I remember an experience I had as I became old enough to attend grown-up Sunday School class for the first time.
A couple of the old high priests really dominated the discussion by always speaking and dropping in all the extra fascinating facts that the lesson didn’t cover. “Did you know they found an altar with the world Nahom on it?” “Well the lesson doesn’t mention it, but there’s a chapter of Isaiah which applies directly. I’ll read it aloud now.” Things like that.
After a few of these types of informative comments my mother leaned over and whispered to me, “just because you know something doesn’t mean you have to share it.”
For some reason I have remembered that moment vividly for years. It was a perfect teaching moment and I think about it every time I’m tempted to share a random fact in Sunday School.
Principle 1: Self-Restraint and the Learning Experience
The idea of self-restraint as being valuable to the learning experience hadn’t occurred to me before, but she was right. Despite the fact that an immense amount of data and insight was being shared by these more vocal (and, yes, knowledgeable) members, the good desires and enthusiasm of the old folks had stifled the learning environment because it had not been tempered with self-restraint.
Elder Maxwell, in his final talk, put it this way:
Having virtually no quantitative skills, I was seldom if ever able to help our children with math and scientific subjects. One day our high school daughter Nancy asked me for “a little help” regarding a Supreme Court case, Fletcher v. Peck. I was so eager to help after so many times of not being able to help. At last a chance to unload! Out came what I knew about Fletcher v. Peck. Finally my frustrated daughter said, “Dad, I need only a little help!” I was meeting my own needs rather than giving her “a little help.”
We worship a Lord who teaches us precept by precept, brethren, so even when we are teaching our children the gospel, let’s not dump the whole load of hay.
I believe that the spirit can prompt us to share appropriately, but always in the right setting, and in the right moment, never simply to teach what we want to have taught; and especially never in an effort to gratify our pride.
Speaking of pride as a motivator for sharing, I know I have this problem both in the classroom and online. I’m certainly not immune to the powerful psychological need to “be right.” For a long time I would try to tamp down my urge to confront “wrong people” by asking myself, “would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?” but I’m starting to realize that’s not the ideal. The goal isn’t to always be right in our interactions online, or to avoid interactions for the sake of happy relationships. Our goal is to care about the people with whom we are interacting.
Principle 2: On knowing and caring
What does this have to do with social media? Our desire to share, comment, and contradict also connect to knowledge. While we often hold things back in a live classroom, according to psychologists Wilcox and Stephen in their paper ‘Are Close Friends the Enemy? Online Social Networks, Self-Esteem, and Self-Control’, social media seems to reduce our inhibitions and self-control. Social media posts can be, in worst case scenarios, like a classroom where every participant has lost their ability to hold back their comments, feels abnormally strongly about the subject being taught, and has insecurity which leads to defensiveness. Elder Bednar described this environment when he said, “I raise an apostolic voice of warning about the potentially stifling, suffocating, suppressing, and constraining impact of some kinds of cyberspace interactions and experiences upon our souls… in a cyber world, these challenges are more pervasive and intense.”
Are you, like me, struggling to find the correct balance between sharing things you KNOW and maintaining healthy relationships? Does the current political and cultural climate make talking about certain deeply-felt topics online feel more like navigating a minefield than connecting with friends? The good news is that, although the specifics have changed, you aren’t the first to feel these things. We’re in this together, and we have some great guidance from those who have gone before.
Early Christians struggled with balancing their knowledge with their relationships. The Greeks prized knowledge, or “Gnosis” as a great virtue to be sought after. The problem manifested when some Corinthian saints were confronted with a question: is it okay to eat food that has been used as a part of another faith’s idol worship?
Some of the members were fine with it. They “knew” that it was just food, after all, and that these other religions were false. Their knowledge set them free and the other side was just mistaken.
Some of the members “knew” that it was wrong to eat food used in idol worship. That by eating they would be validating the false beliefs of others. Their knowledge gave them true freedom and the other side was trying to browbeat them into believing their way.
Frustrated, they wrote to Paul, asking him to give them guidance. His response is worth a look not because it simply answers their question and takes a side like they wanted him to, but because it points out their mistake in focusing on the wrong issue. Here’s some of his response:
We all have knowledge. . . .
As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.
For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth . . . ,
But to us there is but one God, the Father. . . .
But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. [1 Corinthians 8:1, 4–6, 8]
In essence he is saying “of course idols aren’t real gods. Of course, food is just food. Nobody is wrong for eating and nobody is wrong for choosing not to eat.” If that were all he wrote, it would sound like he was taking a side and saying who was right. The argument would continue (probably with “but is he writing to us a prophet or as a man?” or “is that policy or is it doctrine?” but I digress.).
But Paul isn’t done with the saints. Knowledge, maturity, freedom, enlightenment – none of those things are as important as the world makes them out to be. There is one guiding principle that should influence our choice on what we do with our knowledge.
Kevin J. Worthen tells what happens next:
Paul first reminds them, in chapter 8, that “there is not in every man that knowledge” and that “some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol” (v. 7). He then warns them to “take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak” (v. 9), explaining that
if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols;
And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? [vv. 10–11]
Paul thus appeals to the Corinthians who thought they had full knowledge concerning the subject to consider the impact of their actions on their fellow Saints. Although the “educated” might well understand that there was no religious significance to the consumption of meat offered to dumb idols, others might not have the same knowledge, and seeing the well-educated Saints eating at the idol’s temple, these so-called “weaker” Saints might well assume that there was something to this idol worship. Thus the knowledge of the inquiring Corinthian members of the Church might lead to the destruction of their fellow Saints for whom Christ had given his life.
Given the differences in these two perspectives, Paul informs the Saints of the course that he will follow: “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth” (v. 13). Having the perspectives given by both knowledge and charity, Paul apparently opts for the course indicated by the latter. He seems to be saying that although knowledge may teach that one can eat meat offered to idols without incurring any spiritual damage, charity demonstrates that such conduct may constitute a “sin . . . against the brethren” (v. 12). Given that choice, Paul not surprisingly decides that he will eat no meat offered to idols, even if he “knows” in one sense that it does not really matter whether or not he does.
Although Paul saves his personal resolution of the issue until the last verse of chapter 8, he had clearly indicated to the inquirers where he was headed with his summary of the matter in verse 1 when, in answer to their assertion that “we all have knowledge,” he stated, “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.”
In other words, it doesn’t matter what you know. It isn’t about “Facts,” or “Truth,” or whatever you want to call it.
It’s about how what you say and do will affect the people around you, and how it will affect their relationship to Christ.
Application: Therefore, what?
So the Sunday school teacher just flubbed. What do you do now? Do you correct his mistake?
Your friend just shared a meme that was probably created by a foreign government to spread misinformation. Do you point out the flaws?
Knowledge alone would say that you absolutely must, for if knowledge is the greatest virtue, then error is the greatest sin.
But Charity says that what’s most important is how your words will affect others in the room. Will your contributions edify? Will your words drive out trust and the spirit? Is the subject so important that accuracy is vital to keep us focused on true principles? You’ll need the guidance of the Spirit to come to the best conclusion, but with a pure desire to do what is charitable, rather than being right, you’re starting out on the right foot.
I find this verse from the Doctrine and Covenants to be especially poignant on social media issues:
“Thou shalt not idle away thy time, neither shalt thou bury thy talent that it may not be known” (D&C 60:13).
This verse, perhaps, speaks to the balancing act needed as we try to measure out truth and charity. We shouldn’t idle away our time on social media, getting into meaningless fights, but we also shouldn’t be afraid to use social media to further the work of the Lord.
What are some ways we can do better at being ON social media, but not OF social media?
Practical Advice: Tips for a Better Social Media Experience in Hard Times
I’m going to suggest some rules to follow that may help you avoid inviting that depressing spirit of contention into your thoughts. You know the one I mean – that negative feeling that comes after hours of writing emotional responses to online comments. These rules aren’t perfect, and I know I’ve failed to follow them perfectly, but I think that they will help most of us be better digital neighbors and focus on charitable speech while retaining the freedom our knowledge gives us.
Rule 1: Respect Personal Space.
I find that most people feel very personally about the things they share on social media. I don’t fully understand the psychology behind it, but when somebody puts something online, it’s personal. Our challenge is knowing how to respond to those things that others share which are Wrong. Rule 1 says you don’t confront them within their own space. To use Facebook as an example, if my cousin Joe shares a meme that says all Republicans are racist, I don’t challenge him by commenting directly on his meme. This leads only to defensiveness and doubling down on incorrect, or even bigoted beliefs.
“But how do we stand up for what is right?” you ask.
The answer is you use your own personal space. Share good information there. Let people approach the information at their own pace. Maybe they’ll like your post. Maybe they’ll ignore it. Who knows. But the relationship is more likely to be preserved and the post doesn’t feel as confrontational.
Rule 2: Divide and Conquer.
Most social media sites will let you create groups from your followers / friends. If you find you just can’t help but share something political, but you know several people who will only be offended by it, then create groups. You can choose to include or exclude your groups with every post. That means your liberal friends will never know you own guns and your conservative friends will never know you support legalizing marijuana.
Rule 3: Talk Like a Primary Teacher.
Text-based communication sucks because people can’t get all the non-verbal cues that come with face-to-face interactions. This means that if you’re writing about something that already has them angry, there’s a good chance your friends will think you have an angry “voice” while they read whatever you write. Take the time to explain not only what you want to say, but how you intend to say it. Explain how much you value your friends and try to foresee any ways that feelings may be hurt. It is worth both starting and finishing your social media posts with these disclaimers, reminding your friends once again that there is no insult intended.
Rule 4: Self Evaluate.
For me it’s my eyebrows. If I’m writing on social media, and my eyebrows are raised, I know I’m not writing with a charitable spirit. I’m writing to win, or prove a point, or put somebody in their place. Whatever your cues may be, check your emotional state while you interact. Nothing is so important it needs to be responded to in the same day. Take as long as it needs to be able to honestly ask yourself, “Is this response making things better?”
Rule 5: Have the Strength to Walk Away.
This can be HARD, especially after somebody has engaged with you. But this is a fundamental of good social media etiquette. You don’t need to make a parting jab or say “I won’t respond to any more comments,” or anything. Just leave it. Your soul is worth more than the tarnish these negative interactions cause.
As a part of this, have the courage to unfollow, unfriend, or block people who bring out the attack impulse in you. In many situations you can let them remain “friends” with you, but simply stop seeing what they have to say. Don’t be ashamed of this. Relationships are not about points or winning. You do what helps you interact with them in the healthiest way possible, even if the most healthy way possible is face-to-face interactions only.
Consider the following advice about cyberspace interactions from Elder Bednar:
“For your happiness and protection, I invite you to study more diligently the doctrine of the plan of salvation—and to prayerfully ponder the truths we have reviewed. I offer two questions for consideration in your personal pondering and prayerful studying:
“1. Does the use of various technologies and media invite or impede the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost in your life?
“2. Does the time you spend using various technologies and media enlarge or restrict your capacity to live, to love, and to serve in meaningful ways?
“You will receive answers, inspiration, and instruction from the Holy Ghost suited to your individual circumstances and needs.”
Rule 6: Seek In-Person Contact.
Oh, how challenging this is for introverts like me. But it is so valuable, and so much more real and meaningful to have face-to-face interactions. You will find that social media interactions are smoothed over greatly when regular contact is made in other ways.
Appendix: Touchstones for Latter-day Saints Online.
The prophets have not been silent about these things. In addition to the copious advice on being kind and charitable, there is advice on being social in an age when disagreements seem deep and deeply felt. Here are the touchstones on which I rely as I build relationships in person and online.
Lesson number one for the establishment of Zion in the 21st century: You never “check your religion at the door.” Not ever.
My young friends, that kind of discipleship cannot be—it is not discipleship at all. As the prophet Alma has taught the young women of the Church to declare every week in their Young Women theme, we are “to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in,” not just some of the time, in a few places, or when our team has a big lead…
No, someone in life, someone in the 21st century, someone in all of these situations has to live his or her religion because otherwise all we get is a whole bunch of idiots acting like moral pygmies.
…However one would respond to that [situation], the rule forever is that it has to reflect our religious beliefs and our gospel commitments. Therefore, how we respond in any situation has to make things better, not worse…
That doesn’t mean that we don’t have opinions, that we don’t have standards, that we somehow completely disregard divinely mandated “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” in life. But it does mean we have to live those standards and defend those “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” in a righteous way to the best of our ability, the way the Savior lived and defended them.
“Israel, Israel, God is Calling” by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
I am not talking about wearing your religion on your sleeve or being superficially faithful. That can be embarrassing to you and the Church. I am talking about you becoming what you ought to be…
…There are other insidious behaviors that poison society and undermine basic morality. It is common today to hide one’s identity when writing hateful, vitriolic, bigoted communications anonymously online. Some refer to it as flaming. Certain institutions try to screen comments. For instance, the New York Times won’t tolerate comments where there are “personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity, … impersonations, incoherence and SHOUTING. The Times also encourages the use of real names because, ‘We have found that people who use their names carry on more engaging, respectful conversations.’”
Any use of the Internet to bully, destroy a reputation, or place a person in a bad light is reprehensible. What we are seeing in society is that when people wear the mask of anonymity, they are more likely to engage in this kind of conduct, which is so destructive of civil discourse. It also violates the basic principles the Savior taught.
“What E’er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part: Avoid Wearing Masks That Hide Identity” by Elder Quentin L. Cook
David A Bednar:
I raise an apostolic voice of warning about the potentially stifling, suffocating, suppressing, and constraining impact of some kinds of cyberspace interactions and experiences upon our souls. The concerns I raise are not new; they apply equally to other types of media, such as television, movies, and music. But in a cyber world, these challenges are more pervasive and intense. I plead with you to beware of the sense-dulling and spiritually destructive influence of cyberspace technologies that are used to… promote degrading and evil purposes.
I am not suggesting all technology is inherently bad; it is not. Nor am I saying we should not use its many capabilities in appropriate ways to learn, to communicate, to lift and brighten lives, and to build and strengthen the Church; of course we should. But I am raising a warning voice that we should not squander and damage authentic relationships by obsessing over contrived ones.
“Things as they Really Are” by David A. Bednar
…while a murmurer insists on venting his own feelings, he regards any response thereto as hostile. (See 2 Ne. 1:26.) Furthermore, murmurers seldom take into account the bearing capacity of their audiences…
Damage to ourselves is sufficient reason to resist murmuring, but another obvious danger is its contagiousness. Even faithful father Lehi, for one brief moment, got caught up in the contagion of murmuring. (See 1 Ne. 16:20.) Similarly, when Moses lapsed, very briefly, it was under exasperating pressure from rebels. (See Num. 20:7–12.) No one knows how to work a crowd better than the adversary.
Instead of murmuring, therefore, being of good cheer is what is needed, and being of good cheer is equally contagious. We have clear obligations to so strengthen each other by doing things “with cheerful hearts and countenances.” (D&C 59:15; see also D&C 81:5.)
“Murmur Not” by Neal A. Maxwell
Elder Maxwell Again:
…All knowledge is not of equal significance. There is no democracy of facts! They are not of equal importance. Something might be factual but unimportant, as Elder Spencer Condie has observed. For instance, today I wear a dark blue suit. That is true, but it is unimportant. The world does not quite understand this. As we brush against truth, we sense that it has a hierarchy of importance. We are dealing with some things of transcending importance. Some truths are salvation ally significant, and others are not.
Another important insight is that knowledge is intended to travel in a convoy of other Christian virtues. It does not have final meaning by itself. If one possesses some knowledge, as Peter said, but “lacketh” these other qualities, he cannot “see afar off’ (2 Peter 1:59). A most interesting concept! Precious perspective is missing unless knowledge is accompanied by these other truths.
Other insights bear down upon us as Latter-day Saints. Brilliance, by itself, is not wholeness, nor happiness. Knowledge, if possessed for its own sake and unapplied, leaves one’s life unadorned. A Church member, for instance, might describe the Lord’s doctrines but not qualify to enter the Lord’s house. One could produce much brilliant commentary without being exemplary. One might be intellectually brilliant but Bohemian in behavior. One might use his knowledge to seek preeminence or dominion.
Such are not Jesus’ ways, for he asks that perception and implementation be part of the same spiritual process. In Alma’s words, we are to “give place” in our lives for the good seed of the gospel to grow–which involves a form of knowing that combines cognition as well as implementation (see Alma 32).
As we all know, Christ does not dominate by his intellect. He leads by example and love. There is no arrogance flowing from his, the keenest of all intellects. He seeks neither to conquer nor to prosper “according to his genius” (see Alma 30:17).
…a few individuals in the Church end up “looking beyond the mark,” missing the already obvious (Jacob 4:14). These few individuals let their minds seek to run far ahead of their confirming behavior. For them, exciting exploration is preferred to plodding implementation. Speculation and argumentation are more fun than consecration for these individuals. Some even try to soften the hard doctrines. What happens, however, is that by their not obeying, they lack knowing, as we are discussing knowing today. Thus, since they cannot defend the faith, a few of them become critics instead of defenders (John 7:17).
…I have always had a special appreciation for my friends who, though resolutely irreligious themselves, were not scoffers. Instead, though doubtless puzzled by me and their other religious friends, they were nevertheless respectful. I admire the day-to-day decency of such men and women. Though detached from theology, their decency is commendable.
“The Inexhaustible Gospel” by Neal A. Maxwell
When others disagree with our stand we should not argue, retaliate in kind, or contend with them. We can maintain proper relationships and avoid the frustrations of strife if we wisely apply our time and energies.
Ours is to conscientiously avoid being abrasive in our presentations and declarations. We need constantly to remind ourselves that when we are unable to change the conduct of others, we will go about the task of properly governing ourselves.
Certain people and organizations are trying to provoke us into contention with slander, innuendos, and improper classifications. How unwise we are in today’s society to allow ourselves to become irritated, dismayed, or offended because others seem to enjoy the role of misstating our position or involvement. Our principles or standards will not be less than they are because of the statements of the contentious. Ours is to explain our position through reason, friendly persuasion, and accurate facts. Ours is to stand firm and unyielding on the moral issues of the day and the eternal principles of the gospel, but to contend with no man or organization. Contention builds walls and puts up barriers. Love opens doors. Ours is to be heard and teach. Ours is not only to avoid contention, but to see that such things are done away.
“For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.
“Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.” (3 Ne. 11:29, 30.)
…How important it is to know how to disagree without being disagreeable. It behooves all of us to be in the position to involve ourselves in factual discussions and meaningful study, but never in bitter arguments and contention.
“No Time For Contention” by Marvin J. Ashton
The Church is designed to nourish the imperfect, the struggling, and the exhausted. It is filled with people who desire with all their heart to keep the commandments, even if they haven’t mastered them yet.
Some might say, “I know a member of your Church who is a hypocrite. I could never join a church that had someone like him as a member.”
If you define hypocrite as someone who fails to live up perfectly to what he or she believes, then we are all hypocrites. None of us is quite as Christlike as we know we should be. But we earnestly desire to overcome our faults and the tendency to sin. With our heart and soul we yearn to become better with the help of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
“Come, Join with us.” By Dieter F. Uchtdorf
all persons are brothers and sisters under God, taught within their various religions to love and do good to one another. President Gordon B. Hinckley expressed this idea for Latter-day Saints:
Each of us [from various religious denominations] believes in the fatherhood of God, although we may differ in our interpretations of Him. Each of us is part of a great family, the human family, sons and daughters of God, and therefore brothers and sisters. We must work harder to build mutual respect, an attitude of forbearance, with tolerance one for another regardless of the doctrines and philosophies which we may espouse…
…We must also practice tolerance and respect toward others. As the Apostle Paul taught, Christians should “follow after the things which make for peace” (Romans 14:19) and, as much as possible, “live peaceably with all men” (Romans 12:18). Consequently, we should be alert to honor the good we should see in all people and in many opinions and practices that differ from our own. As the Book of Mormon teaches:
All things which are good cometh of God. . . .
. . . Wherefore, every thing which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God.
Wherefore, take heed . . . that ye do not judge . . . that which is good and of God to be of the devil. [Moroni 7:12–14]
That approach to differences will yield tolerance and also respect.
Our tolerance and respect for others and their beliefs does not cause us to abandon our commitment to the truths we understand and the covenants we have made. That is a third absolute truth: We do not abandon the truth and our covenants. We are cast as combatants in the war between truth and error. There is no middle ground. We must stand up for truth, even while we practice tolerance and respect for beliefs and ideas different from our own and for the people who hold them….
Our Savior applied this principle. When He faced the woman taken in adultery, Jesus spoke the comforting words of tolerance: “Neither do I condemn thee.” Then, as He sent her away, He spoke the commanding words of truth: “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). We should all be edified and strengthened by this example of speaking both tolerance and truth: kindness in the communication, but firmness in the truth.
“Truth and Tolerance” by Dallin H. Oaks