• Ian Sutton

Gin Lane and Social Media

John Wesley (1703-1791 )

A regrettable feature of today’s world is that we are increasingly polarized. It’s not usually a matter of ideology — it’s just that we do not listen to one another. Communication is breaking down. One reason for this polarization is that we all tend to reside in our social media bubbles and echo chambers. We hear only opinions that we want to hear. Maybe life would improve were we to abstain from social media.

The situation is analogous to what happened in the late 18th century as the industrial revolution developed. Working conditions for many people were utterly miserable. Therefore, they took solace in alcohol, often to excess. The well-known Hogarth cartoon is of Beer Street and Gin Lane, published in the year 1751. The sketch on the right shows destitution of all kinds due to the over-consumption of gin.

In response to this social crisis many religious leaders advocated for temperance — no drinking of alcohol at all. Many Christian denominations continue to ban the consumption of alcoholic drinks. Maybe we need something similar now with regard to social media. It’s a new addition to our culture — we got along fine without it as little as ten years ago. We don’t need it, and it is causing much harm.

However, closer examination of the temperance movement shows that many of its advocates were not in favor of total abstinence. The left-hand panel of the Hogarth cartoon shows that people who drink beer, as opposed to gin, have prosperous and successful lives. We can see the same ambivalence in the works of John Wesley (1703-1791). In the paper Methodist Origins: John Wesley and Alcohol, Ivan Burnett says,

Wesley’s position is not that simple. It is far more complex than later Methodists actually thought. His position appears even contradictory. On the one hand he drank beverage alcohol; on the other he stood for a form of legal prohibition. While sometimes condemning the use of wine, he also held it to be “one of the noblest cordials in nature.” He called spirituous liquors “liquid fire” and those that sold them “poisoners general”; yet he himself said that there was a place even for these stronger liquors. He even wrote a book in which he went so far as to recommend their use. Wesley’s position on beverage alcohol, then, was anything but simplistic . . .

It is probably fair to say that the early prohibitionists were not so much against the consumption of alcohol, as they were against drunkenness, with the consequences that we see in the Gin Lane sketch. Maybe we can apply this lesson to our own lives. Social media has some benefits — not least of which enabling churches to conduct virtual services during the course of this pandemic. But we need to be moderate in our consumption, we need to avoid drunkenness.

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