Is Cyberspace Evil? Thoughts Toward A Christian Ethic of Blogging

 

Sometimes a topic is just suddenly “in the air,” and the one that is currently preoccupying me is how people behave in Cyperspace. The medium of blogging is now old enough for us all to see fairly consistent patterns emerging, and one of them, sadly, is the pervasiveness of bad manners, boorishness, and a general tendency toward a reflexive mean-spiritedness.

This really shouldn’t surprise any of us who have an adequately robust view of human sin, for after all, Cyberspace is just a reflection of the “real world,” where the wheat and the tares grow together. Over the years I have had some really disturbing comments on my blogs. There are remedies one can take for this. One can choose to moderate comments (I don’t), or delete them (I usually don’t), but still it can be unsettling to have someone you don’t know flame you, call you nasty names, impugn your faith, or blaspheme your God. It happens all the time.

Lately some thoughtful people have been calling it out. First, Tom Wright, someone I once briefly studied with thirty years ago and greatly respect, had rather pointedly addressed the issue in a recent book, from which an excerpt was posted on Theology Forum, a thoughtful theo-blog. Wright said,

“It really is high time we developed a Christian ethic of blogging. Bad temper is bad temper even in the apparent privacy of your own hard drive, and harsh and unjust words, when released into the wild, rampage around and do real damage. And as for the practice of saying mean and untrue things while hiding behind a pseudonym – well if I get a letter like that it goes straight in the bin … I have a pastoral concern for such people. (And, for that matter, a pastoral concern for anyone who spends more than a few minutes a day taking part in blogsite discussions, especially when they all use code names: was it for this that the creator of God made human beings?” (Justification [2009], 27)

This was the beginning on that site of a lively discussion on the issue, and another post, focused mostly on the practice of anonymous commenting, which I find to be a dubious practice.

Then my friend David Anderegg, a noted child psychologist and professor at Bennington College, wrote a blogpost for Psychology Today, describing how he was repeatedly flamed and castigated on his blog after the New York Times, in a brief article about his new book Nerds, quoted him as saying that terms like nerds and geeks should be banned. The free speech crowd ate him alive, without bothering to read the book, or attend to the context of his comment, which was that such terms of derogation are keeping talented boys from pursuing studies in math and science at a critical time in their development because of the stigma of such terms.

In response to this unpleasant experience he wrote a subsequent wonderfully cranky blogpost entitled “How I Learned to Hate Cyberspace: I Thought I Had a Good Idea until it Hit The Internet.”

David hasn’t given up his blog, but some have gone as far as to say that Cyberspace is intrinsically evil, and should be avoided by Christians, and maybe by everyone.  Even Tom Wright, in the quote above, questions whether any of us should be spending more than a few minutes in blogsite discussions.  I am guilty as charged.

So should we just avoid Cyberspace?  Is it evil?  My response to that, which I posted as a comment on Theology Forum is:

The whole discussion of whether blogging is an appropriate vehicle for Christian expression is one that must take place, but missing in much of what I read is the whole notion of moderation. I enjoy and learn from blogs like this one and others of its ilk, of which there are many. Do I do other things? Yes. Do I interface with actual people in real life? Yes.

Some of the overheated talk against blogging reminds me of some of the arguments I have heard against the use of alcohol. True, some people should never touch it. But many others are able to partake of it in a healthy and profitable way. It is not evil.

So I cannot accept the argument that this new medium is intrinsically harmful. When Christians start labeling things evil, they often would do better to examine their own hearts and souls, where the problem often is located.

Now I am generally a defender of blogging, and I find the access to information and to far-flung colleagues that one wouldn’t otherwise have as interlocutors invaluable. But I have been on blogs and list-serv conversations for years and recognize that there are genuine problems.

So I am all in favor of an ongoing discussion that helps us be kinder and more civil to each other on-line. Here are some random thoughts about it:
My own first rule on-line is to try to remember that there is a real person at the other end of the communication, and to write as if one was speaking in person, that is face to face. That won’t entirely eliminate the bad behavior, to be sure, but it is a start.  I have witnessed rude, mean-spirited interactions in universities in both Britain and America, some of the worst ones by theologians (and certain ethicists.) My teacher James Luther Adams once said to me, “The average divinity faculty makes the average congregation look like the communion of saints!” I was young then and took him at his word, but after being ordained for thirty-five years ( and serving in both contexts) I suspect he was just more familiar with the former.
One of the roughest interchanges I ever witnessed was at a 1989 Society for the Study of Theology lecture at Exeter College, Oxford, where the young paper presenter, who remained gracious and calm throughout, was subject to a grueling Q and A that slipped outside the bounds of propriety. That speaker is now the Archbishop of Canterbury, so perhaps that was good training for the vitriol that he is now routinely subject to. But we should all do better than that, both in person and on-line.

One of the ugly truths about blogging is that controversy gets you viewers, and one of the temptations for us bloggers is to intentionally get a kerfuffle going to attract eyeballs to our sites. To succumb to this temptation is not tending to “the better angels of our nature,” and is, as we Christians like to say, the work of the devil.

I speak from experience, for I confess that I have a fairly high snark factor in both my speech and my writing, and need to constantly keep it in check. I admonish my brothers and sisters to do likewise. But there is a fine line between hurtful snarkiness and dry humor, and one needs to be aware that we can’t see each other’s faces to catch the nuances, so some care with our words is in order.  Remember that people who don’t know you, don’t know you!  Your friends may get you, but don’t expect that unknown others will.  This suggests comments be kept brief and to the point, and as free of horns and teeth as you can possibly make them.The Christian practices that keep order in actual (as opposed to virtual) communities should be in place on-line as well. “Tell the truth in love,” “do unto others as you would them do unto you,” “be not conformed to this world,” are just a few that leap to mind.  And gentleness and kindness are included in everybody’s list of gifts of the Spirit.

One of the practices that my Confessing Christ open forum conversation has is a sort of quiet shunning. If someone is consistently provocative and trying to pick a fight we just don’t respond, a kind of Cyber turning the other cheek. In this way we don’t embarrass the person, and typically he or she (usually he, for some reason) just gets bored and goes away, or repents and gets back in the flow.

Just some thoughts.  I’d be interested in yours about this, as long as you are nice about it.

6 thoughts on “Is Cyberspace Evil? Thoughts Toward A Christian Ethic of Blogging

  1. >Thanks, Rick. I keep finding myself reading comments on blogs and stories in various places online, always hoping that I'll find some interesting discussion on whatever the blog or news story was. I'm always disappointed and often distressed at what's being said. More people need to address it as you have.

  2. >Yes, Jeanny, there is a great deal to be disappointed and distressed about on the blogs. I am raising the question (and I am not the first one to do so, by any means) of whether those of us in the faith community, and especially in the flourishing theological blogging community, can do better. Or, and I don't want to believe this, is the medium itself somehow toxic to human relating. I imagine 15th century monks in the scriptorium complaining that Gutenberg's new printing press was a corrosive influence to faith. New technologies change the world. How Cyberspace changes ours is still an open question. But it is not going away, so we can't just ignore it. Thanks for your comment.

  3. >An interesting post, Rick.Your reference to the scriptorium reminded me of a classic video in which a monk from the abbey "help desk" explains how these new-fangled "books" work. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Cd7Bsp3dDo].I'm not sure we need a Christian ethic of blogging so much as we need a return to valuing good manners. Instead of WWJD, how about WWWCD? That stands for "What would Ward Cleaver do?" I apologize if the reference is so dated that your younger readers don't get it.I think the Feedback and Commentary rules at Episcopal Café are a good example of what you're looking for. [http://episcopalcafe.com/feedback]Though the link to Drink Soaked Trots is, sadly, extinct.

  4. >Thanks for the comment, Bob, I'll check them out.I, of course, remember Ward Cleaver, husband of the always well dressed June, and DAD to Wally and “the Beave.” You are suggesting, are you not, a coursening of society over our lifespan? But, as I know you know, “Leave it to Beaver” and others in its genre (“Father Knows Best,” “Ozzie and Harriet”) were fantasy if not propaganda for a world gone by.Perhaps every generation thinks the world has gone to hell in a handbasket (whatever that is), but though I lament a loss of civility (just look at our dysfunctional Congress), I see in my own kids and their friends young adults who are more mature in many ways than we were at the same age (though we did set the bar pretty low in the late sixties.)I do worry about the ability of Americans who have never known hard times to cope with them, for they are surely here and here to stay I fear. Some of the political anger, and the real violence we are now seeing comes from that place. Some of the incivility on the Web reflects that too.My faith gives me hope that God can do something with this mess. Time, as always, will tell.

  5. >This was very helpful; thanks for putting it up, Richard. I've been meaning to create some sort of draft version of a comprehensive, but concise, Christian ethics of blogging, and this was a great spur to that future project. "Moderation" seems to be right on target.

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