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The Age of the Expert

Where would we be without the Internet? This Network of networks, the Internet has empowered mankind with infinite information, an avenue for democracy and a foundation for building relationships across geographical barriers. It has started revolutions and graciously given you the name of the song stuck in your head all day.

A cursory glance through the history of technological development will notice that the Internet wasn’t the only leap forward that had titanic impacts on how we live. The wheel and automobile helped us get from A to B in much shorter time, while the alphabet and book were game changers in how common man viewed language and the accessibility of knowledge. In a similar way, the Internet’s advance has empowered people to learn more and more, because it is so easy to find information. Don’t know the names of Jupiter’s moons? Google it. Nobody got time for the library.

Who’s the boss?

Just like the hammer in the shed, we believe that the Internet is just another tool we harness for our benefit. We assume that we are masters of self and are immune to any sort of external trickery, especially by machines. But as the foremost philosopher of communication theory, Marshall McLuhan, suggested, media aren’t just channels of information. They do supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. In words for today –  the Internet is changing our brains. It is naive to think otherwise.

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember, describes our consumption of knowledge before and after the internet:

“Whether I am online or not, my mind now expects to take in information they way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving steam of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Furthermore:

“Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.”

Have you ever been in a Facebook comment thread debate? Then this will feel painfully familiar. Shallow thinking spawns shallow engagement with others. The common courtesies you learnt as a child or in debating class to understand, listen to, and respect other viewpoints are thrown out the window. People feel free to hurl abuse and ridicule not just at each other’s arguments but at each other. The social network becomes antisocial. Alanis Morissette, eat your heart out.

How does this effect us?

Wading in the shallows of knowledge the Internet offers is not something that affects a particular demographic: it affects anyone who uses it for an extended period of time. That means all of us. For some strange reason, we assign ourselves expert status after watching a few YouTube videos. You would think that with the proliferation of information on virtually very topic, the most outspoken among us would do their due diligence to understand the view they espouse or oppose. This is not the case. Straw men abound.

Take, for example, how we talk about religion and God on the internet. All too often the norm is to belittle and dismiss our opponent’s arguments without seeking to engage or understand them. We settle for memes or parodies that build the faithful but antagonise everyone else. Perhaps we believe that by repeating, reposting and retweeting caricatures over and over again they might spontaneously come into existence.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the Internet and the capability it puts at our fingertips. However, any medium that encourages short and pithy truth statements is not conducive to deep understanding.

While the Internet has contributed greatly to knowledge, democracy, and communication, there is a darker side to this technology. It has made us think we know what we are talking about with minimal effort. My encouragement to everyone is this – study hard and know what you believe and why you believe it. Not only your views, but those you oppose. This is true intellectual satisfaction and honesty. For in the deep things of life, the shallows just aren’t good enough.

Ask TM: Practical advice for persuading others in conversation?

We often get questions about theology and apologetics sent to us by readers and we thought it would be helpful if we shared some of our answers to those questions on the blog. If you’ve got a question that you’d like us to address here, send it to thinknz@gmail.com along with your full name, city, and country.

This week, one of our readers from Tauranga, New Zealand, asks what practical advice we can offer for sharing the truth of Christianity with others.

Read more

Five ways to argue like Jesus

We sometimes have a view of Jesus as a safe and gentle teacher but forget that the pages of Scripture reveal him as person of enormous controversy and debate. And many times it was Jesus himself who sought out that controversy – repudiating religious customs, upturning tables in temple markets, and castigating religious leaders for their moralism and hard-heartedness. For any Christian who thinks that we should always avoid confrontation or argument, Jesus’ life is a powerful reminder of the importance of discourse that embodies both truth and grace, salt and light.

Joe Carter and John Coleman have written a recent post at Relevant Magazine about how we can follow Jesus’ example and debate in a disarming and civil manner. If we want our communication to have the most impact, Carter and Coleman suggest that we should learn to be able to conduct a conversation that doesn’t raise voices or blood pressure.  The  “rules of rhetoric” they offer for effective communication have been distilled from their excellent book; How to Argue Like Jesus.  Joe Carter is the editor of the First Things magazine and an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. John Coleman is a former national public speaking champion pursuing a concurrent MBA/MPA at Harvard University.

You can read the whole post here. Crossway Books have also provided a brief overview on their blog:

  1. Start with examples your audience will understand: Always start with an example or concept your audience knows, understands, or finds interesting, and connect it to your core message.
  2. Speak your audience’s language: When you speak to an audience, to the extent possible, you must speak their language.
  3. Use witness: Consider the use of witnesses essential to the construction of an effective message based on narrative and ethos. Wherever possible, elicit testimonies.
  4. Know when to speak: There are a lot of important topics in the world, and it is not necessary that you have something to say about all of them—particularly if speaking on the topic would hurt your credibility or detract from your primary goal.
  5. And know when to be silent: Silence is one of the most powerful forms of communication. It shows that you are in control and gives the person or people a moment to think for themselves and consider how they will respond to your message

Apologetics and effective dialogue

This last semester, a group of Auckland university friends and myself attended a rally on campus to help launch a student pro-life group. Whenever students seek to form a club under the umbrella of the University’s Student Association, advocates must do so at an annual forum where votes are petitioned from those who are present. It is an interesting and cumbersome way to establish clubs, but it does guarantee a colourful event. And with an issue as controversial as abortion, you can imagine the intensity of debate.

In the end, however, opponents were able to gather more support against the club through successfully derailing the discussion. Instead of a debate about whether students should be able to establish a pro-life club, the merits of abortion were instead trumpeted. While it was heartening that pro-life advocates did not resort to the kind of personal attacks or irrelevant arguments that the other side did (the common complaints: “The morality of abortion should only be discussed among woman”, “Denying women the right to abortion is a form of religious oppression”, etc) I was reminded of how important it is that Christians are effective communicators.

Recently, I came across the excellent Life Training Institute Blog, and a post by Josh Brahm about effective dialogue and different tactics in conversation. To illustrate, Brahm recounts a conversation he overheard between a pro-choicer and a pro-lifer (‘Charlie’):

The pro-choicer made a comment along the lines of, “I don’t like abortion, but if it’s made illegal, women will be hurt in back-alley abortions.”

Charlie’s response? “So you think we should legalize murder?” (Add a hint of combative attitude to the tone, and you’ve got the picture.)

Now, I know where Charlie was going with this – he wanted to explain that we shouldn’t make or keep immoral things legal to make the crime safer for the felon. For example, we wouldn’t make murder legal to make things easier and safer for murderers, because murder is wrong. Unfortunately, our pro-choice friend who had probably never explored that logic, misunderstood where Charlie was going with this.

Instead, he responded, “Now, that’s called a strawman argument. That has nothing to do with what I just said.”

So to be clear, Charlie hadn’t made a strawman argument; he just wasn’t very clear in his argumentation.

I wasn’t able to hear all of Charlie’s response, but it was basically a second try at responding to the original pro-choice objection, and it still had that same combative tone. Then the pro-choicer starts talking about red herrings. He obviously wasn’t getting it, and he stormed off before I could catch him to continue the discussion.

Several hours later I was eating lunch with Charlie and another young volunteer, when the subject of effective dialogue came up.

I started by explaining how sometimes we hear an argument that we’ve heard over and over, like the back-alley thing, and we want to zero in for that “gotcha” moment. I added, “But in one-on-one conversations, we need to remember to take people slowly through our argument, making sure we make a clear case, and avoid asking pointed questions that will make the person feel defensive.”

Brahm then goes on to suggest a helpful distinction that Steve Wagner, another experienced pro-life communicator, has defined between “I get you” responses and “gotcha” replies. “Gotcha” answers are concise one-liners that are designed to stump the opposition. In formal debates, media interviews and hit and run conversations, quick answers and sound bite-shaped responses are the best weapons. If you’re unable to summarize why your point is true and your opponent’s is false, you lose.

However, in different contexts “gotcha” answers can be counter-productive. People will not want to dialogue if they feel humiliated or that they’re being led into a trap. Wagner explains:

I take time with each person. I try to let them have multiple opportunities to explain themselves. I don’t “move in for the kill.” While I ask tough questions, I’m also content to let some false statements or arguments go unanswered. I don’t always have to have the last word. Why? Because I think communicating to each person the phrase, “I get you,” is more important than making sure everyone else knows “I gotcha.” It’s one of the essential skills we teach every pro-life advocate: Listen to understand rather than to refute.

It’s good advice. And not just relevant for conversations about abortion. In apologetic practice, we can find ourselves  over-emphasizing the importance of finding initial entry points and common ground but it is often just as crucial to think about where we are going in the conversation.