#ItIsTimeAU: An Action Plan for Us in The Comment Section
(Too long, didn't read? Let me read it to you. Just hit play. )
If you’ve ever had a haystack, chances are you probably have already heard about the #ItIsTimeAU video.
In it, a group of Andrews University students stood face to face with systemic racism and directly recommended a course of action including a formal apology, mandatory cultural diversity training, and a call to stop demonizing black styles of worship. They then put an immediate timeline on this course of action to be responded to within one week.
Now, I'm sure you've seen post after post analyzing this video word for word either in favor or in opposition. I wish to stay away from that habit for a few reasons. First, if you truly wanted to understand the context of the video it was and still is easy enough to get. The video was posted from a personal Facebook page; your answers were just one message away. Second, analyzing this video based on its public relations merit showcases an attitude that completely misses the point. The original video shared a personal and valid story, not a story from a corporate PR firm with the goal of making every key message bulletproof. Yet, as a society, we have a tendency to overlook the core story of very personal social movements in favor of poking holes in the outer fringes of a perspective and redirecting attention to the irrelevant. "When did anything good ever come from an ultimatum?!" "What they should have done was...." "No, actually all lives matter!" Oh sorry, that last one must have slipped in from a different blog...
In addition to that, the main reason I don't want to comment too much on the original video is because we have actually already moved forward. The original video calling for a response in one week has been cleared, and a new video now dominates your Facebook timeline. As I write this, it is less than one week later:
In less than a week, I have shifted from immense shame to overwhelming pride. Because of the courage of a group of students, staff, and a controversial chapel speaker, the status quo of systemic racism was agitated and exposed. And in the harsh spotlight of polarized opinions on a topic that we rarely address directly, the administration of Andrews University responded with excellence. As someone who worked directly with many of the faces in this video including President Luxton, I would have expected nothing less from this exemplary group.
So let it be told from generation to generation, that on the 23rd day of the second month in the year of our Lord, Andrews University defeated racism......right?
But there was applause and my friends are celebrating, so everybody is happy......right?
What struck me the most about watching this entire situation play out wasn't so much the content of the video, but rather the content of the comment section below. The source of my shame last week wasn't the realization that my university had caused pain, for this was something I have always been acutely aware of. Rather, my shame stemmed from the realization that the comment section of an Adventist-specific topic looked identical to the comment section of any other political post you've seen in 2017. Name-calling, KEYBOARD SHOUTING, and a complete absence of anything that resembled love, respect, and empathy. And all of this from people who sit in the same pew. All of this from people who plan on living in the same neighborhood in heaven. That comment section doesn't go away overnight. In fact, you can see there is still more work to be done just by peeking at the reactions to the new video on Facebook.
Don't get me wrong. What the administration did today was of extreme importance. Healing systemic wounds begins with a response directly from the governors of the system, and that is exactly what we saw today. But it is important to remember that this is not the end of the work, but rather the beginning. And there is a role in this work for everybody.
As you may have heard if you were watching the full chapel service, I was scheduled to speak at Andrews today. The original video was released just five days before my flight. So immediately I went down to the Batcave, squeezed into my tighter than I remember supersuit like Mr. Incredible, and just as I was adjusting my cape I got word that President Luxton would need to share a special message in my time slot. Gotham got the hero they deserved.
Although it is easy for me to long for the nostalgia of being an active leader on campus, it is important to recognize that my role in the Andrews community has changed. And judging from the fact that the majority of my friends have already left campus, I'm guessing if you're reading this your role has changed too. The campus community has developed an action plan, but what about us, the ones in the comment section?
What surprised me more than the anger I saw in the comment section was the underlying problem that people who could share a pew at church could have such a hard time listening to one another. And I want to be clear, this is a problem for everyone. Whether I agree with you or not, we all tend to simply upload our opinions into social media battles, but take very little time to actually download information from others. This becomes troublesome because when everybody is yelling and nobody is listening, it is very difficult to make any progress. This problem becomes even worse when onlookers begin to tune in, further and further away from the context of the conversation. As this happens, we get a new problem that Shawn Carter once described:
"A wise man told me don't argue with fools. Cause people from a distance can't tell who is who."
I believe the core problem is that we don't know how to listen empathetically. And to clarify, I too am guilty of this (just ask my girlfriend.) However, I did learn of a process while working with the Florida Hospital Innovation Lab that has helped me develop my listening skills and I'd like to put this process forward as an introductory step in healing our comment section and the underlying attitudes that cause them to be what they are.
The process is taken from writing by C. Otto Scharmer called 'Theory U'. In it, Scharmer describes the four layers of how we listen and communicate with one another as downloading, debating, dialoguing, and prescencing.
Let's take our example of social media. Downloading could be something as simple as reading somebody's status or a comment that says, "I am so sick of idiots that tell me I have 'white privilege'." I had assumed that this level of listening was automatic, however, I don't believe it is anymore. What I've realized is that especially on social media we have to tendency to scan a status very quickly, and not even necessarily from beginning to end. It has been suggested that we actually read in chunks of phrases, rather than reading from left to right letter by letter, or word by word. Because of this, our eyes pick up on keywords, and before we've even completed the sentence it is possible that we have already formed an automatic response to the few keywords that caught our attention. This is the first hurdle: suspending our automatic response in favor of fully downloading information. That is where the mindset of truly listening begins.
Almost immediately, your mind will jump to the next level of debating. For many, this process happens internally. We receive new information and we filter it through our own internal biases, determining if we agree or disagree without considering alternate perspectives. In an example such as the one above, this process of moving to debate happens rapidly. The nature of how the comment is written comes across as hostile, which can result in a reaction that is combative. Additionally, the content itself can be taken as highly offensive as it comes across as dismissive of oppression. These factors make it extremely difficult to move beyond the debate layer of listening. Typically what will happen is a reply will be written with the same level of hostility, or worse, the author of the comment will be blocked, cutting off any future chance of bridge building. This action, though understandable, only adds to the polarization that we see in so many levels of our society. If we give up on listening to each other, we have no chance of ever understanding one another. The hurdle at this stage is to push yourself beyond your first reaction to fight or flight, and instead, try to engage in a dialogue.
The dialogue stage is a stage of inquiry. It requires intentionally and temporarily setting your own biases to the side in an effort to understand somebody else's perspective. It is ideal when this action is reciprocated, however in most cases this will have to be initiated by one person. It's a moment where "when they go low, we go high." A typical indicator of this level of listening is phrases like, "so what I hear you saying is...", or "I think I understand your perspective to be..." This is a stage that allows you to accept what somebody else's opinion is, without necessarily agreeing with them. It is important to note that this is not done in an effort to meet in the middle. I believe "meeting in the middle" to be a shortcut around the hard work of persuasion. The only goal is to understand what is considered true by the person you are talking to. In the example above, dialogue could begin by asking the individual why they feel that way, digging deeper into their rationale. Remember, this isn't a magic process to get everyone to sing kumbaya together. Even after digging deeper you may still find that you disagree. But the purpose of this exercise is to strip away the surface level automatic responses and understand the underlying insight as to why somebody feels the way they do. The purer the understanding, the easier it will be to have a generative conversation about how to move forward.
The final layer is presencing. Out of context from the rest of Scharmer's work I understand that this is an unfamiliar term. What Scharmer means is to essentially get to the point where you are 100% "present" with one another. He uses the analogy of a high performing basketball team to get his point across. It is the point in the game where your team is "firing on all cylinders" and understand each other enough to be able to move together as a team, anticipating collaboratively what the next move should be from a joint perspective. In a conversation, this is getting to the point where instead of two completely separate and at times polarized perspectives, you both have developed a new and emerging perspective as a result of listening to one another. Clearing this hurdle allows us to then truly work together to find solutions.
In a perfect world, it would be simple enough to just say, "Rinse, wash, repeat." and solve all of the world's problems. But I understand that this is not the case. I have written these examples from the perspective of a person of color because that is how my perspective identifies. And it is because of this that I understand what I am asking for is not easy at all. When somebody insults you personally, whether it is intentional or not, it hurts. And not only do you sometimes feel like punching them in the face, but you feel completely justified in doing so. Add on not just one incident but centuries of oppression and it is very difficult to make a case for why people should take the extra time and effort to listen to somebody they disagree with.
So rather than call on your conscience to be loving and all of the mushy stuff, please allow me instead to appeal to your sense of strategy. Speaking louder than others doesn't always lead to victory. Let me clarify that. Because a group chose to use their voice, immediate and necessary action was taken today at Andrews. This is a victory. Absolutely, there is a time to use our voice. However, there is also a time to use our ears. Leading up to the US Election, a number of people shouted as loudly as they could from every possible outlet to stop the campaign of Donald Trump. Today, he is the President of the United States. Only using our voices didn't work. And without getting too much into the complexities of politics, I believe one of the reasons it didn't work is because those who were shouting forgot to keep using their ears. As somebody who identifies with those who were shouting, I remember going to sleep on election night feeling more wrong than I had ever felt before, and it was because I realized that I hadn't listened to "the other side" at all. Because as easy as it is to block somebody who has a different automatic response than you, it is infinitely more powerful to convert those adversaries into allies.
My call today is to my fellow lurkers, who are embracing their new roles in the comment section. As the campus community does their part to set the tone, I want to challenge all of us to change our comment sections into sanctuaries that are representative of Christ. May our simple actions in the imaginary world of social media influence our attitudes towards our real-life neighbors across the street. There has been an intense amount of energy in our Andrews community recently. Uncontrolled, that energy can become a devastating bomb. But if harnessed intentionally, we can use that energy to power a movement towards love and empathy that inspires the world in a time when it needs it the most.
Former AUSA President