Something’s been niggling at me lately. And when I say niggling, I mean it’s been punching me in the throat. It’s the blatant anger and beastliness within the online community and beyond, and it’s been shocking the heck out of me lately. And I’m not just talking about heated online debates surrounding hot-button topics like abortion or same sex marriage, which always seem to get the blood boiling and the fingers furiously typing. I’m talking about despicable, personal attacks being leveled for silly reasons and with little to no provocation. I’m talking about the pervading belief that screams ‘I am superior to you and I must let you know it’.
It hit the boiling-over point for me when I was perusing a website that touted 5 no-fuss freezer meals. They were meals you could prepare easily in bulk, and they had tasty, readily available ingredients like cheddar cheese, salsa, cream of chicken soup and sour cream – delicious crowd-pleasers. As I glanced at the comments my jaw dropped. “What kind of garbage is this” and “What kind of mother are you for feeding your children this trash” and “What is this, heart attack in a freezer?” was all over the combox – and I’m not exaggerating. It was pure, unadulterated rudeness. I was appalled at the thought of the author having to endure such wretchedness from others, when all she did was publish something she had found to be helpful.
This lack of courtesy and manners unfortunately extends beyond the electronic community. It is everywhere. Not too long ago a friend of mine was cooking in a restaurant kitchen when a young lady came in, unaware that my friend was there orchestrating, looked at the mixing bowl full of whipped cream and with wrinkled nose said, “what is this, it smells disgusting”. My friend was laughing about it, but I could tell she was hurt. Who are these people and why are these comments necessary? Why must everything that even remotely enters the head be spewed out, in word or print, for everyone to hear/see for all eternity?
I don’t have an answer, mostly because people are people (thank you Depeche Mode). But I do have some thoughts.
Emily Post, in her book aptly named Etiquette, asserts rule number one for polite conversation: Think before you speak. She states:
“Nearly all the faults or mistakes in conversation are caused by not thinking. For instance, a first rule for behavior in society is “Try to do and say only that which will be agreeable to others.” Yet how many people who really know better, people who would be perfectly capable of intelligent understanding if they didn’t let their brains remain asleep or locked tight, go night after night to dinner parties, day after day to other social gatherings, and absent-mindedly chatter about this or that without ever taking the trouble to think what they are saying and to whom they are saying it!”
While there is a category of human beings I would classify as ‘instigators’, I suspect that much of this “foot-in-mouth-disease” has something to do with this technological generation we’re living in. You can’t go two minutes without reading an 800-word essay about Tuesday’s supper or be bombarded with 64 mind-numbing pictures of teenagers drinking and puking. I’m talking about the pervading attitude that my life is utterly gripping and thoroughly fascinating, not because of anything virtuous or delightful, but simply because I’m living it. Every banal and gory detail must obsessively be published for the masses to view, mull over and ‘like’ because if my life is ridiculously important just because…well…it’s ME we’re talking about here, then whatever enters my head must also be ridiculously important. Furthermore the rules of Honesty and Forthrightness state unequivocally that I must say everything in my head, regardless of what it is, and it’s not my fault if others are hurt by it. I’m just “being honest” or I’m “just saying is all”. All of a sudden discourtesy and disdain become acceptable and charity and manners don’t exist. If I think it, everyone must be thinking it and therefore, it must be true. And therefore, it must be said.
In addition to that, technology has created a strange new state of being – we’re alone yet at the same time we’re “connected”. Right now I am sitting at my computer in my quiet house yet I’m typing comments into public forums that might be seen by hundreds, if not thousands, of people around the world. And all of those people are real people like me, sitting by themselves, thinking, reading and responding to my comments in their own homes. It’s extraordinary and unprecedented – and it’s not difficult to see and understand the ease with which a harsh word or four could be leveled at another person. Technically I am by myself, and I’m staring at the inanimate object that is my computer while composing my anonymous retaliation to a random blog post. Even though I know (and hope?) that someone will likely be reading this, I’m so far disconnected from them as real persons that I don’t think about how my retaliatory words will come across and honestly, I couldn’t care less. What are they going to do about it anyways, right?
One of my favourite Canadian musicians is a guy named Steve Bell. He came out with an album called “Kindness” and at one of his concerts he explained the title. The word kindness has another word at its root – kin. Kindness is much more than just ‘being nice’ or having ‘good feelings’ towards one another, but it is rather a deep recognition that we are “profoundly related to one another in the economy of God”. We recognize kin as being our own – kindred spirits, family or those of our own flesh and blood. Yet God requires us to view not only our biological family this way, but also our wider human family – every person we meet and every person we will ever meet. We are to treat everyone with gentleness and KIN-dness.
St. John Bosco knew well what that meant. In a letter to a colleague he once wrote,
“[Jesus] put up with [the Apostles’] ignorance and roughness and even their infidelity. He treated sinners with a kindness and affection that caused some to be shocked, others to be scandalized, and still others to hope for God’s mercy. And so he bade us to be gentle and humble of heart. They are our sons and so in correcting their mistakes we must lay aside all anger and restrain it so firmly that it is extinguished entirely. There must be no hostility in our minds, no contempt in our eyes, no insult on our lips. We must use mercy for the present and have hope for the future as is fitting for true fathers who are eager for real correction and improvement.”
I’m sure John Bosco had to correct his boys. My goodness, I imagine those boys getting into every kind of scrape and predicament imaginable. So yes, unpleasant things must be said sometimes for the good of others, but they must always be said with humility and love, and almost always in private (a good dose of discernment goes a long way here). And this goes for every aspect of one’s life – both online and IRL. Just because the person you’re addressing isn’t in front of your face, doesn’t mean they’re not a person – with thoughts, feelings and an immortal soul – and that they don’t deserve your respect. They do. I’m not saying that online debates are never good, they can be. But be forewarned. It has been my experience that un-moderated public online debates tend to decline rapidly into vicious personal attacks – mostly for the reasons I’ve stated already. They’re not pretty, and they usually don’t reflect well on either party.
And when all else fails, remember what your mother used to say. Although it’s cliché and perhaps a bit trite, her words still ring true: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. In other words, keep that mouth tightly clamped and put a leash on those fingers. As it says in the book of Sirach, you won’t burst from doing so. I challenge you all as women and life-givers, seek to affirm and build up the Body of Christ with your words. Be fiercely kind to others. This means being strong and confident when you need to be, holding back and keeping quiet when it’s appropriate to do so, and doing both with courtesy, humility and love. It’s a dance that takes years to perfect, and we’ll probably never be perfect at it. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. We must. And we must love with all the imperfection that’s in our hearts. What more can the Lord ask of us?