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Mean Christians on-line are still just mean

Mean Christians on-line are still just mean

Just because the Internet and social media can bring out the worst in people, does that mean that we must take part in the ugliness? Susan Shaw of Oregon State University proposes an alternative.

In only a few weeks I’ve been shocked at the rude comments, name-calling and insults that are posted as responses to the arguments and evidence that are offered to encourage critical thinking and different perspectives. What’s most surprising–and disappointing–is how many of those insults come from people who identify as Christian….

…I’ve noticed a disturbing pattern of some commenters attacking the writer rather than engaging the ideas. Certainly, a great deal of scholarship has noted how the anonymity of the internet seems to encourage people to behave badly toward others in ways they likely would not in person. And what we witness in the media among politicians is often more “gotcha” than any real willingness to delve deeply into authentic conversations over points of disagreement.

What baffles me most is how some Christians participate in online meanness and incivility. I’m not sure how people whose identifying characteristic is supposed to be love justify treating others with contempt because they disagree with them (Granted, church history is dotted all along the way with mean Christians, but I keep hoping we’ll learn to do better)….

…Personal attacks do not further analysis; rather they impede or shut down deliberation. Maybe that’s the idea. Maybe those Christians who attack writers personally are simply trying to shut down the conversation rather than examine ideas that are different from their own.

But it does not have to be that way.

This doesn’t have to be the case though. I ran across a social work project at Dordt College, a small liberal arts college in Iowa associated with the Christian Reformed Church. The social work students there selected the theme for social work month as “the ideal of community” with specific attention to how incivility breaks down community. The goal of the project was to encourage conversations about how to engage civilly when we are so accustomed to uncivil engagement, and the students’ guiding principles arose from their Christian faith. Their professor explained,

“First and foremost, we teach and try to put into practice the principle that all people deserve and require dignity and respect. All people includes those in power–politicians and public figures are people too–to the people in society with whom we disagree or those whose experience we cannot seem to connect with. From our Christian worldview, we know that all people are image bearers of God and therefore require our respect. . . We can, and should, cultivate communication–in person and online–that is both kind and gentle, respecting each other in our differences and yet being able to engage in meaningful dialogue about what we believe.”



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Paul Talbot

One of my truly depressing online experiences was a brief period some years back when I subscribed as a kibitzer to the HOBD listserve. The posts there were not anonymous. While there were thoughtful discussions, there were also a disconcertingly large number of truly nasty, ad hominem comments. While a relatively small number of the commenters were responsible, they were prolific, and vituperative. It was dispiriting, particularly as these were leaders of our church making them, and I cancelled the subscription.

David O'Rourke

Good points Jeremy, there are certainly times that anonymity is necessary and can give those who legitimately fear speaking out under their real name a way to do so. I think the specific problem is that it becomes easy to descend into really bad behavior when we can engage in conversation from a distance and without the potential for being held accountable for our bad behavior. For some examples pop over to the article linked to in this post and take a look at the overall tone of the comments, which have quickly descended into a playground brawl and have little to do with the topic of the original post.

It is not shocking that Christians can behave badly, we certainly have no more guarantee of good behavior than anyone who is not a Christian has. However I think we need to hold ourselves to the standards we accept in baptism. Specifically, in the Baptismal Covenant that applies to us Episcopalians, we pledge (or have pledged on our behalf and hopefully recommit to at Confirmation or Reception) to “…respect the dignity of every human being”, and this is not just when others respect us, but at all times. This does not mean making ourselves into doormats for abusive behavior like Leonardo writes about, but it does speak to how we respond and interact.

I don’t think that restricting the ability to post anonymously or under a screen name will in and of itself end nastiness in social media. We certainly have our share of harshness here in the Cafe, which oftentimes makes me reluctant to join the discussion in this blog. However, I do at times recognize the names of fellow members of my own diocese in the comments here on the Cafe, so the flip side is that if I post something that is really nasty using my “real name”, then perhaps one of them might recognize me and remind me of the Baptismal Covenant. If I post anonymously, then it is easier to avoid being held accountable.

I am not sure what the solution to incivility in social media is, but I do know that we as Christians can start with ourselves.

Jeremy Bates

I am skeptical of this constant theme–aren’t anonymous posters terrible–because anonymity can give the powerless a voice that might otherwise be silenced.

Then too, sometimes anonymity permits the observation that the emperor has no clothes. Of course the emperor will find this observation distasteful.

The powerful are especially irritated by anonymous criticism, because in other contexts they are able to exercise their power and squelch it.

As for the implicit notion that Christians, by virtue of being Christian, are better than other people . . . well, is it really so shocking to find out otherwise?

Eric Bonetti

Although the point underlying the article is well taken, which is that anonymity may engender bad behavior, it is also true that there is plenty of unexamined behavior that exists right out in the open. Truly, it’s not the lions one has to worry about. It’s other Christians.

Leonardo Ricardo

Grumble. Since I am from a community of people, lgbti people, LGBT or I Christians, it is not unusual for me to hear my heterosexual sisters and brothers ¨calling us names¨…long before the internet (and probably long before the telegraph or telephone) ¨Gay¨ people are slandered in public and/or privately. No, we don’t like it, nor do we go along with it (depending on the measure of immediate danger around us) but *it* exists and WE normally take note of it for our own well-being and general survival amongst bigots at Church or beyond. Open season on ¨Gay¨ people and others (read other different religious groups than Christian and other colors than White) have appeared in written words online and in the press (and in political campaign debates). About two decades ago some of the Republican creatures of George W. Bush burned (our reputations) at the stake as a sort of fear-mongering=sacrifice in order to demonstrate their own righteousness/wholesomeness and conservative political sensibilities…life became, again/still, very dangerous for LGBT and I people in countries like Uganda, Nigeria, Honduras, Iraq, Egypt and Kenya as a overflow from this messy slandering of LGBTI people…words, words cloaked in religious civility KILL LGBTI citizens and they kill us everyday. Unfortunately, I would rather see the words/acts of those who would oppress, exploit, demean, demoralize and outcast me appear before for me as shockingly blunt and rude as possible! It’s safer to get a grip on reality! Nearly seven decades ago I discovered in a weekly magazine (delivered to my parents home) a photo of a Black American hanging from a tree surrounded by men in white sheets who covered their dislike for fellow human beings with anonymous cowardliness. Watching Black and White newsreels between feature movies also proved to be a shocking experience for the youngster who was me when allied forces entered death camps…these REAL LIFE human disgraces are my first memories of the hypocrisy that is often disguised with ¨civility¨, religious or otherwise.

Please stop the deadly nonsense/posturing. Get real and stop playing pretend that people ought not be crude and blatant about their very own character short-coming…millions of lives depend on the stark truth of prejudice and hate (at the Anglican Communion and beyond it) as it reveals itself before us…online or in print. Go ahead, keep yelling nasty WORDS at us…it’s best for us to know who is friend are foe or feckless leader who might let us DIE (or be killed) at Church…and we do. Leonard Clark/Leonardo Ricardo

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