Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Elephant In the Room

None of what I'm about to write is anything new. You've likely heard or experienced it in one way or another over the past decade or so. Nevertheless, I'm going to write it because it's a good reminder for all of us.

There's an Indian story about blind men and the elephant. Each one touches a different part of the elephant and then tries to tell the others about the animal. Because each one had a different experience, yet each one true to them, they can't agree on what an elephant is like. Different versions of the parable have different endings and lessons, but most often it's used to illustrate how our experience can be true but also miss larger truths that we can't or don't see.

And that brings me to this. The United Methodist Church is holding their quadrennial meeting in which delegates from all over the world meet to decide what, if any, changes are made to the Book of Discipline, which, contrary to what I've told my kid, is not what parents consult to determine punishments for various infractions ranging from leaving your clothes on the floor (a reprimand) to breaking the tv (banishment from the family for bringing shame to our name). No, instead, the Book of Discipline is the set of rules and beliefs of the United Methodist denomination that gets reviewed and revised every four years at the General Conference.

Belonging to the UMC, I figured I'd follow along with the General Conference on Twitter. I thought I'd learn a little about the workings of the organization and, with luck, find some humor amid the drudgery of what is essentially a 10-day legislative session. I mean, I've been on Twitter for several years and it's an invaluable tool for making me a smarter baseball fan. I've encountered both smart writers who take the time to answer my questions to intelligent fans who have found the right balance between taking the games seriously but also realizing they're supposed to be fun. If I can find that for baseball, surely I can find that for church, right?

So I set up a search for all tweets related to the UMC General Conference while I was at work the first day and it appeared I'd walked in to the middle of a giant family fight. Instead of joy about all being in one place to work together and try to resolve the issues facing the denomination, there appeared to be lot of finger pointing and blame spreading. Over the course of the first few days, it felt more like I was watching the United States Congress debate rather than a church organization.

I don't say that to diminish the importance of the issues or the direction of the church. But for three days the debate seemed to center on how to go about debating and if there would be changes to Robert's Rules of Order. Three days. I'm pretty sure if Jesus had been killed on the first day, he'd have risen from the dead by the third day just to tell everyone to knock it off and their their ... together. As I'm writing this, there's apparently talk of a schism going on so clearly there are serious issues that need to be addressed.

And with heated issues comes heated rhetoric. And that leads us back to twitter, the land of overheated rhetoric. While the name-calling did seem to stay a minimum (unless you count "liberal" and "conservative" as name calling), everything else seemed to exactly as you expected. If I had more time, I would have played my favorite mental game and just retweeted various posts and adding "spot the logical fallacy" on so many things. But I figured that wouldn't have been all that helpful and simply make people more upset, which isn't exactly conducive to finding solutions.

So for days, I kept reading the tweets and eventually figured out which side people were on and the rhetorical tricks they would use to try to frame the issue how they wanted it framed. People locked on opposite sides were talking past one another instead of to one another. Often these were people at the conference. People who, if they wanted to, could say "hey, meet me in the back of Conference Room C and we can talk about this in person." But I didn't see much of that. People were more interested in making their point then they were in listening to each other, of which twitter is the perfect medium for that.

But here's where the biggest issue for me comes in. I have no idea if what I'm seeing on twitter represents a true representative sampling of the delegates at the conference of if they're just the loud extremes on either end. I don't have a context to put the conversation in the larger picture of the United Methodist Church discussions. I have some general ideas that I've gleaned about the situation, but my guess is for me to try to draw any conclusions only from twitter would likely mean I'm missing a large segments of people at the conference who are either not on social media at all or are avoiding it for the duration of the conference.

So what am I supposed to do? At this point, I have no idea. I'm not likely to follow this debate once the conference ends and after seeing three days of debate on how to debate, there's not a chance in hell I want to ever attend any of these conferences. In a way that probably makes me part of the problem as I'm not actively seeking to be part of the solution. The best thing I can find to do is remember that I'm only seeing a sliver of the debate and remind myself that I'll never have all the information. That doesn't absolve me from making decisions, but it's a reminder to me not to cling tightly to decisions when additional knowledge is still out there for me to learn.