Monday 18 August 2008

One silly tipple — Online Rage

A while ago, I was interested to hear from someone who runs Samaritans, a UK suicide helpline, that most of their contacts come as emails. Perhaps the comparative anonymity of the keyboard provides an open space where shy people can open up. But, as my first vicar used to say, every silver lining has a cloud. What if the internet is the ideal low-accountability zone for people to lash out angrily, plumbing new depths of ad hominem sarcasm, rubbishing whole swathes of humanity with simplistic “them and us” namecalling? People who are otherwise perfectly nice say things online in ways they would never dream of talking to flesh-and-blood human beings.

In a brilliant Op-Ed for the Guardian, Andrew Brown talks of the sincere but more nuanced way his forebears drank with and against their religious enemies in Northern Ireland:

How very different the conduct of religious discussions on the internet. On the web the participants are often sober and they spare no pains to offend and insult one another, even when there is nothing at stake. I nearly wrote "nothing but prestige" but prestige in whose eyes? Who is watching? The strange, weightless intimacy of online communication has enabled complete strangers to hate each other passionately within minutes. This has had measurable effects in the real world. In the US, for instance, the breakup of the Anglican Communion has already resulted in some huge and juicy lawsuits and will certainly result in many more as conservative parishes try to remove their churches from the liberal central body. The schism could never have happened without the internet, which allowed each side to see exactly what the other was up to, and then deliberately to misunderstand it.

If it’s any consolation for Anglicans, Atheists vs Creationists are equally rude, dismissive and vituperative... But why carry on mindless slugging matches, shouting past each other into empty space, anyway?

In County Fermanagh, religious differences were real enough for people to kill one another: my great-grandfather is buried in Enniskillen, which was the scene of one of the worst bombings. Perhaps because of that, people learned not to give offence unless there was something really serious at stake. But online, everything feels like a game, and in the teeth of all the evidence we persist in believing that there is a clear sharp line between gaming and reality.

Perhaps Christians who, like me, believe in the authority of Scripture, would do well to remember that, even online:

  1. “the faith once delivered to the saints” does actually include the Sermon on the Mount, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the conversation with the woman at the well.

  2. “human anger does not work the righteousness of God.”

  3. Jesus said his disciples would answer for saying “raca” to a brother in the fire of hell.
Now there’s a thought to stoke the heat up...


Doorman-Priest said...

Thank you for this thought provoking post.

My blog is an odd mix of religious types and non-religious types and mostly the peace is kept. I will say that some of my most respectful commenters are atheists who cannot fathom why I believe what I do, but who respect my right to do so.

If we cannot offer mutual respect and some form of civility at the least, what kind of Christians are we?

Erp said...

A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.

I've been on the internet for 20+ years and often seen 'flame wars' arise. More rarely do I see understanding conversations between people holding differing strong views. It can be done but it requires at least one party to see the other person as human with fears and hopes and to be willing not to return blow for blow. Admittedly I am speaking as a humanist here. Quakers would probably say you have to try to see the light of God in your opponent.

BTW I'm finding your blog to be very informative and I applaud your courage in allowing comments.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, very much, both. I see in Jesus' methods a kind of “be trusted in small things and great things can grow out of that" dynamic, where ordinary small consideration is not seen as lowly, but as foundational. The kind look, or incidental healing touch, is as important to God as the sign or wonder. Else religion becomes, to use (as I sometimes do) John Bowker's telling phrase, a kind of licensed insanity...

Erp, I think, if I may say so, you're right at the heart of the matter — a lot of Jesus ministry was going around enacting a conviction that persons matter more (as they are) than things, even the finer points of the law. It's a kind of radical desire for mercy not sacrifice we see with the woman taken in adultery, for example but reflected all over the place. his hardest words were for the Pharisees, not the atheists! FWIW I've only censored two comments out of several hundred in my first year on this blog; both Islamophobic hate mail after I'd enthusiastically shared and spoken at a rather rollicking iftaar in Milton Keynes, organised by my friend Anuoar Kassim.

Erika Baker said...

Certainly, it helps to sit opposite someone to assess their body language, facial expression etc. not just their words.

But I'm not sure that the Internet was needed for people to hate each other with a passion without knowing anything about each other, and to spread mindless stereotypes.

Brits hating Frogs and Krauts, Irish Protestants and Catholics hating each other often without ever having met anyone from the other camp, Germans demonising Jews - recent pre-Internet history is full of it.

As for "Perhaps Christians who, like me, believe in the authority of Scripture".... I hope that after your wonderful indaba post on the authority of Scripture a couple of weeks ago you are not now referring to Christians who supposedly ignore the authority of Scripture, but that you are comparing Christians and non-Christians.

Erika Baker said...

I keep thinking about what you say about anger, but I find the whole field extremely confusing.

If a majority in power coldly and without anger denies a minority its right to existence, say as happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany, is then the majority more righteous because it is not angry, whereas the minority who is seizing with helpless anger and fear, is in the wrong because it calls its brother Raca?

Isn’t it rather true that in any public debate we have to make an assessment whether some people aren’t right to be angry about a contested situation, and whether others are angry because their unjustified privileges are being threatened?

It’s sadly true that, historically, peaceful requests for change don’t ever succeed. If the slaves had merely kindly requested to be set free, I’d say they’d still be slaves today.

By dismissing all anger as equally wrong we're automatically siding with those defending the status quo.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks so much Erika. I hope I didn't mean anything sinister — just that as someone from an Evangelical background (though now with various strands) I certainly hold Scripture to be authoritative, but not in some fundamentalist way that turns it into a weapon against other disciples.

But thanks also for pinting out, and I agree, the positive value of anger as well. Without some degree of holy discontent, what would any of us achieve?

Perhaps the key is what we do with our anger; what media we use to express it; how we canalise it in creative rather than destructive directions. Is anger just a release of energy, like an explosion? And you can use explosions to build an engine, or blow things up. The morality attaches not to the feeling itself (we can't be responsible for having our feelings, just what we do about them?). I wonder...

Erp said...

I think anger can provide fire internally but to allow it to rule our actions whether as a group or individually can backfire. If you call another evil, they may cease to listen to what else you say.

I suspect anger is better than hate (though I'm not sure how a Christian would explain Luke 14:26 {it may be a matter of translation}). I also suspect it is better than apathy. Many in Britain (and the US) didn't care about the treatment of slaves. Many of the people in Germany didn't care what happened to the Jews (though some hated them). Today in the US we often turn a blind eye to the homeless.

I should also point out that peaceful action has worked. The British freed most of their slaves without violence (the US did not but in a sense it took another 100 plus years for full legal freedom). Prison reform though it has been slow is generally being accomplished peacefully.

Bringing this back to the internet, the net also allows us to learn about the varieties of our fellow humans especially if they are scarce amongst your off-line acquaintances. Not all atheists are alike (I have an ongoing conversation with a Christian who, after 5 or so years, finally twigged that I was a non-theist; it has left him in a somewhat confused state [he has some stereotypes about atheists and neither I nor another atheist in the conversation fit them]). Not all evangelicals are alike. Not all gays are alike. Not all African Anglicans are alike. Not all bishops are alike (some are human and go to the V&A with their kids:-).

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. I noticed years ago that there was no value for me to enter "christian" chat rooms because all I would ever find there was fighting for position. Apparently there was no higher calling in life than to make sure everybody knew that one individual had it right and everybody else had it wrong.

As I've grown over the years, I think that this was exactly what Paul wrote to Timothy about when he wrote instructions to avoid "foolish arguments" (1 Tim. 2:23).

Thank you again.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Erp, many thanks for your thoughts. Is "anger" a kind of starter motor thing (to get us up in the morning), which can lead to a settled strong motivating factor for good rather than evil? Perhaps also fuel creativity (good) or high sporting performance (good) or be turned in on others to a point it becomes destructive to ourselves as social animals? What we have to ask is "what fruit did this particular bit of strong feeling bear?" and "how disabling was it to human interaction?" and questions like that.

I'm interested because I have a very rational sensible father and irrational thatrical mother, God rest them both; so on a good day I can muster all the permission to have feelings of my mother and awareness of context of my father — and on a bad day, er, the other way round... !

Mt 14 is, if I remember aright to do with the lack of comparatives in semitic languages; but the Biblical doozy for me is about the OT where God hates various things (some we'd agree on like "a lie" "false weights" and some of which we wouldn't). He is presented as El Qanah (what KJV calls a "jealous God") which actually means "hot breath/ passionate). That isn't permission to be a complete prat, but it is potentially liberating to low-passion up-tight societies like the UK!

And thanks also for a broad expansive concept of the internet as the place we can actually step aside from the stereotypes if we choose not to reinforce them (Hope I'm not distorting what you meant too much)...

Like you, bdentzy, even allowing for the way things look mroe definite in cold print on a screen, there is plenty of foolish stuff out there. All that glistens is certainly not gold — I find the anger, self-righteousness and vituperative spleen on some "Christian" websites really hard work; but I also remember my sense of wonder (yes, it was wonder) when, back in 1994 I bought my first US Robotics modem and first connected to the internet and realised real live people in the US were interacting with me in real time on a mailing list! The OKC bombings came a year or so afterwards, and a list I was on exploded with all kinds of strong immediate feelings, some more noble than others. It probably sounds silly, but I felt something almost like reverence about the real human being I was now connecting with live and direct in a way I couldn't not so very long before. Maybe if we can retain something of that awareness, the policing of the silly stuff (in ourselves, quite apart from anywhere else) can look after itself better...

Erp said...

Long reply to my long reply. You have a lot to say and I'm having to wind it through my mind. I have a problem with anger in that I tend to turn it inward, suppress it, and withdraw which isn't always good; sometimes one has to speak up. I tend to spend too much time thinking and not enough doing. It isn't effective starter motor for me and I'm not sure how to channel it into another emotion that is.

But back to the Bible, I deliberately skipped over the OT depiction of God as a jealous God who hates (I'm never quite sure how an individual Christian takes the OT). Your interpretation of El Qanah is interesting I note 'hot breath/passionate' can apply both to love and to anger, and, love can also turn wrong when it leads to overprotecting/smothering of the love one (or to jealousy if the love one looks at another). Perhaps the UK needs more passion though I note that football matches and Northern Ireland sometimes have too much (my aunt was near the site of an IRA bomb blast and has described it as one of the few times she was white-hot in anger).

I started on the internet a bit earlier (1983) and can remember my wonder (though at that time most of the denizens were computer people or academics so the diversity wasn't so great [it didn't stop the flame wars over piddling things though :-(]). I can remember an email exchange with a South African student among other things which probably taught both of us a bit about each other. However the internet does cause another division between those who have it and those who don't. How many of the bishops at Lambeth had internet access in their dioceses? In particular how many of those from Africa outside of South Africa had it? Would things change if a bishop in Benue, Nigeria could exchange email regularly with a bishop in Buckinghamshire; could report a deadly fire in a local village and know that some church in Milton Keynes the next Sunday was praying for them (not that I believe that prayers in themselves are effective but the knowledge that prayers are being said can be soothing and unifying)? More importantly if a medical clinic there could communicate with a major teaching hospital in the UK about patients with difficult medical problems. Or if local craftspeople could sell their products directly to people around the world and skip most of the middlemen.

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