Voices

Rude, mad, and smugly

Hell hath no fury like a scholar dissed online

Issue: "Samuel Alito," Nov. 12, 2005

Media commentators often lament the incivility of civil discourse, and then go on to "rip a new one" (to use the squirmy metaphor of the day) about whatever political party or ideology they consider responsible for all the meanness. Name-calling has never been rare in a democracy like ours, but it has been limited, for the most part, to those with especially choleric dispositions. In the last few years some of those limits have come tumbling down, nowhere more obviously than in internet blogs, posts, and chat rooms.

A case in point: I belong to an e-mail list dedicated to a certain literary period and personage. Among the contributors to the list are scholars, writers, teachers, and artists, many of them capable of addressing the central topic at a high level of erudition.

One might expect a genteel give-and-take in discussions of works that are hundreds of years old. One would be wrong. The tone is sophisticated and the vocabulary much more refined than that of, say, bikers at a dog fight. But the actual content, stripped down to essentials, isn't much removed from a canine confrontation. Every few months, when the ad hominems are flying and bystanders begin to protest, the list-master intervenes to cut off the thread and suggest the participants take their quarrel somewhere else.

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One memorable exchange began with a disagreement about a contemporary stage actor, and ended in death threats-or at least death wishes. Picture two nearsighted, stoop-shouldered academics angrily shedding their coats and spectacles while a third party tries to mediate: "Gentlemen! Gentlemen, please!"

Of course, one needn't be a scholar to participate in a digital dustup; anybody with online access can play. But the medium is more a symptom than a cause of uncivil discourse.

Internet posting satisfies two primal urges: "I wish I could say that" and "I wish I had said that." Have you ever been ticked off by a boss or a blowhard brother-in-law? Have you ever thought of the perfect rejoinder after the opportunity had passed? Welcome to the internet: freedom from retaliation plus all the time you need to compose that clever comeback.

One of my cyber-acquaintances is said (by mutual friends who know) to be charming and conciliatory in person, but a volcano of withering scorn in her posts. I confess to occasionally lurking around worldmagblog.com, where the discussion is carried on at a much higher level than average but can get snarky and mean. Why do people say things to each other online that they would never say face to face?

Perhaps because faces communicate hurt, anger and sorrow-all difficult emotions we try to avoid. To deal with someone "in person" means dealing with the whole package-voice, expression, body language-a formidable presence that promotes a respectful distance, at least until we get to know the person better. By contrast, an online forum is bloodless, abstract thought. Or so it appears.

Yet, it's "out of the heart [that] the mouth speaks," and freed from the restraints of personal contact it can speak too freely, showing itself at times to be a storehouse of anger and contempt. Internet discourse is all heart (in the biblical sense), filtered through syntax. Even when the content is true, the intent is often false-self-serving or self-congratulatory.

To speak winsomely to all people, online or off, is not a matter of being nice; it's a matter of being redeemed. "Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3). In some ways, they probably are. We who once walked in darkness can assume no other attitude but one of humble gratitude toward fellow believers, and humble compassion to those outside. Sons of the Most High are obliged to reflect His character, "for He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil" (Luke 6:35).

That doesn't mean we won't be misunderstood, but so was the original Son of the Most High. Even the gentlest post can get smacked down. Even so, speak the truth wherever you find yourself, but speak it in love which casts out hasty judgments, sarcastic volleys, and clever comebacks.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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