Recently, I was talking to a friend about a mishap he had experienced on twitter. This friend of mine, a pastor, was defending a biblical view on social issues when, presumably due to the language used, was miscategorized by a reader as being an advocate for a trending political controversy. The misunderstanding of tweets as a result of language — in this case, language that happens be shared in hot-button topics in our current political bipartisan divide — is all too common. Consequently, my friend and I spent a great deal of time talking about the phrases we use and the words we select to formulate them. How words are defined, and who defines them, proved to be a little more thought intensive than one might imagine.
In the chapter, “Meanings and Definitions,” in his book Introduction to Logic, Harry J. Gensler wrote about a distinction between lexical and stipulative definitions of words. A lexical definition of a word is one that might be described as an objective definition; a definitive meaning that is not contingent on the conversation wherein a word is used (a definition found in a dictionary). One example Gensler provided was that a “bachelor means an unmarried man.” A stipulative definition of a word is an alternative definition that a person ascribes to a word that is contingent on the conversation wherein the word is used. Simply put, a stipulative definition is how one uses a word, despite its definition found in a dictionary. An example of a stipulative use of the word bachelor might be when a married man explains that he is, “playing the bachelor this weekend.” He could mean that he intends to be unfaithful this weekend. Most likely, however, he probably means his wife will be out of town. How do we know, though? Gensler offered a third form of a definition, one that is clarifying. A clarifying definition “is one that stipulates a clearer meaning for a vague term.”
A stipulative definition, as previously stated, is contingent upon the context of the argument or conversation. As one might imagine, in the world of social media, stipulative terms are in abundance. But if a clarifying definition is not provided, how can we be sure of meaning? To complicate matters, a stipulatively used term may be left to be defined by more than one context — the context of the conversation and the greater social context in which the conversational context is taking place. This is where the conversation between my friend and I raised a question, and furthermore, led to what I suspect is a largely undefined dilemma: What is the social context of social media?
A pastor preaches to his congregation, a collection of believers, seekers and potentially skeptics, but all who, in one form or another, understand some context of being in a church. A rock band performs to its fans, and perhaps even its critics, but within an understood context of musical entertainment. Even on a national scale, when a leader speaks, one can assume a political context in which he or she addresses the nation. The context of social media, on the other hand, is a bit tricky. In an attempt to have a go at it, I suggested a metaphor to my friend.
Imagine shopping in a mall, only the walls between all of the stores have been removed. All of a sudden, the mom shopping at the Disney store for her son is rubbing elbows with the goths at Hot Topic. The elderly woman at Bath & Body Works is now alongside the college girls flipping through lingerie, and the middle aged man looking for a new smart phone is next to the giggly high schooler at Spencer’s Gifts. Using that metaphor, consider for a moment, that the conversations among customers of Lane Bryant are no longer limited to Lane Bryant customers. Likewise, we can assume that if “Bipartisan Politi Co.” was a department store, no longer would its contents be contained.
This raises a concern and, indeed, a challenge. Consider what potential hazards await when we stipulatively use words, without clarifying remarks, to an open-ended, undefined context. Where else in the history of humanity have all walks of life been so intimately and equally exposed to every social sphere imaginable? Where else in history have our great aunts been so privy to the adolescent ramblings of teenage boys, employees to the lives of their coworkers, or students to their teachers? Say nothing of the shifting of meaning in words and the shortening of attention spans as time goes on, simply imagine the implications of the fact that we don’t really know who we’re talking to!
I ask again, what is the context of social media? Who knows? I submit that what we do know is that the walls are down, and have been for some time. Moreover, the words we speak are subject to disavow themselves as they reach ears far beyond our intended audience. While we are still learning of the implications and ramifications of social media, can we afford to be obtuse or cavalier?
I’d like to close with two (among many) sobering thoughts. First, we’ve sacrificed clarity for digestibility. When we allow ambiguity as a result of a lack of clarifying definitions, because of a restriction on word count or for fear that no one will watch a video that is too long, we are hardly in control of the meaning of what we say. I can think of pastors, many of whom are still with us, who have left for us legacies that are not accurate representatives of their ministry. Their heavily edited videos and short-handed posts are digitally preserved in an ever-shifting social context. These pastors are now remembered for what they are not. Second, I would challenge Christians to check themselves on their right to speak. Contrary to our coveted right to free speech as American citizens, I would argue that our heavenly citizenship grants us no such liberty. We are not permitted to just say what we want! God, in his word for us, commands, “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29).
We may not fully understand the context of social media and, let me hasten to add, that should not stop us from using these mediums! However, we do have a biblical context from which we are commanded to speak. Paul instructed us on how to behave in social contexts, and from that we might find why we speak, how to speak, and to what ends! 1 Corinthians 10:31-33:
Why we speak; “v.31 So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do (including posting on twitter or facebook), do all things to the glory of God”
How to speak; “v.32 Give no offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God;”
The end to which we speak; “v.33 just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”
Dean Treloar was born and raised in south Louisiana. He has studied philosophy and Christian apologetics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dean and Kristen along with their son Benjamin live in New Orleans, Louisiana where they attend First Baptist Church of Westwego.