Chuck Colson spoke frequently about the need for Christians to break the “spiral of silence” when it comes to hot-button social issues such as redefining marriage or the sanctity of human life.
The term “spiral of silence” refers to the desire we all have to avoid reprisal or isolation in public settings, and so people generally go along with what they think is the popular opinion—even if they object to that opinion themselves. So instead of speaking up, they remain silent.
Thus, for example, though many people oppose the idea of same-sex “marriage”, they’re afraid to say so, and that perpetuates the illusion that it’s an historical inevitability, when in fact many people just don’t want the grief.
In one study, researchers called this phenomenon “false enforcement,” or “the public enforcement of a norm that is not privately endorsed.” What sustains the norm isn’t its popularity, much less its validity, but instead, the desire to “avoid a negative social judgment from one’s peers.”
Think about the media, for example: When was the last time you saw homosexuality depicted negatively at all? And consider the verbal beating former coach Tony Dungy took this summer after he merely stated he would not have drafted Michael Sam to play on his team? Well, anyone with a similar view certainly got the message.
Now advocates of social media often suggest that online communication tools combat the spiral of silence. Because social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter provide more options for those with minority views, they should feel freer to say what they really think and thus break the spiral of silence. But it hasn’t worked out that way.
In fact, social media may have made the spiral of silence even worse. According to Pew Research, 86 percent of Americans are willing to have an in-person conversation about a controversial public issue, but just 42 percent of Facebook and Twitter users are willing to post about it on those platforms. And of the 14% of Americans who were unwilling to discuss the story face to face with others, only 0.3% were willing to post about it on social media.
Now perhaps you’re thinking, “Well, social media isn’t usually the best place to have these discussions.” And I would agree. Often it’s not.
But the study also suggested that “social media users were less willing to share their opinions in face-to-face settings.” In other words, their hesitancy to express their opinions on social media made them less likely to do it in other social settings too.
How could this be? Something C.S. Lewis noticed decades ago may offer a clue. He wrote of a tendency in public discourse to attack the motives of a person without even bothering to examine the merits of his or her position. Back in 1941, Lewis wrote, “The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.” It’s a technique Lewis called “Bulverism.”
I can tell you from firsthand experience, there’s no shortage of people out there who want to make those of us who hold Christian views on such things as marriage feel like we’re silly.
For example, one reviewer of Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage, my new book with Sean McDowell, said we were just trotting out the old, tired examples of the New Mexico photographer and Denver baker who were punished for refusing to be a part of a so-called gay wedding—as if they were an anomaly rather than the new norm. Rather than deal with the facts of actual events that happened as recently as a few months ago, the reviewer instead chose to attack our motives and intelligence. It’s just dressed up Bulverism!
Well, how to break this spiral of silence? It’s easy to say; it’s harder to do. We must speak the truth in love—face to face, online, or in whatever venue God provides. Not out of a desire to prove others wrong, but as a witness to the true, the good, and the beautiful. As Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton wrote, “We are not entitled to despair of explaining the truth; nor is it really so horribly difficult to explain.”
— by John Stonstreet
Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and is heard on Breakpoint, a radio commentary that is broadcast on 400 stations with an audience of eight million.
Copyright© 2014 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries