If we can’t have a discussion, what’s the point of being on twitter?

Yesterday, I was in a discussion with a bunch of different folk on twitter. The specific discussion isn’t that important, to be honest. If you want to go and have a look at what it was all about, it would be easy enough to find.

As far as I can see, twitter is good for about four things. First, floating your views on whatever it is you happen to want to pontificate about. Second, having a discussion with people about whatever you (or someone else) happens to pontificate about. Third, publicising blogs and other media where you might have pontificated about something in a longer format. Fourth, sharing funny pictures of cats.

Anyway, I had a discussion with lots of different people yesterday. The overwhelming majority of it, as far as I was concerned, was good interaction. Lots of people didn’t agree with me. Some really didn’t like what I said. But most engaged nicely enough, answered questions, posed some of their own and discussed things in the way anybody might. You might judge some to have a different tone to others (but tone is difficult to discern on social media and in written form, so we probably shouldn’t place too much store by it).

But there are always those who seem to hate any discussion of this sort. Anything that makes a case, or poses questions, that feel a bit uncomfortable to some or others might feel strongly about are frequently viewed as a problem. The usual calls for us not to have these discussions at all tend to come out. The similar comments that ‘twitter isn’t a good forum’ often get thrown out too.

But if we can’t have those sorts of discussions on twitter, what is the point of it? If we can’t float ideas and views, and then discuss them, why even bother being on it at all?

I appreciate if people are cursing each other or expressing open hatred for one another, there is an issue. But some seem to think any disagreement amounts to that. Some seem to believe that not affirming, publicly, all the ecclesiological differences of our brothers and sisters that actively keep us out of one another’s churches (or, at least, not keeping schtum) we have brought the gospel into disrepute. But I struggle to see how the existence of our distinctly different churches hides that fact and daring to talk about those differences in any way exacerbates matters.

It bears saying that there are plenty of people who are unimpressed by an unwillingness to be open about these things. Just as slanging matches ill behove the gospel (but, again, I don’t think disagreeing is that) so does pretending things are not the way they are in reality does little for it either. The fact is, believers of all stripes disagree with one another on all sorts of things – we would have one, holy and visible catholic Church of one type were that not so. Naturally, belonging as we do to different traditions, we will have disagreements and I’m not convinced we do the gospel any great favours, or treat unbelievers with much respect by thinking they don’t notice, when we try to cover that up.

Could we all do without snarkiness? Sure. But I am prepared to be charitable on questions of tone when it is difficult to pick up in written form. I appreciate there are times people sanctimoniously fire off a single tweet without any real attempt to engage. But that ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of interaction, whether agreeing or disagreeing, was not unkind or nasty, it just engaged the point. It might not have agreed. It might have vehemently put its point over. But it wasn’t wrong for people to do so.

Frankly, given my theological forebears were imprisoned for daring to disagree on ecclesiology and were locked out of holding office, attending university and sometimes imprisoned because our views were deemed beyond the pale, I find hard to get worked up over a little snark. I’m not saying that is to be applauded, but I am keen to keep it in perspective. If those who stand in the same tradition as the ones doing the imprisoning and whatnot are reduced to intemperate language, I consider that to be progress and, if I’m being honest, pretty innocuous compared to their historic approach to these things. If those in my tradition (including me) are the offending parties, I can’t help but think it is hardly imprisoning, locking out of office and stopping folk going to university. Baptists and Independents have a longstanding commitment to freedom of religion for these reasons, from which freedom of speech and expression flow, and I am all for maintaining that in our discussions. And, once again, that is before we factor in that most engagement isn’t that. It is, at best, strongly disagreeing (which, in my view, is legitimate).

But if we can’t have open – even robust – discussions about these things on twitter, what is the point of being on it?