On being blocked & the rules of engagement

An old friend of mine blocked me some time ago on Twitter. I feel sad about it in a general way but I’m not specifically very cut up about it. I mention it because he offers a snapshot of some of what is going on in society at large.

I am aware I have been blocked for a long time. Yet periodically, I get a notification in which he read something of mine and decides to hurl some abuse my way. I don’t think I’ve ever blocked anyone on Twitter (yet, at any rate) but I am led to believe that for him to see what I have said one would have to unblock me, fire off a comment and then re-block me again. So, my former friend is actively seeking my stuff out so they can get offended by it.

More interestingly still, this latest time led to him calling me ‘vile’ and ‘disgusting’, rendering my views bigoted. He is entirely free to voice these opinions if he will but I was surprised by the context in which they came. This particular time, he took offence at this post from a few days ago. I found it kind of ironic that I was making a case for free speech and he deemed it ‘hate speech’. That is particularly strange given that I didn’t state my specific view on the issue in my post, just that it is troubling when those who demur from mainstream orthodoxy on the issue are stopped from doing so.

My friend, somewhat ironically, wanted to insist that my suggesting that we should be free to state whatever ideas and opinions we want – regardless of what they are – amounted to ‘hate speech’ and bigotry. Because he deemed it bigoted, his inference was that I shouldn’t really be allowed to say it. All I actually said was that we should be free to say what we want, including his particular view of me. He, of course, felt entirely free to label me a bigot and ‘disgusting’ without actually addressing any point I raised. So labeling me ‘disgusting’ and ‘appalling’ was deemed perfectly legitimate while my mere suggestion that all of us should want to defend the freedom to say whatever we think whatever that may be was deemed hateful and nasty. His comments to me struck me as far more nasty than mine (albeit I don’t have any real problem with him saying those things if he wants).

And thus, he continues to block me. He doesn’t like a view (or views) that I have stated at some time or other and, as such, doesn’t engage with those things at all. Except, of course, to occasionally seek out my writing so that he might get offended and then troll me over things he went out of his way to find and read. He wants the right to read what I write whilst denying me the ability to read what he writes. He wants the right to disagree with me without giving me the opportunity to disagree with him (even if he has understood what I think at all). He wants to freely label me with pejorative terms in his tweets whilst shutting down comments I make in much longer articles, on the grounds they are ‘bigoted’ or ‘disgusting’, that do not contain a single pejorative term in them.

Perhaps most interesting of all, he said that he was ashamed to have ever called me his friend. That, because (in his view) I shared an opinion he didn’t like. I’m not sure I shared a specific view other than we should be free to share our respective views. But, that aside, are we really saying that we can only be friends with those who share our presumptions and attitudes about the world at large? Are we really saying those with whom we deeply disagree on any number of issues cannot be our friends?

But it is this that is a microcosm for what now passes for credible engagement. Instead of having a reasonable discussion, we fire off pejoratives and consider ourselves morally and intellectually superior for doing so. Rather than engage with an idea, we attack a person. Instead of listening to views on their own terms, we look for offence and then retort as though we have been deeply wounded. Instead of engaging sensibly, we block those who we sought out and were offended by as though our seeking out their views and being offended by it is somehow somebody else’s fault. And if we disagree, the answer is to cut people off, even those we once called friends.

After all that, we still struggle to get our heads around how election results and cultural shifts that shake our view of the world ever come to pass. We assume all right-thinking people think just like me except for the handful of bigots we cut off on Twitter. We are then forced to conclude either that there are many reasonable, considerate people who think differently to us on some issues or that the majority of the population are, indeed, bigots, cretins and despicable characters. Truth is, given that most of us take the path of least resistance and do not relish challenges to the way we perceive ourselves, many of us choose to believe the latter.

We frequently assure ourselves of our right-thinking and we ‘other’ everyone with whom we disagree. We love to call ourselves ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ whilst divesting those words of any credible meaning and refusing to interact with ideas we don’t hold, even to the point of trying to close them down. We reject any suggestion that maybe we ought to progress in our thinking by having our views challenged and considering other possible views of the way things are. It’s much easier to call someone a bigot and feel good that I, definitely, think the right things. Quicker, innit.

I have no intention of blocking my friend. I am an advocate of freely sharing ideas and he is welcome to engage with them as he sees fit. I similarly have no intention of blocking him because of his ad hominem comments (these are not the first) because he is entirely free to hold and express his opinion of me if he wants. Clearly he has some interest in what I write because he continues coming back and reading it. He even finds the time to unblock me, fire off pejorative comments about it and then re-block me again.

But even if he does disagree (as he is entirely free to do) it makes me sad that we have reached such a state that unless we agree we can’t be friends. My entire ministry has been built against that assumption. I continue to meet with Muslim people with whom I deeply disagree about lots of things but who I am pleased to call my friends and with whom I am glad to both share and receive hospitality. I continue to be friends with people who could not disagree more with my leftist political tendencies whilst I disagree with theirs. My church continues to welcome people from different theological and unbelieving backgrounds from all across the world. We all bring our different cultural and religious baggage to to the table and yet still love one another nonetheless. We simply disagree with the presumption that agreement is the same as love, that tolerance manifests as affirmation and that rejecting an idea or view (even if it is an idea or view of ourselves) is to reject the person altogether.