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Social Pressure, The Enemy of Competency?

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Responding to David French’s great piece on the Milo Yiannopoulos kerfuffle, Jim Geraghty wrote in this morning’s Jolt:

The era of social media allows us to communicate all kinds of ideas to audiences we never dreamed of reaching. Thousands of thoughts once expressed only to those within earshot of the barstool, the backyard barbecue, the office water cooler and other casual conversational hangouts can now instantly be transmitted to a global listenership. We haven’t gotten any more extreme, bigoted, controversial, weird, or twisted than generations past; we simply can express thoughts on Twitter or Facebook so all the world can see. Yes, the world would be a better place if people exercised more discretion. Yes, a lot of people have opinions that range from controversial to odious. But some employers, terrified of the social media outrage mobs, now have a wildly itchy trigger finger. Katie Nash, social-media coordinator for Frederick County Public Schools, was fired earlier this year when she corrected a student’s misspelling of “tomorrow.” The school board’s vice president said the tweet “was inappropriate and certainly created a lot of unpleasant responses in terms of other students piling on.”

We’re creeping closer to a society and an economy where holding a sufficiently controversial opinion or making a sufficiently controversial remark makes you unemployable or barely employable. This phenomenon of demanding people be fired for tasteless, dumb, or offensive social media posts inflicts an economic consequence a social “sin.” Yes, there should be consequence, but the consequence should occupy the same realm. Imagining the reverse, a social consequence for bad economic judgment, is absurd. We don’t get socially ostracized for frivolous purchases, overpaying, a tanking stock, or agreeing to attend that timeshare sales pitch. A social action should bring a social reaction – i.e., people responding, “your belief is nonsense.”

This fire-the-controversial impulse dramatically changes the yardsticks for hiring someone to do a job. Schilling’s opinion on transgender bathroom use didn’t really change whether he’s good at announcing a baseball game. But in this new world of social-media outrage mobs, the employer’s criteria stops being, “who can do this job best?” The criteria becomes, “who can do this job best without causing any heartburn, headaches, or potential public relations problems because of their thoughts and opinions expressed outside the workplace?” This is a golden economic era if you’re just barely good enough and thoroughly boring.

What is illustrated here is the power of social pressure, and the amplification of it that social media provides.  As Geraghty is pointing out it is becoming the enemy of actual competency.  That fact has consequence far beyond employment.

I think about the church.  In an effort to seem non-judgmental and inclusive, social pressure has virtually disappeared from the church.  Or at least where it is present, it is present as a force against conformity with the traditional stances and requirements of the church.  What is so disappointing is that as such in the church it is not becoming the enemy of simple competence, but the enemy of eternal truth.  I find myself worrying and praying that we can find the strength to stand against this force.  That strength is something only eternal truth and the Holy Spirit can provide.

As I write I am listening to the first hour of this morning’s show when my host here interviewed Archbishop Charles Chaput.  [subscription required – mobile podcast here, but you’ll have to wait for that hour to come up] As a part of that interview, the archbishop discusses “aesthetics” which he describes as “like going to the gym for your spiritual life.”  I find this idea in contrast to the Protestant, and especially Evangelical, idea of “spiritual disciplines,” in its stunning breadth.  It is not just about what we consume, but about what we make.  For example, to pray is a spiritual discipline, but to pray the novena is a practice of aesthetics.  The difference is that the spiritual discipline is about self-expression while the novena enjoys the test of time as making an expression acceptable to God.  As a Protestant there are some theological implications of the words of the novena that I have issues with, but the idea of praying not for the purpose of expressing myself to God, but of making expressions acceptable to God I find extraordinarily useful.

It is such constant exposure to and expression of eternal truth that will give us that strength we need to stand against the forces of social pressure.  We do not need to harness social media – we need to return to basics, for only then will we be able to properly come to terms with social media.

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