Taming the Online Tongue

Taming the Online Tongue

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This may not be the right topic for an online blog in which commenting is welcomed. But I'm doing it anyway. I'm a rebel like that.

Back in 2005, I helped start a webzine for college students. One of its features was a forum where our readers could respond to our articles and start discussions of their own. I loved this aspect of the site — it was a wonderful way to get to know our readers, express our opinions and share with one another ... sometimes. At other times, it was a mess of a place where people were getting into arguments with strangers, using harsh language and expressing opinions in an unkind, unproductive way. This was the online world — free of faces, body language and social cues. People said what they wanted in whatever way they wanted to.

As I've continued to read blogs, online news articles and Facebook feeds, I often feel exasperated, disgusted or downright embarrassed. And what is most disheartening is that my emotions often come from reading what my fellow Christians have written.

According to Facebook (my main news source), the trial has begun for George Zimmerman in regard to the Trayvon Martin shooting last year in Florida. When this event took place last year, I remember my newsfeed being flooded with all kinds of opinions, pictures, declarations, defenses and accusations — long before any actual evidence surfaced. I had friends on both sides of the issue who were being cruel and accusatory, and apparently feeling that they had the right to do so. It made me sad. Sad that people still feel the way they do about race, sad that people are so quick to jump to conclusions, sad that people are so ready to be mean to one another.

Yesterday, Focus on the Family posted a broadcast with Bono of U2. (If you don't know who Bono or U2 are, I'm sorry I can't help you.) I haven't listened to the interview, but the posting showed up on my Facebook feed, along with a variety of comments. Some were excited about the interview and grateful for the work Bono has done. But others were quite angry because they disagree with Bono on numerous points. In their anger, people were mean and condemning.

I've seen threads like this over and over in the social media world. And I think they're pretty pointless. For one thing, I see a lot of poor theology and cherry-picking of Bible verses. (Like, a lot.) I've also never known anyone who has changed his opinion because of an argument he was in on Facebook. Article threads can get hundreds of comments, but they're all just people arguing back and forth, thinking of how to phrase their next post. Maybe I'm wrong — perhaps opinions are changed all the time, but I've never seen it.

Most importantly: Christians. Brothers and sisters. People who are meant to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus — the death, resurrection and redemption of Christ — come on. If I were a non-Christian who happened to glance at some of these Facebook threads where people are accusing, fighting and belittling, I would run far away. Perhaps you disagree, but in my view, it makes us look foolish. I see none of the fruit of the Spirit in these conversations. Peace and patience are far off. Kindness and self-control — unheard of.

I'm not saying we shouldn't have opinions, especially when it comes to the Gospel and truth. However, I do not believe that the majority of social media fosters healthy conversations. People feel the right to be much more cruel and bold when they're not interacting face-to-face. We say things to each other online that we would never say in person.

However, I do believe social media is here to stay. And disagreements are also probably here to stay. Social media provides a way to interact with others, so I think we need to figure out how to do it well. I have found that stating my opinion kindly can go a long way. I don't think we need to change what we're saying, but I do think we may need to think twice about how we're saying it.

What do you all think? (Be nice!)

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  • Thanks for this, Denise! It's a timely encouragement.

  • - Blame our increased narcissism where it's important to people to get the most views/likes/thumbs up/etc.  I think the online forums and social media has created this positive feedback loop where the narcissim feeds our postings and vice versa.  Some people actually get a rush from the negative feedback in being a troll (because of the hits they are getting)

    - Blame the "I have to be right and you have to agree that I'm right" approach to postings.  I see it here...heck I see it just about everywhere.  Just the sin of pride here.

    - Blame the anonymity of the Internet.  How many people other than on FB actually use their real name?  Almost no one.  Why?  Because even if it's unlikely anyone would "track us down" and stalk, harass us or send us hate mail we still feel there is a vulnerability to us that doesn't occur behind the mask of just being a handle.

    - Blame the Us vs. Them mentality.Anyone who tries to reach out to the other side is branded a traitor and not a true believer.  Anyone who agrees with one part of someone's ideas and not with another's is often hated by both sides.  For instance, after today's SCOTUS ruling some people on FB, even of the Christian variety changed their profile pic to the famous pink equals sign.  What does that mean exactly?  I don't know, honestly. I haven't asked them, nor do I plan to.  But I suspect a number of fellow Believers were shocked. Or as some have probably wondered, "Are they really Christians?"  Wow, you cast someone's faith into doubt only by this one action?

    - Blame our propensity for confirmation bias.  No surprise that there is always an article, news story, "study" which backs up whatever preconceived notions we want to believe while at the same time dismissing or explaining away any which contradicts it.  Same goes for blog posts.

    Yeah, these problems aren't going to go away anytime soon, including in any Christian circles.  There will always be some issue where Christians will disagree even if one side is convinced it has the "correct" argument.  To name but a few packaderms: gay marriage, abortion, illegal immigration, combating AIDS, affirmative action, etc.  

    So yeah, put on your asbetos suit when entering the fray because if you say anything of any meaningful substance you will probably get flamed.  That or you'll only be surrounded by "yes-men" posts which often isn't too helpful either.

  • --I've been arguing with people online for well over a decade. I have thick skin. I am used to intellectual fights online where the people call each other names as well as carry out intellectual debates. Often at the same time. Not everyone engages in that. Lots of people stick to blogs where the comments are moderated or where the participants care a lot about seeming "mean" and getting along, even at the expense of the truth or The Truth. When the two styles meet, the former type of discourse can be shocking to the person accustomed to the latter. If you peruse certain blogs, you can see a lot of people who take it as a sign of personal dislike simply by disagreeing with them, even if you've got the facts to back up your assertion. This is what I've observed in my life.

    You might also get a more raw and honest comment from someone online, even if you aren't really anonymous since the NSA knows who we all are and what we are typing as we type it. Some people, such as many men, are conditioned to keep quiet and only say things that are agreeable to, say, the women in their lives or suffer the consequences. Thus, for instance, many women are shocked to read what many men are thinking. This could also go for employees and employers, people living in fear in China and the brutal Communist regime, conservative students in America's indoctrination centers (schools) and any of the myriad thought and speech police active in those places.

    Also, with the proliferation of smart phones or tablets, you might not want to type the coddling phrases you would say in real life such as "I don't mean to hurt your feelings", "Please don't beat me, but...", "I'm sorry I have a different opinion....".

    Also, my purpose in arguing with people online is almost never to convert the person with whom I am arguing. The argument is for the benefit of the reader.

  • --Back in my teens I was part of an active Christian forum centered around a card game. As one can imagine, there were plenty of theological 'discussions'. I didn't often participate, but when I did, I usually regretted it. One day it hit me that in this setting, few seemed to care about finding truth together. Most were only interested in expressing their hard-held convictions or opinions and refused to even consider another point of view. Granted, I'm sure there were those whose hearts were in the right place, but ultimately, it felt like people only cared about being right. Pride brought division and opinions became idols.

    Once I recognized and repented of my own tendency to want to prove myself right, I took a hard look at how I was spending my time on the forum and eventually left because there was no healthy fruit growing from these interactions. After all, Matthew 12:36 gives us a pretty heavy warning, "But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment."

    There are simply better ways to use one's words and time. And as a final thought, I find it interesting to point out that while the religious leaders of the day spent all their time arguing in the synagogues about [insert controversial doctrine here] and then not living their beliefs, Jesus spent His time getting to know the Father and doing His work by serving and teaching those around Him.

  • --I'm a member of a "Christian forum" that shall remain nameless.  There are Christians from many different countries, backgrounds, denominations, cultures, etc. on there, which makes for some rather interesting conversations.  For the most part everyone gets along pretty well and agrees to disagree.  However, about three years ago, someone posted a question and asked for people's opinions on a particular topic.  OPINIONS.  He didn't ask for facts, or Biblical proof, or anything like that.  It was basically just an "I'm curious to know what you all think about this" sort of question.  I answered honestly, and gave my opinion along with a few reasons why I felt the way I did.  For the next couple days, person after person posted and told me how horrible I was for saying what I did.  I was called all sorts of names, told that I couldn't possibly be a Christian, etc.  It may not have been the right decision, but I didn't defend myself.  I just left it alone.  A couple people posted to say that they agreed with me, and one person in particular defended me...and then he was attacked on the forums.  I try to keep that experience in mind when posting on other forums, because I never want to be on the attacking end.  Disagree, sure.  Attack, no.    

  • --I try to keep the actual, real-life humanity of others in mind when I post. Sometimes it helps to try to imagine my typed words as a face-to-face conversation. I've probably failed all too often to post the right words in the right spirit, but it strikes me that the stakes are doubly high when we post our words on public forums - because our words are stuck up there relatively permanently for all to see.

    That said, I (personally) have found online discussions somewhat helpful. My pool of opinions was fairly limited and homogenous growing up - it's been an adventure finding out "Oh my goodness, good Christian people can have different views about many things." When one is used to swallowing authority figures' opinions more or less whole, it's great to hear the flip side of an issue. Also, it's helpful to learn about another person's experience from a different walk of life, and to realize that there is more than one way to think about a given issue.

  • --In high school, I was a part of what was really a politically-oriented social network that had members from every walk of life. I had my political and religious beliefs challenged every day, and as frustrating as that could be, it forced me to either change my beliefs to match the facts or find more facts to support my beliefs. Not only that, but it made me the kind of person who welcomes being challenged. From that perspective, online comments and debate can be great.

    On the other hand, most online comments boil down to, "I feel like this is how it should be and have no interest in the facts, so I'm going to SHOUT LOUDLY AT YOU AND CALL YOU NAMES." I'm sorry, but your personal feelings don't get to dictate the facts.

  • --@elena, I agree! I grew up the same way, so the internet was my only link to the outside world. It was wonderful to learn how much variety there is among Christians. A handful of the teachings I learned growing up always bothered my conscience and my common sense on some level, so I appreciated being challenged to re-evaluate them. I had never heard the actual opposing arguments before, only strawmen. This helped prepare me for college. It was a Christian college, but the professors still gave me culture shock, much to my parents' dismay. I started asking tons of questions about all kinds of topics, so my parents were understandably concerned I was going to throw everything out the window. But being allowed to ask questions and not be afraid of discussion has made my faith stronger. I learned how to love God with my mind as well as heart, soul, and strength.

    It probably sounds odd, but atheists online are the people who have taught me the most about how to be like Jesus, even though they don't believe in Jesus. They helped me realize there were several problems with my moral compass, my level of compassion, and my level of awareness. Having the "outsider's" perspective helped me see how toxic and un-Biblical some aspects of certain Christian cultures are.  

  • --When I first started using the internet to communicate circa 2001 or so, I slowly began to realize that some people create whole new lives for themselves online. They are completely different in person than they are offline. Once that realization struck me, I decided then, that I was going to be the same person everywhere. I stopped using "screen" names and switched to my real name for communication. If I am ashamed to be confronted in real life of something I said somewhere online, then I shouldn't have said it to begin with.

  • --There was a time when I used FaceBook to argue all sorts of issues with complete strangers. It only seemed that no matter what I had to say or how I said it, I often got a mess of hate speech from complete strangers. Some even sent me personal messages with death threats. But that was years ago. Now I try to keep my opinions to myself on FaceBook. I keep my hot-button discussions to forums where I can post anonymously and/or stick with a screen name. For example, here on the Boundless Blog, I stick with my screen name [Dreamer Guy], and I lack any intention to reveal my true identity here. I like just being some other person here, just a man without a name or a face. So far, it has worked fine, and I intend to keep it this way.

  • --Although arguments online do get out of hand all the time, there have also been a few benefits in my own life from those types of interactions.  The main one for me has been hearing people thoughtfully defend positions that I would not naturally have taken seriously.  

    For instance, it was easy to assume that anyone who supported homosexuality must not be a Christian ... until I first encountered someone who carefully, thoughtfully argued for a different interpretation of certain passages, without pride or self-righteousness, and with a seemingly genuine heart for correctly interpreting and submitting to Scripture.  I still disagree with his position, but it became much harder to stereotype "the other side" as exclusively people who did not take the Bible seriously.  That has often been a major benefit of arguing through issues online -- destroying my assumptions of what people who disagree must be thinking.

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