The internet vs the eighth commandment

Alastair Roberts has embarked on a thoughtful series of posts on recent controversies in the Christian blogosphere and what they show us about the problems with internet discourse.

In his latest post, Alastair looks at six ways in which the internet (and especially blogging and social networking) has transformed how we discuss things. I’m summarising these below, as I think it is useful to keep ourselves aware of these tendencies – not least so that we can each resist them as they push us towards hasty, reactive and strident responses to things we read or see online:

  1. A collapsing of contexts, leading to “the realization that there are people in close relational networks to us who hold radically different beliefs and exposure to those opinions.”
  2. A decontextualization of thought, in which the readership or audience for any communication is “potentially much less defined or circumscribable”, making it “harder to hold straight-talking conversations without more sensitive individuals being exposed to them” and greatly increasing the “possibility of having one’s position reduced to a decontextualized soundbite.”
  3. A personalizing of ideas, in which ideas “become far less distinct from personal relations” as they “follow the trajectories of social networking connections.” [See how the controversy which prompted Alastair’s posts has generally been seen in personal terms – Rachel Held Evans v Douglas Wilson and Jared Wilson – rather than in terms of “complementarianism” vs “egalitarianism”.]
  4. A collision of undifferentiated conversations, in which those who prefer “intimate, affirming, non-threatening, welcoming, and accepting” conversations are brought into contact with those who prefer “combative, disputational, confrontational, and challenging” conversations, and in which those for whom a topic is an intellectual challenge rub shoulders with those for whom it is a matter of great sensitivity and vulnerability.
  5. Decreased moderation of and democratization of discourse, in which (far more than in the past) “everyone has means of self-expression and participates in less bounded conversations”, and as as result “there is a lot more noise surrounding the signal and it is harder to keep discussions on target.”
  6. The spread and speed of thought, with “little time for consideration, reflection, and patient processing.” We find ourselves “encouraged to make up our minds in a matter of minutes” (or even seconds), leading to our “reacting, rather than responding.”

The last of these is probably, as a matter of moment-by-moment practical advice, the most important. Sometimes (often), we just need to slow down a bit and give ourselves time to think.

The other practical advice I would give is found in Luther’s exposition of the eighth commandment (on the Lutheran/Catholic numbering), in which he explains that the commandment not to give false testimony against our neighbour means:

We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbour, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest possible way.

I could point to a concrete example in the past week of where I was about to “react” vehemently to something someone had said to me in a discussion on Twitter, but then consciously decided to “explain everything in the kindest possible way” and assume that he must have meant something other than what (to be frank) the natural reading of his words suggested. As it turned out, that helped defuse the whole situation and, while we didn’t reach agreement, the discussion remained at the level of “vigorous debate” rather than the “ill-tempered row” that I, for one, was teetering on the edge of turning it into.

(Of course, Luther isn’t always the most obvious person to turn to for advice on how to avoid debates becoming violently overheated!)

So here’s my two-pronged approach to avoiding stoking the flames of internet arguments:

  1. Respond rather than reacting.
  2. Explain everything in the kindest possible way.

Though sometimes, you just need to BAMO: Block And Move On…

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5 thoughts on “The internet vs the eighth commandment”

  1. I agree that the accelerate of point #6 is perhaps the most important. What’s funny is that sometimes the internet has aided me in an opposite and positive way by slowing the conversation down. An argument regarding economics with a friend of mine became very heated in person. But we were able to continue it over email at a pace of a note every couple of days. Again, we didn’t agree, but I learned more and the interaction didn’t end in a huff or loss of friendship. Similarly, my wife (of ten years) and I have been successful with some difficult discussions over chat. Even just the few seconds of buffer between reactions is enough to keep things glued together and give a thoughtful response instead of a moody reaction.

    Conversely though, the ability to quickly drop a thoughtless 2-sentence drive-by blog comment or tweet greatly increases the likelihood of a Girardian pile-on occurring. Now, you can quite easily have a pile-on about almost anything, in no time at all! I was reading how you can set some email clients to lag 10 minutes (or whatever) before actually sending your messages. That way, you have a way to preemptively retract them. If we could develop this sort of self-control in all our online interactions, we’d be the better for it.

  2. Interesting analysis, and certainly speed or response (reducing likelihood of mature reflection) is one of the key problems. However, I do think there are other dimensions to consider. One of the most obvious is people playing to the gallery: not really addressing their interlocutor at all, but seeking to impress (or otherwise affect) third party readers.

    1. Indeed. Which is probably where the last sentence in my post comes into play.

      That said, I think it is rare that people are only playing to the gallery. A lot of what Alastair says is applicable even if – having considered the issues of context and taken a deep breath before responding – you are aware that the person involved is also talking to people over your shoulder.

      And of course, the eighth commandment still applies regardless… though at times it needs to be balanced with (to borrow another Luther formulation – sorry 😉 ) the requirement to “call the thing what it is”.

    2. Good point, Ben. I wonder whether this is related to a further factor I didn’t mention in my original piece: that truly public, neutral, or common spaces are less commonly employed as the context of debate online, but our private spaces are always bumping into each other. When we debate things online, we often tend to do so in our personal spaces – such as our blogs or Facebook walls – or in other persons’ or groups’ spaces. A sense of always playing either at home or away, of playing to a friendly audience or against a hostile one, of being invaded and threatened or of having to break into unwelcoming areas can result. Our debates become infected with a sort of territorialism that truly public or neutral spaces could overcome. More public spaces also privilege the less partisan among us by denying any single party control of the debate and its terms.

      I don’t think that the gallery is unimportant. While I always try to address and interact with my interlocutors carefully, I almost always seek primarily to win over the impartial and uncommitted observer. They mediate my relationship with my opponent and, among other things, make it considerably easier for me to keep a cool head.

      1. That may be one reason for Twitter’s appeal: it’s nearer to providing that “neutral” venue. Although (a) that worsens some of the other traits you identify, by dissolving further the distinctions between contexts and increasing the speed of communication, and (b) to some extent semi-private contexts arise anyway, as I may be @ing away to someone you don’t follow, and chances are you’ll never be any the wiser.

        The recent, deeply regrettable carryings on in sections of the Catholic Twittersphere (in which I’ve been more mixed up than in the RHE v Wilson spat) tend to show both those tendencies.

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