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:
- 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.”
- 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.”
- 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”.]
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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:
- Respond rather than reacting.
- Explain everything in the kindest possible way.
Though sometimes, you just need to BAMO: Block And Move On…