On Expressing & Forming Identity Online
On this episode of Exvangelical, I start experimenting with the show formats. This is an audio essay; the transcript is below.
Hello and welcome to Exvangelical. I’m your host, Blake Chastain.
As we settle into 2022 and the realities of the omicron variant - the immensity of what it means for us to be living through a third year of the pandemic, things got a little dark for me. With the anniversary of the Jan 6 insurrection and the seeming ineptitude of the Biden administration to manage the public health toll of the pandemic or to take any meaningful steps to shore up small-d democratic infrastructure agains the tireless onslaught of far-right fascistic attempts to undermine governance & install permanent minority rule, there wasn’t much to be optimistic about. Couple that with a growing awareness that I am lonely for local friends and haven’t made any because we relocated during the pandemic, depend on social media for connection, and don’t really know how to ask for help when I know nearly everyone else is feeling the same way or similarly, I started to spiral.
I did desperate things, posting unhinged things to twitter and instagram, because I had started to crack a little and my own coping mechanisms have changed in the past year.
This also coincided with me writing and researching about digital media, online community, and identity formation for my book, and how it relates to exvangelical and deconstruction spaces, as well as how we relate to them as individuals. I also started exploring these issues explicitly in my newsletter, The Post-Evangelical Post, as part of a new series called Shaped By Tools. The name Shaped By Tools is a reference to the axiom attributed to Marshall McLuhan that: “first we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.1”
In his 1967 book, The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan perfectly captured the emotional reality of living online today. He wrote:
“The shock of recognition! In an electric information environment, minority groups can no longer be contained—ignored. Too many people know too much about each other. Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other.”
As I read this passage from the 1960s, another period of increased social awareness about inequality and injustice here in the United States, I see echoes of our own contemporary experience since around 2014, when the events surrounding the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and all the events that have transpired since then.
The 1960s Civil Rights movement utilized TV and radio, the new & established media of their time, to show white America aspects of society they would rather ignore. Similarly, social media has made it possible for even more people to speak about their experiences using tools like Twitter & TikTok to shine lights on stories that would have been overlooked.
But those words—“too many people know too much about each other”—they ring true today. If anything, they are more poignant now, in an era where sharing has become a default mode for many people, and even those who do not share or post participate in the consumption of the stories people post online. We absorb one another’s emotions, relentlessly compare ourselves to others, and have to constantly check in with ourselves in order to know if it’s healthy for us to use these services because we’ve developed codependent relationships with people we don’t even know or don’t even know we have imputed this burden onto them.
And the next line: “Our new environment compels commitment and participation.” In that, I see the impulse for us to act as our own PR reps, to constantly “update our followers” on what they can expect regarding changes to our content calendars—and somehow, this expectation feels universal, regardless if it is our full-time job, regardless of whether or not there’s a lingering pandemic and a subtle background dread tinted with economic precarity & climate apocalypse.
Exvangelical spaces are uniquely intense and have proliferated and changed considerably since 2016 & 2017. They are made up of thousands of people who are seeking common experience and understanding from one another. In 2017, the facebook group I administer had less than 100 members; now it has 11,000. Other communities have proliferated across other social networks; the exvangelical subreddit has over 7,000 members, the exvangelical hashtag has over 550M views on TikTok, and over 70,000 uses on Instagram.
At the same time, these groups are made up of people with different types of traumas and triggers, and what bonds them initially is shared traumas. While this is a potent starting point, it does not mean that we all believe or want the same things now. Furthermore, we are also subject to the whims of algorithms we cannot see or judge, and our engagement with this content and these communities will inevitably serve up more content for you to see. And whether we like it or not, whether the social industry companies admit to it or not, anger and drama are the most potent drivers of engagement.
Add to this the fact that evangelicalism conditioned people raised as cis boys & men to see anger as one of the few emotions permissible, and those raised as cis girls & women to see anger as off-limits & inexpressible (especially for black women or other women of color), and the process of working through trauma or even sharing memes online becomes much more fraught. The work that people raised as cis men may be doing of minimizing their anger is at odds with that of those raised as cis women who are working to reclaim their own.
And as Melissa Florer-Bixler writes in How to Have An Enemy, quoting Beverly Harrison, “anger denied subverts community.” Bixler continues:
“In communities of shared anger we discovering lingering within us our own participation in the destruction of others. Anger, like a fire, can offer light which illuminates the forms of destruction that are active within our own lives and communities. If we don’t individually and collectively confront the enemy we inhabit, we are doomed to displace responsibility onto others.”
Which brings me back to online community & identity. Exvangelical spaces have had repeated cycles of anger and in-fighting; I do not think this is unique to exvangelical communities, but I do think they are prone to them. This is not a value judgment but rather an acknowledgment of how things are; I have participated in these cycles. And because exvangelical individuals are in the midst of doing difficult and complex things like naming & consoling grief for lost belief and belonging, and doing so with ad-hoc & simple tools like hashtags and participation in online culture, it has not been a smooth process.
Again, this is not a value judgment. Nathan Jurgenson writes in The Social Photo that “digitality is not inherently unreal.” Jurgenson’s slim but profound book challenges the reader to reject what he calls “digital dualism.” He writes that “too often, discussions about technology use are conducted in bad faith, particularly when the detoxers and disconnectionists and digital-etiquette enforcers seem more interested in discussing the trivial differences of when and how one looks at the screen rather than the larger moral quandaries of what one is doing there.”
On the topic of identity, Jurgenson writes:
“The selfie captures how the self has long been understood in sociology, offering the third-person mirror view that Charles Horton-Cooley articulated more than a century ago with his foundational concept of the “looking-glass self.” His definition of the self is sometimes summed up like this: I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think you think I am.”
“In other words, social theoretical literature has long indexed the depth of modern concern over technology’s replacement of the real with something unnatural, thus prompting the death of absolute truth, of God. This is especially the case with the kind of identity theory described [within the book], much of which is founded on the tension between seeing the self as having some essential soul-like essence versus its being ap product of social construction and scripted performance. From Martin Heidegger’s “they-self,” Charles Horton Cooley’s “looking glass self,” and George Herbert Mead’s discussion of the “I” and the “me,” to Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical framework of self-presentation, Michel Foucault’s “arts of existence,” and Judith Butler’s discussion of identity “performativity,” many of the most influential theories of the self and identity have long recognized the tension between the real and the pose. Status-posturing performance–”success theater”--is fundamental to the existence of identity, and has been long before the advent of the perfectly staged social photo.”
What works like Jurgenson’s acknowledge is that digital social media and our use of it for personal self-expression and exploration is: first, valid, and second, done in dynamic relationship to others who use and inhabit these spaces alongside us.
What I would like to add is that how we relate to both ourselves, and these communities, change over time. In that spirit, “exvangelical” has become part of people’s identities, but the role it plays in their identity changes over time. For a time, it can be immensely important, and participation in those liminal communities and liminal identities can help us heal. Yet, as we heal, we may find ourselves drawn to other things, other identities. To use a linguistic metaphor, ‘exvangelical’ may for a time function as a noun, integral to your essence, and later it may be better suited as an adjective, one descriptor among many that adds color and dimension to your multi-faceted self.
Just because something is not permanent does not mean that it is not valuable. It all matters.
My hope is that as these communities, and the people that constitute them, continue to evolve and mature, that we can learn to recognize when we fall into unhealthy patterns.
When I began to spiral, I got caught up in the unforgiving cycle of comparison that social media can so easily cultivate - I worried about my follower count and level of engagement, worried that I wasn’t keeping pace with quote unquote “my peers” and that I simply did not matter. And perhaps I don’t. But at the same time, I was imputing things that simply were not registering to strangers and far-flung friends who had no idea what was going on, and overlooking the myriad blessings I have in my life. That is my own work, and it is not something that can be distilled down to a tweet or a tiktok or a story.
Regarding the more nebulous ideas of community and culture, I want to recognize that because of our upbringing in evangelicalism, most of us start at a deficit, regardless of age. This is not a millennial or Gen Z thing—it expands to include all generations born since the late 19th century. Today’s modern evangelicals, according to Michael Emerson & Christian Smith’s study from the year 2000, have a limited cultural tool kit. Robert Jones wrote about this in his book White Too Long, where he said:
“Particularly on questions related to race, [Emerson & Smith] found that white evangelicals’ cultural tool kit consisted of tools that restricted their moral vision to the personal and interpersonal realms, while screening out institutional or structural issues. Specifically, Emerson and Smith discovered that the white evangelical cultural tool kit contained three main tools that are all interconnected by theology: freewill individualism, relationalism, and antistructuralism. Spelled out, freewill individualism means that, for white evangelicals, “individuals exist independent of structures and institutions, have freewill, and are individually accountable for their own actions.” Relationalism means that white evangelicals tend to see the root of all problems in poor relationships between individuals rather than in unfair laws or institutional behavior. Finally, antistructuralism denotes the deep suspicion with which white evangelicals view institutional explanations for social problems, principally because they believe invoking social structures shifts blame from where it belongs: with sinful individuals.”
Our vision was limited, but it is expanding in fits and starts - and that alone makes this work valuable. We once were blind, but now we see, you might say. Our tools were limited, but we add to them. We continue to be shaped by them. My hope is that we can continue to extend our awareness to include the tools we now use, including social media and community, and recognize how they continue to shape us - and hope that we can find beneficial ways to do so.
There have been and will be mistakes. But I hope - again I come back to that word, hope - that we can continue to find ways to reduce harm and hurt, and learn from those mistakes.
For my part, I find value in sharing this with you, the listener, and include you in this process. The process of me writing my book, of sharing a part of my self in public, and in doing so, admitting my own humanity, recognizing my faults, and loving my self all the same. We bring so much to bear to these communities and cultures, and whatever we can do to soften these hard & difficult times fraught with so much precarity is necessary.
Please be kind to others and to your self. These are terribly difficult times. Most of us are carrying so much.
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This section of the essay is adapted from the introductory Shaped by Tools post, found here: