To pund or not to pund? The baits and traps of tweology
It is a great sadness to me that the word ‘pund’ does not exist. This is no doubt because the English ‘pundit’ is actually a corruption of an ancient Sanskrit work ‘pandit’ which meant ‘learned scholar, master, teacher’ (don’t worry – I didn’t know that until I looked it up in the OED). But I recommend using it – because I’ve noticed that there is an increasing amount of punding going on. And I’m not sure the sight is all that pretty.
Now I’m a huge fan of blogs and tweets. For Q regulars, that will go without saying. “Of course he is”, you say. “He never stops his interminable blogging and tweeting”. But for the most part, I do try to avoid both punditry and polemics – especially on matters of substance. The net has given a voice to anyone who’s online – and that’s got to be great. On the whole…
But let me indulge in a modicum of polemical punditry just for a moment (now, there’s an irony for you). For I do worry that far from being a medium of thoughtful communication and honest engagement, the platform merely serves to deepen divisions and incarcerate us in cliques. I note with interest that Findo has been thinking on similar lines this weekend.
Take Twitter. To be really effective, a good tweet needs that punchy one-liner, the nicely crafted zinger to amuse and squash in equal measure. The wittier or punchier, the likelier to go viral. And I do enjoy, and so retweet, nicely turned (m)utterings. People’s ability to communicate well in 140 characters is curiously satisfying. But I’ve noticed a concerning habit. The platform gets used to stoke the fires of controversy in what is actually little more than theological gossiping and ecclesiastical pot-stirring. In other words, did you hear that Pastor X has said … ? and Dr Y has shown her true colours now with… and This is madness: look what Fred Z is calling for NOW!!…
Throw into the mix a wry hashtag with a nice play on the person’s name or alleged crime. And then to finish the job, slide into that playground debating style of name-calling. After all, 140 characters do get used up frighteningly quickly – so it’s much easier to resort to tried and tested
insults er … labels.
Fred / Ginger is a total fundie / liberal / chauvinist / feminist / heretic / imperialist / libertine / homophobe / obscurantist / contrarian / literalist / etc … just read what he / she has written now… (delete as appropriate/inclined)
Now of course, this is hardly a novel scourge. Human beings have done it for aeons, and Christians for 2 millennia. Labels can justify disengagement (at best), and (?usually) skate over the context, spirit or tone of what is quoted.
For example, it’s interesting now to revisit what John Stott actually wrote when he closed his annihilation comments in the book Essentials. The book is pretty unique – I can’t think of many theologians (of any stripe) who would endure such a detailed and often waspishly critical engagement with their work in as gracious though clear manner as Stott did. But the way he was treated after those 5 pages in particular simply served to prove how little people understood the spirit in which he wrote. For he said:
I am hesitant to have written these things, partly because i have a great respect for longstanding tradition which claims to be a true interpretation of Scripture, and do not lightly set it aside, and partly because the unity of the world-wide Evangelical constituency has always meant much to me. But the issue is too important to suppress, and I am grateful to you for challenging me to declare my present mind. I do not dogmatise about this position to which i have come. I hold it tentatively. But I do plead for frank dialogue among Evangelicals on the basis of Scripture. (Essentials, p320)
That plea fell on many deaf ears. My fear now is that as theological controversies come and go (which they inevitably will), ‘tweological’ discussions will only make matters worse. There is something potent about the instant broadcast within circles of followers who could then pass it on, and thus entrench or scandalise. You can of course prove me wrong – which would be excellent, and in fact the point of writing this…
There are times when disagreement is necessary. And to be fair, some Twitter controversialists of recent months have not resorted to this – and for some, it is used responsibly and carefully. I personally think tweets work best when they link to other stuff – informed decisions and discernment are surely impossible without context. And so it is perfectly legitimate for a tweeter to link to his/her own blog (well, I would wouldn’t I).
But this is where we need care too. It’s interesting – how does the OED define a pundit in modern usage?
an expert in a particular subject or field who is frequently called upon to give their opinions to the public
Now – don’t panic. The net has democratised knowledge. There’s no going back, for worse and for better. We’re all experts now. And so we can all be pundits. Which is fine. Unless we really not really experts at all…
So I suppose all I think I’m saying is that whenever we put thoughts to web, we must scan our post with more than just a spell-checker. We should also develop a discipline of pulling any post through other scans. I suggest at least these four:
- a truth-checker: for when I speak of others
- an honesty-checker: for when I speak of myself
- a generosity-checker: for when I disagree with others
- a humility-checker: for when I assert my point
If you think of others, please add them in.
OK, there we go. Glad that’s off my chest so end of polemical punding. I think I’ll just toddle off and tweet a link to it…