?”

May it be so that my response can always be, “No, I didn’t.” Yet what happens on the internet does not stay on the internet.

For posterity and for the sake of a future fruitful discussion, let me record what was said here. Toby tweeted publicly on his Twitter:

We’ve been paying premiums for decades for ripped jeans and torn looks. It cannot come as a great shock when we begin paying doctors to try to rip our genes with hormone therapies and genital mutilation. Ripped & torn, nipped & tucked, we hate the image of God.

Austin publicly replied on Twitter:

I’m stupider for having read this. It’s apparent the pun came first and then you felt obligated to moralize with it. You’re binding the conscience about distressed jeans? This is profoundly unfitting of a minister of the gospel. Please stop.

Toby replied:

Pretty sure there are support groups out there for folks distressed by pastoral puns. And no, not binding consciences at all, but definitely trying to poke hard hearts with whatever sticks the Spirit sends my way.

Austin said on facebook:

Moscow’s most precocious thought leader strikes again!

It’s abundantly clear that the “jeans / genes” pun came first, and the obligation to moralize with it came after.

If we must pontificate on the meaning of distressed jeans, we might say they represent taking shortcuts to get the signs of age, care and hard work. I do not see the connection to hormone therapy.

The end result of the tweet, for anyone who takes it at face value, is binding the conscience about distressed jeans of all things. This is profoundly unfitting of a minister of the Gospel. I feel stupider for having read this, but it also has the potential to be destructive for those who approach it seriously. As Toby recently said to Kyle Howard, “Please stop.”

Pre-emptive answer to frequently asked questions:
1) Why do you pay attention to Toby? Because he is the head of the board of NSA, and its de facto mouthpiece through his role with Crosspolitic. He has been hired by CC (as best I can tell) to do social media full-time, and his output influences my friends and neighbors.
2) Why don’t you talk to him in private, where the demands on ego are less and he might better receive your critique? I did this for five years, and not only was I not a help to Toby but the end result was him inadvertently gaslighting me. He’s being an idiot in public, and the fact that more people don’t call him out on it is a communal failure. Either people have written him off or they don’t want to embarrass the institutions who have given him a platform. Neither approach is good.
3) You’re just going to take this post down in a few hours, aren’t you? Yes I am.

First off, Toby, you COMPLETELY were out of line with how you used an ampersand. Typically, ampersands are only used for titles of books and such. You should be ashamed. And Austin in your final reply, you neglected to observe the oxford comma in your list of three. It reads “signs of age, care and hard work,” which is not a list of three, but rather a list of two things—age and care and hard work. This is a clear indication of rejecting a powerful grammatical tool.

Oh, how unhelpful it is when someone like Josh Gibbs, who doesn’t even live in Moscow, references the “Bill Hader eating popcorn” GIF to show that he is armchair-entertained by the argument. Plenty of other people do this. It is precisely the wrong kind of levity. An argument between two good people would be entertaining if it was done well.

I am baffled, really am baffled, at the complete strangeness of having a good conversation with a friend while my other friend is working on telling me that I am failing if I do not say he is stupid. “He’s being an idiot in public, and the fact that more people don’t call him out on it is a communal failure.” That means I am failing if I don’t call Toby an idiot publicly. But what does calling Toby out look like?

Talking in person is not the end-all-be-all solution to social media fracas. I appreciate that Austin engaged with Toby’s point publicly and did not feel bound to engage a public claim privately. That is a helpful impulse and I hope he doesn’t delete his post. If an individual wants to delete his facebook post, he should feel free to give into that very natural, but somewhat unfortunate, impulse to make a follow-up post.

Which is why it all the more behooves us to walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time and to let our speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that we may know how we ought to answer each person. This speaks buckets to how we ought to speak to each other in publicTo speak publicly is to walk with outsiders and to speak publicly requires that we make the best use of our time by seasoning our speech with salt. 

Beyond disdain for certain rhetorical practices or the prudence of speech, there is still the question of how we ought to speak to each other.

What I mean to say is that these Moscow sprats—I mean spats—often become arguments about rhetoric and tone and all that jazz. But we have been here before, haven’t we, so why should we go back?

Because the command to season your words with salt is for you, not for you to have another stick to measure the righteousness and potential public imprudence of another person. Let them speak without salt, let the fool be the fool. But how you ought to walk is with wisdom.

What does walking with wisdom look like in a small town where individuals discuss issues with one another online?

Forgive me if it has taken me too long to get here or if I have been vague because I know I have been. But we need to reconsider how we discuss matters publicly. What does being gracious look like when discussing matters publicly?

Being gracious means offering people grace and to extend grace is to bestow on someone, a la the classic definition of grace, a gift freely given. A wonderful way to be gracious in public discourse is to not freight your replies with past grievances. Everyone has failed to speak wisely in the past and has failed to speak wisely to one another in the past. But do not take the opportunity of another’s folly to point out how they have failed in the past or how they have harmed you in the past. Not only is it unforgiving, it is also beside the point.

And the main point is a particular claim, not the rhetorical packaging it comes in. In order to best answer someone in their folly, you must look beyond their lack of salt and their ungraciousness and engage with their point presented. If you need to, ask a follow-up question. Do not assume that you know the point they are making.

If Toby’s main point in that tweet is muddled by imprudent rhetoric, it does us no good as listeners to point out the muddled rhetoric. It does us all a heap of good to ask the speaker what he means. The next thing that ought to happen in a discussion is to not obsess about the way someone failed to communicate, but to aid in making them make their point better than they could have made it themselves. And once their point is clear, respond to that point.

If someone has been a real fool in their speech, if they spoke imprudently, if someone is a fool, you can let them be a fool. When it comes to this blog post of mine and whether or not I am being a hypocrite by levying my concerns about Austin’s rhetoric, and whether or not I am being a fool by doing so, I would say that my concern goes far beyond this particular shindig. I am addressing instead a pattern that occurs in this small town with a rotating cast of characters, sometimes me being one of them.

Proverbs says, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.”

Proverbs says, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

What this means is that there is a way to answer a fool that makes you like him yourself. There is also a way to answer a fool that reveals to him that he is not wise.

You become like a fool only if you speak like him, without grace and without salt. You reveal to a fool that he is not wise by asking him what he meant and being passionate about the truth. You reveal to a fool that he is not wise by essentially following the due process of discussion, which a fool does not do. A fool does not ask the right questions or speak clearly or care to be clearly understood. A fool has other goals in mind when he speaks. A fool is looking to appear wise. You prevent him from appearing wise by with patience uncovering through due process what was his folly.

If you really think that someone else is being a fool, that is the moment to become very careful about how you are talking to them. Put in your mind that hypothesis. Dialog first with yourself. Say, “I believe I am talking to a fool.”

With that hypothesis in mind, perform the experiment of extending them grace. If they do not receive that grace, they are a fool. If you with your patience do not receive patience in return, they are a fool. If you discover they are a fool, you are not obligated to call out their folly. Let the discovered knowledge of their folly govern your replies.

If you are wrong about their folly, but assume you are right, you will become a fool. If you are right about their folly but do not follow due process in uncovering their folly, you become a fool. What is due process?

Due process is being gracious. Being gracious means giving them in basic parlance the benefit of a doubt always—which is the Dollar Store version of forgiving your brother seventy times seven times.

I cannot with how I am speaking now get any closer to what I mean, so let me give you an example of how I think discussion should be done. I have in mind the kinds of discussions that occur at Evan and Leslie Wilson’s Big Haus. We are to follow godly examples and I believe that the Big Haus provides us a godly example with how to discuss with one another, yea verily, even in Moscow, Idaho.

I have felt this for a long time, but there has always been in my mind two examples of doing discussion in Moscow. There is the way of speaking to one another through blogs with freighted rhetoric and subterfuge, it seems, about speaking about one another instead of speaking to one another. There is then the way of talking to each other in person surrounded by other people.

The latter kind of discussion occurs at the Big Haus. The Big Haus is the primary ministry of Evan and Leslie in the model, however loosely, of Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri. And what is their primary ministry? People live there, yes, and they give drinks and food to people, yes. But the greatest ministry offered is talking to whoever walks into their door. Of providing the means and venue and hospitality and couch for anyone who wants to come and speak their entire mind to someone else.

Here’s the thing. People say stupid, tremendously stupid, things at the Big Haus. I have said stupid things at the Big Haus.

What is so beautiful about their library or their porch is that stupidity is weighed rightly. Grace is extended to the stupid. Sometimes the stupid are even called stupid, if it is fitting, and in the semi-public venue this is, I have never seen it result in a fracas.

People, men and women of all ages, have serious and stupid conversations alike at the Big Haus. They have heated discussions. And even if these conversations are not fruitful, heck, they are done with grace extended.

Fools speak at the Big Haus. I have seen it many times. But when a fool speaks, the conversation does not immediately get ruined by a further fool (not always, anyway). The culture of discourse there is such that when a fool speaks folly, people respond to him with graciousness. They give him the benefit of a doubt, they make jokes with him, they ask him what he means, they reveal his folly by not being fools themselves, but by being wise in their treatment of him.

The discussions that happen at the Big Haus do not happen online. This is a strength. Why? Because the kinds of discussions that happen at the Big Haus at times, were that they were on the internet, would divulge into exactly the kinds of conversations that result as seen in the comments section on facebook.

If Toby said what he said on twitter at The Big Haus and Austin was there, and three or more other people were there, that would have been fruitful.

Maybe I am not the best person to write this blog post, however, because I cannot exactly pin down the difference between the two kinds of discussion. I know that it is not just the fact that one takes place on the internet and the other takes place in person. I do know that both take place in a small town where everyone knows each other.

And I fear that when we speak to one another online, we do not use the public opportunity to extend grace. For some reason, there is this insanely unhealthy cycle of remaining silent for long periods of time while someone speaks online and then this heated flurry of replies all of the sudden. Would that we were talking to each other more, more consistently and with much more grace. We would be able to have tremendously fruitful discussions if we only had them more often and had them with far more patience for one another, not using a bad turn of phrase to take control of the righteousness of someone else, but using our right turn of phrase to turn someone gently in the right direction.

Endless forgiveness reveals folly. Sometimes forgiveness must be extended for what you feel is imprudent rhetoric. Beyond this forgiveness is the extension of grace to one another. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. These are guidelines for discussion. The question I have is how much of this gets lost in digital translation.  

I love you and I love the people I do life with here in Moscow. You’re likely one of them. I may not have made my point as clearly and succinctly as I could. I kind of fear that this entire blog post was an exercise in vanity, which I guess is fine, because ultimately everything I do and say is going to waste away. May our folly die out before we do.

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