The other day in a coffee shop I overheard something I found absolutely hilarious, roll on the floor laughing out loud silly. Because I knew Sarah would find it equally hilarious I texted her one of those messages that begins “Overheard ….” Her response was a series of laughing emojis and then the question “Was there a context to this?” My honest answer was “I have no context!” I mean, I’m sure with a bit of reasoning we could quickly work out the context but it was the lack of context that made the comment funny.
Because I knew Sarah would laugh out loud, I texted her. Because the rest of you would probably be just bewildered, I didn’t share the joke with the wider world on this blog, Facebook or Twitter but social media thrives on the “no context” context.
Social media allows us to communicate and share lots of stuff very quickly. One feature of it is the meme. You get a short audio or video clip or a quote and you share it on Twitter or Facebook. It quickly takes off and before you know it, everyone is sharing it. Sometimes it gets turned into a Gif with the short clip on repeat with no sound, used to provide ironic responses. One of my fun games is to spot the number of times people use clips from TV shows where they clearly have no awareness of where those clips come from.
At its best, this kind of sharing is the cause of great humour. At its worst, it’s the cause of great, sustained and disproportionate outrage. If you want to generate lots of hits and interaction then simply find the juiciest, most bizarre comment or action and share it. Before you know it, you;ll be chalking up the twitter impressions and the Facebook likes. You’ll be getting new followers and there’ll be a lengthy stream of comments expressing deep outrage and personal hurt.
However, whenever I see those quotes and clips, I’m often left thinking “I wonder what the context was?” Now sometimes the situation is so egregious that no amount of contextualisation is going to get the person off the hook. For example I think that even if someone were to say “Here’s an appalling racist joke I heard the other day [tells joke]….now let me explain why that’s terrible” that the surrounding commentary doesn’t justify the repeating of the joke. But most times, we can learn a lot more from context. Sometimes, we discover why the person was making the point they were for a specific situation. Sometimes, we realise that they were trying to make a good point badly. Sometimes, we still disagree with them but we understand where they are coming from and we are better able to engage the disagreement. Sometimes, we realise that they’ve used “let’s suppose” or “for the sake of argument” approaches. Sometimes they are intentionally using hyperbole.
Context matters. This is most crucially the case when we are engaging with Scripture. You shouldn’t just rip a verse out of its context to support an argument. It’s why I don’t often tend to cite other verses in a Bible study or sermon because really you need to go and look at the whole context of that verse to make sure you’ve applied it correctly.
However, the reason we should know not to take Bible verses out of context is that we should also know not to take other people’s words and actions out of context. So, next time you watch that clip, read that quote or hear that complaint about someone, stop and ask “Do we have context here?” If we don’t, then I gently suggest that you ignore it and get on with your day.
Full disclosure – I’m fairly certain that I’ve got outraged at something out of context often enough to realise that I need to preach this to myself!