In 2008, Americans consumed 3.6 zettabytes of information and 10,845 trillion words. That inconceivable number is expected to grow exponentially. “By 2015, it is estimated that Americans will consume both traditional and digital media for over 1.7 trillion hours, an average of approximately 15 and a half hours per person per day.” That’s according to a recent study by the Institute for Communication Technology Management. Further, “the amount of media delivered will exceed 8.75 zettabytes annually, or 74 gigabytes – 9 DVDs worth – of data sent to the average consumer on an average day. A zettabyte is 10 raised to the 21st power bytes, a million million gigabytes.” This figure does not include information processed while working. This stunning growth rate of information caused the Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt, to quip that every two days, we produce more information than we did from the dawn of civilization until 2003.
Whether Schmidt is wrong or right is anybody’s guess, but what’s clear is that today, the average person processes more information in a single day than our great-grandparents probably processed in years. The human capacity for information is massive, but it is finite. There is a definite limit. To manage the onslaught of information, we utilize several coping mechanisms. We filter. We select and prioritize. We tune out what we don’t want to hear or what doesn’t seem relevant to our purposes. When we’re dealing with people, especially online, we cognitively categorize them into certain groups—in other words, we stereotype.
I study perceptions about women, men, and leaders. I study what happens when those perceptions don’t match up to reality. Even before the digital glut of the information age, we stereotyped, and it’s not an altogether bad thing. Stereotypes, in and of themselves, are morally neutral. They are coping mechanisms and energy-saving devices our brains use to process information by chunking them into familiar and meaningful units, helping us understand, quickly, a present reality (or person) based on previous experience. Stereotypes only become negative when they don’t square up with reality.
The urge to stereotype is strong when trying to manage our online, digital relationships. Since we’re connected to such a great amount of people, it’s almost a neurological necessity to group people into certain categories based on any number of things—age, sex, race, religious and political leanings. The trouble is that the complexity of the human soul defies categorization. Human beings cannot be fully understood by a handful of descriptors—like their age, gender, or their views on social issues and when do this, it’s like reducing a real-life, breathing person down to a digital avatar. And we are not avatars.
Unfortunately, we Christians have proven to be adept at this reductionism. We categorize whole persons into one group or another based on our respective views on theology, politics, or social issues. Due to group polarization, those groups tend to be one extreme or the other. We decide if a person is or isn’t, if they are or aren’t, if they’re with us or against us. As my friend Sarah Jackson brilliantly pointed out, we commit the either/or fallacy: either you’re this, or that. There are no alternatives. The recent World Vision hullabaloo demonstrates this perfectly. Either you’re a Bible-thumping, redneck, hateful fundamentalist against the hiring of married gay people at a Christian organization OR you’re a liberal, naked pagan with no regard for personal holiness who’s for the hiring of married gay people.
It’s true. There are some foolish people who really are on one end of the extreme or another, but most of us are like plot-points along a bell curve. But we’re stereotyped into the extremes regardless of our actual position on that bell curve. It’s easy to do when we’ve reduced people to avatars. And when you’ve reduced people to avatars, it’s easy to be hateful. The vitriol flies and the world laughs because the Christians, who are supposed to be so loving, don’t actually love one another. The only thing they show is contemptuous disdain.
I dwell, virtually, in a community of writers whose opinions on social and theological issues span practically every point of the spectrum. On some points, we disagree greatly. But you know what? It’s never an issue. Because we respect each other. We understand each one of us have arrived at our viewpoint because of thoughtful, genuine reflection. We sometimes debate, but never argue. We present a united front. We trust each other. And at the end of the day, we got each others backs. Unity doesn’t mean conformity. It doesn’t mean your view swallows up my view or mine, yours.
The Bible is vague about a lot of things. Christian unity and selfless regard for our fellow Christians isn’t one of them.
“I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
“Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
“May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
“Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.”
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
We are not avatars. Each of us is a real person, with real hopes, real disappointments, real struggles. We’re trying to work out our faith faithfully. Let’s lay down our arms, shall we? Our poisonous arrows? Our faith requires it. You’re free to disagree. You’re free to think I stink like a hog lying in poop. But you still have to hold my hand.