I’m writing amidst relative calm. The most significant event in world news this week, I would argue, is that Nepal was struck yesterday by another earthquake, the locus of which was in a more remote region this time, so the damage was less severe. It has been at least a week since any American presidential candidates declared themselves; many of the events that will make headlines later this week are still in the negotiating process. From where I’m sitting, which is in the corner of my corner apartment overlooking the main highway out of town, things are relatively calm.
It won’t last, though. There’s no way it can. Just last week, my reduced Facebook news feed, now filled only with the posts of my current friends and family and a few from college and high school—less than 100 people, people I respect and think very highly of—contained post after post of comments, links to articles, and what have you that, in peace time no less, still helped to churn the gigantic toilet plunger of disrespect that characterizes probably two out of three online interactions. If I were to say there’s nothing that makes me want to leave the digital space forever quite like this phenomenon, I would be understating it dramatically. The way we treat each other online is no longer just frustrating. It’s much more than that.
I suppose in a way that I’m writing this as an open letter to my friends and family who contribute to the phenomenon of online disrespect. But before anyone accuses me of passive aggressiveness, it’s important to note that it’s much easier than it seems to do this. Most political reporting, for example, falls into the category of “disrespectful.” Most commenting on contentious issues—not just obvious controversial subjects like abortion or pornography but even fairly innocuous things like bands or restaurants—falls into this category as well. In an indirect way, sharing disrespectful media with others, even reading or watching it yourself, also counts, as those who publish it can easily view the number of hits it’s received. In other words, as we circulate media that falls into this category, we perpetuate a cycle, exposing it to more and more people, affirming those who create it.
It’s not hard to see how such a negative and self-affirming culture as the one that exists over so much of the Internet would form under these conditions. It crosses languages, religions, and cultures in a way almost nothing else can. What’s more, it’s extremely intuitive: the more media is shared, the more it’s seen. And for a long time, now, media that lambasts, ridicules, or “roasts” other human beings has been extremely effective at collecting an audience—not just in the West.
Guys, this isn’t rocket science. If the article, the commentator, or whatever is talking about a person or group of people in a way you would not want them to talk about your mother or husband or child, then it’s probably disrespectful. For crying out loud, people justify sharing their vitriol on the net with “freedom of speech” arguments—notwithstanding the misinterpretation of the First Amendment these arguments entail, they’re justified by selfishness, or what their proponents believe amounts to their “right” to be rude.
This is just baffling to me. People are defending the right to tear others down. Isn’t that, at the core, what the defense of disrespectful interaction comprises? Especially in churches, the Christian community talks a lot about how we shouldn’t gossip, but guys, the passive sharing of disrespectful articles, videos, and other media is gossip. This is essentially the reason I don’t use Twitter, and why, for a long time, now, I’ve unfollowed any friend or family member who repeatedly posts political or other argument-bait content to Facebook, no matter how much I may like them personally. This is primarily a self-defensive move, to keep my argumentative self from the temptation to engage in comment battles that benefit no one. But it’s also because Facebook is a poor venue for discussing controversial subjects. The moment someone calls a name, points out bad grammar, or calls out a logical fallacy, it’s over.
I bring this up for a number of reasons. The first is personal: I’m talking as much to myself as to anyone reading this. Just this week, I was reading Romans 14 for a study I’m doing and was convicted over the fact that I have a tendency to be very judgmental of people who make poor health choices. It’s an attitude similar to racism or homophobia, the point being that it’s difficult for me to look beyond this very superficial characteristic to see the person beneath. Whether it’s right or wrong to do this isn’t the point. The point is, whether or not I’ve expressed my views outwardly, I’ve internalized so much of the culture of disrespect that it affects the way I see people. It makes me wonder, inasmuch as I speak out against it, how else I might be falling into the same tendency myself.
The second is a request. It’s a request for self-examination, for thoughtfulness, for accountability. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with having opinions—we’re supposed to have opinions on certain things. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with expressing them. The question is just how it’s done. The awesome thing is, I have some friends who are really good at this—at speaking both truth and opinion respectfully, both in person and online, using their own words or the eloquently (and kindly) expressed words of someone else. But I have others who feel the need to share controversial stances in questionable posts, possibly without considering the effect these might have on others. I don’t know their hearts, and most of the time, no, I don’t ask why they’re posting these things. But I do know that when I see a picture of a woman holding a gun, a Bible, and a smirk against the backdrop of an American flag, that a part of me laments what these symbols have been reduced to.
This is something that has been weighing on my heart heavily for a long time. The fact is, it’s actually quite easy and quick to assess whether something is respectful: if it’s true, honest, kind, just, and pure in intent, it’s probably respectful. If not, it’s probably not worth saying. There are a lot of things going on in the U.S. right now that are causing people to take opposing stances: GMO foods, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the shooting in Garland, the myriad events surrounding Baltimore. Instead of using these as soapboxes, though, let’s use things like this as opportunities to take a higher ground. Instead of telling people they’re wrong and volleying evidence against them for the opposite case, consider asking them why they believe the way they do. Yes, we as Americans live in a society where we’re free to speak freely, thank God. As to when that started being a society where we were entitled to speak abusively, I’m not sure.