So, I have this friend on Facebook… In fact, you probably do too.
He’s the guy who posts offensive, multi-paragraphed Facebook rants about ‘lamestream’ media conspiracies, the evils of same-sex marriage, the decline of Western society, and the inerrancy of Jesus Christ his Lord and Saviour — and then defends those positions to death in the comments.
For me, his name is Ryan (name changed for privacy).
I don’t remember how Ryan ended up on my friends list. I think it was through a mutual friend who enjoyed debating him. But to help you get a sense of who Ryan is, here’s a glory-reel of his greatest posts (used with permission):
“Expecting the lamestream media, globalist elites and the snowflakes to meltdown in around 26 hours’ time yet again as their long-promised blue wave will turn red.”
“[People] who call upon the Name of our Saviour Jesus Christ should realise that the same-sex marriage postal plebiscite is actually a test on whether they are praying and appealing to the Father God for mercy and forgiveness.”
And last but not least…
“Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet. This year is the 17th anniversary of 9/11. Could this be the day when the truth will begin to be revealed and the Deep State be exposed for all they are?”
Now for a long time, I’d engage with Ryan’s posts. I’d come in on my white horse, sure to shed the light of day unto thee. And sure enough, that never happened. Instead, we’d get into comment wars — endless, circular, soul-destroying — with both unable to entirely convince the other they were wrong, and each leaving equally sure of themselves.
So then for a long time, I disengaged. I switched off. I scrolled past. I think for a bit I even muted him.
But recently, and maybe this has come with age, my view has softened. I’m no longer that angry young man, out to prove a point — I, like most of us, have glimpsed the folly of online echo-chambers and search-bubbles and Like-o-rithms and the Twittersphere. And I’ve begun to note more seriously the tension and division it’s creating — not only across the web and across the media, but also IRL. It got me thinking — yes there’s differences between us, but when did that become so cataclysmic? Why are we all so convicted of our own bullshit? Where’s our humility gone? What is going on?
So, one fateful day as I chanced upon one of Ryan’s Facebook posts, I had an all too uncommon idea — instead of commenting, I messaged him...
Mark: “Hey Ryan. I hope you don’t mind me reaching out like this. I’m super curious about what you think, and how and why you think like you do […] Let me know if you’d like to catch up for a coffee some time soon. Cheers.”
A few hours later, he replied.
Ryan: “Hi Mark… interesting to hear from you. Tell me more about this and we can schedule a time to chat actually.”
What followed was a rather pleasant exchange about what we were both up to in our lives, what we’re writing about (he’s a writer too), and even a sincere tangent about internet-induced depression. Long story short, a date was set.
A week out from Ryan’s and my meeting, I was talking with a friendly acquaintance in their kitchen about the whole idea.
Now, I’d consider this friend to be fairly open-minded, but when I mentioned that I’d be catching up with Ryan for lunch, a visible scowl came over his face. It seemed to say “You’ve gotta be careful”, or even “Why are you talking to someone like that?”
Afterward, thoughts ran through my mind. Was I legitimising Ryan? Was I giving him a platform? These thoughts have followed me even to this sentence. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised this very mentality is part of the problem we’re seeing play out online. With echo chambers of opinion closing off to the outside world. With increasing social tension offline too.
“I’ll be careful,” I said.
Finally, the day comes.
It’s lunchtime, and Ryan and I have organised to catch up at the university where he works as a tutor. I pass an LGBTIQ+ Cupcake Sale and, being unfamiliar to the campus, I ask for directions. I wonder if Ryan has passed the same stall and will raise it during our chat.
After zig-zagging the campus for a while, I find Ryan in the hipstery food zone where all the cool uni students hang. He looks gentle and unassuming, but also a little out of place. In a sea of Nikes and bomber jackets, he’s sporting rectangular reading glasses and a big white jumper, under the collar of which are clipped two red pens for marking. His black hair is swept back and thinning a little (like me) — and he’s a smaller build than most (also like me). Yet here we are, two dudes off the internet, surrounded by a millennial montage.
We grace through small talk and find a quiet room.
Now, heading into this conversation, my mindset is to understand the other. I don’t want to correct or confirm — I just want to let Ryan speak and hear out his point of view. Sure, I’ll poke around the edges if something feels fishy. But largely, I just want to see where the conversation goes if neither of us make any judgements about the other.
I explain all this to Ryan. He agrees. And so, I launch into the first of only two big questions I have for him — “What are the most important things you believe, day-to-day?”
I start here because, so often online, we just assume we know what the other person is thinking. This is especially dangerous over social media, because we have far less clues about what the person means — all we have are their words, emojis, an avatar or username, maybe a timecode that gives a little more context. In real life we have volume, tone of voice, body language, expressions etc. — yet despite the less information available to us when interacting with someone online, we tend to double-down on our ability to read their mind.
Anyway — Ryan’s answer is simple, but multi-layered.
“I am a conservative freethinker, but more than that I’m a Bible-believing Christian. And from a Christian perspective, we are supposed to give glory to God,” he says. At this point he errs, “But increasingly I’m seeing a conflict between myself, the syllabus, and the society…”
That ‘conflict’, as Ryan expands on, is the urgency he feels coming from the inevitable fall of Western society in a number of dimensions — economic, financial, but also moral and spiritual. Something the uni prohibits him from speaking about to his students.
“Here is the situation I can see in the Developed World — it’s in countries that are affluent that start questioning ‘why do we need to believe in God?’ They concoct ideas to explain away God.” He continues, “People complain when their coffee is not hot enough, whereas I look at the bigger problem…”
Ryan explains as Western developed nations stray from their “Judeo-Christian heritage” we risk removing a “standard” of moral behaviour — specifically, God’s absolute standard.
He cites China as an example, and to an extent Hong Kong, where he emigrated to Australia from at age 7. “Chinese culture came from Taoist, Confucian traditions and also the Legalist School. Their values have transformed since the 1990s because of Deng Xiaoping’s Chinese Economic Reform — which has led to a very utilitarian perspective. People who are very rich are then seen to be virtuous, even though it can be anything but.”
“The thing that I see to not work with progressivism, is the belief that we can set better standards [than God]. And then it becomes people jostling on what is a good standard. And who wins? Might is right. And if you put [that] into a system, a Government system — it never, ever, works. Because there will be an absolute totalitarianism in the end. If you remove the absolute standard, it becomes a free-for-all.”
Here he discusses the Hegelian Dialectic, adapted from Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus’s threefold capitulation of it, as a method through which power is transferred in a society — first, “an astute political leader” creates a problem, then they “gain power by appearing virtuous”, and finally, solve it. “If people lift the curtain, they [would] see you were the one who was very instrumental in actually creating the problem,” Ryan explains excitedly.
I can tell he’s getting a kick out of sharing his ideas with me. And so far, I can nod along. I mean, you could argue that the Catholic Church had absolute totalitarian rule of Western society for at least a thousand years — but at least it was a thousand years, right? In the history of semi-stable societies, that’s a long run. And, as Ryan will agree, the Church is only the human institution — what matters is the thing beneath it; the philosophical underpinnings and organising principles of a society. Before the Enlightenment, the Bible propped up the table just fine. And it could seem, from Ryan’s eyes, that now we’re struggling to stop the table from wobbling. That the replacements, (the US Constitution possibly, the UNHCR as well) ain’t working out…
This, though, is where Ryan’s worldview takes too literal a turn and too big a leap of faith for me.
“I believe in the spiritual world, especially in the past 2–3 years,” Ryan says, “I can see there is the Holy Spirit — and then there is the demonic and satanic spirits, who we can’t ‘see’, but we can actually see the results of their works through people who do terrible things.”
We talk here for a bit, but I feel I’ve got a grasp now of what Ryan believes: Remove God’s standard (the Bible), and all hell breaks loose — figuratively (with financial collapse, political upheaval, social unrest etc.) and literally (with actual demons and satanic spirits). And this is what we’re seeing play out now, from Ryan’s point of view, at least partly in the LGBTIQ+ Cupcake Sale I passed on the way to meet him.
I can tell Ryan is more relaxed — he’s downed his lunch, we’re both leaning back in our chairs — so at this point, I want to understand more about Ryan as a person, and the path he took to get where he is today. I switch gears and ask the second of my two big questions— “How did you come to believe what you believe?”
“Well it’s an interesting one because my parents are not Christian,” Ryan says, “They actually were, um, —well, my mother is quite against it.”
“Right,” I say.
“Funnily enough they enrolled us in two Catholic primary schools,” says Ryan. “But when we came to Australia we went to a public school — I was put into Catholic Scripture class, my brother was put into, um — ”
Ryan’s whole demeanour has shifted. He’s now more tentative about what he says. I begin to sense discomfort. But he continues.
“Someone approached [my brother] from the Inter-School Christian Fellowship and invited him to go. And um, he went, and when I went to high school — I followed my brother in going. At that stage, I was — there was a… competitiveness, a competitive spirit, in me towards my brother. I liked to follow him, but I also want to um — ”
“Beat him where he goes?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Ryan says.
“Is he an older brother?”
“He’s an older brother.”
“I have an older brother too. I can identify.”
Ryan opens up, “I had a complex, which also partly my mother fuelled, that… that I didn’t measure up to my brother. I always wanted to show her that she was wrong.”
Ryan explains how he went to the Inter-School Christian Fellowship group as a heady 13 year old, confident he could reconcile his Catholic faith and the more Protestant flavour they taught there. It wasn’t long before he was “challenged” by a leader who asked why he should be allowed into Heaven.
“I gave the Catholic answer which was about how I did the right thing and all that, and he told me ‘No, I don’t think that’s what would get you in heaven’ and I, I was a bit offended — which I actually think is one of the best things that could happen to anyone.”
He continued, “I always believe that if a faith doesn’t offend someone who listens to it, you haven’t actually spoken. You haven’t actually shared your faith with them. Why? Because you haven’t gotten to a point, where it makes them question. You don’t have to offend them to the point where they get pissed off, but offend them as in — make them question, do they have it right?”
Something twigs in me at this point… Is this why Ryan is so offensive on social media? So provocative with his rants, much like a particular Trump or the Westboro Baptist Church? Is he trying to use the same tactic that shook him, to shake everyone on his Facebook?
You see, there’s something about social media which exaggerates our interactions with one another in strange and dangerous ways — and I think it’s this: A post or a comment seem so much bigger than they are, because we imagine an internet-sized audience looking on. Because of this, our conversations take on the character of a Shakespearean performance, less an honest dialogue — two starstruck commenters battle the cosmos for ultimate victory, as the universe nervously looks on.
Additionally, we each imagine a slightly different universe looking on. The Conservatives imagine their buds behind them, and the dangerously naive femi-nazi SJWs opposing them. And the Progressives imagine their buds behind them, and the racist transphobic alt-right KKK kekboys opposing them. Which means we’re no longer having a civil conversation, or a single conversation for that matter. This is why so many of our comments seem to miss each other — as Tim Minchin describes it, we’re “like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.”
I might joke about it above, but the effect of this performative exaggeration on our online interactions is that it changes our ideas about how conversations in the real world are meant to play out. Our expectations shift. Now whenever we interact with someone or something, there’s a subtly heightened consideration in the back of our minds: “What will other people think? About what I’m saying? About me?”.
Call me Foucault, but this self-surveilling, I believe, is slowly eating away at our ability to interact with each other — online and IRL.
Back to the conversation at hand — I want to circle back to Ryan’s mother, because I sensed tension when he mentioned her earlier. It turns out Ryan’s mum met his dad during a protest for China’s claim to the Senkaku Islands (Ryan jokes that he comes from a very “passionate” bloodline). She’s a “very streetwise woman”, as Ryan explains, “she’s the eldest surviving child in her family, and from about the age of 12 or 13 she took on the responsibility of looking after her siblings.”
He goes on, “My mother at that stage was quite progressive and left-leaning, and now she vehemently hates the communist party — but she still believes in authority is right, and even if it’s wrong at times.”
I ask a delicate question. “So, was she ‘alright’ with you before you guys came to Australia?”
“Nup,” Ryan says bluntly. “Well, I was always the one who argued with her more, even when I was a child. She always says, I was the harder one to bring up, because I had my own will.”
He pauses. “I actually got that from her— I’m a chip off her when it comes to personality.”
Suddenly it all clicks.
“And my older brother is a chip off my father,” Ryan says.
“Yeah! Right!” I exclaim, “So because she loves your father, she loves your older brother.”
“Yeah exactly,” Ryan says.
Unfortunately, as Ryan goes on to explain, his mother’s bias has led to a lot of undue trouble in his life. He describes encountering “difficulties” — feeling “very unhappy after a series of attempts at relationships” (I can relate), struggling to find work after uni (I can relate), and after finally being placed in a high-paying HK-based job (I can’t relate), quitting after just 8 days due to the pressure of it all. By the end of it, he found himself questioning, “If I’m a good person in God’s eyes, why am I not able to get what I would like?” and even, “am I believing in the right God?”
Sounds like a period of clinical depression to me. And throughout it all, Ryan’s mother was unsupportive.
“My mother — she’s a very….”, he hesitates, “You could say, she wants things to be under control. And, um, our disputes from university onwards were always about ‘How come you can’t do this…’, ‘How come you’re not going and getting a proper job…’, ‘ You should go and get a mortgage…’”
I ask him, “It goes back to you being measured against your older brother, right?”
“Yes exactly,” he pauses. “I have the perception that I don’t tick many boxes in her life, in her standards.”
Eventually, Ryan learned to put every last bit of his faith into God. “Increasingly I was going, ‘Am I thinking the wrong way about God?’” Ryan says, “Am I god of him? Or is he God of me?”
And that, finally, is how Ryan got to his beliefs today.
Leaving, I’m struck by how similar our stories are — both younger brothers who to an extent feel as though they grew up in their brother’s shadows, both went through a period of depression and self-doubt, both felt at some point relationshipless and jobless and futureless, and for me, faithless — yet, despite our similarities, we’ve both grown to be two very different people.
As I start relaying this observation to Ryan, he runs into a young man (let’s say Tim) accompanied by a female friend. Tim is one of Ryan’s students — and no sooner do they greet one another are they speaking, in what seems to be quite a loud volume and in quite a passé tone, about “the fucking pedophiles”* and that “sexual assault is what the Government calls ‘rape’”. (*Tim is the potty-mouth here, not Ryan)
At this point, I notice Tim’s female friend, who had been walking with Tim until he ran into Ryan, has now fallen well back, so as not to be associated with us three — and I too, where I had felt drawn toward moments before, now feel actively repelled.
My experience, of talking to someone with a radically different point of view from me, should not be that uncommon. Yet, weirdly it is.
Social media has trained us to hunker down in our own circles, surround ourselves by what is comfortable — and when we do venture outside our comfort zones, to perform our positions and never give an inch.
I used to see Ryan as the epitome of that mentality.
Now, a very different picture of Ryan has formed — a picture of a young man who had felt very powerless throughout his life, and now spent a great deal of time thinking about what power is, who has it, and how it works. Of someone who never felt like he measured up to his brother, now preoccupied with measuring up to his God.
Rightly or wrongly, you can’t deny the profundity of that picture. And I wouldn’t have gotten there if I’d never engaged with Ryan on the human level. Because when you boil people down to pixels on a screen, it’s easy to forget that they’re much more than the ideas and beliefs they hold, whatever side of the aisle they may be on.
So, the next time you see a right-wing troll posting a multi-paragraph rant on your feed, resist the urge to snap back.
Perhaps, instead, ask them out for lunch.