My friend and fellow author/blogger Carol Howard Merritt gave me the best advice I ever got about how to deal with comments on articles we post online: ignore them.
“But the whole platform is supposed to be interactive,” I protested. “That’s what makes it unique.”
“Do you stay up nights having imaginary arguments in your head with people who leave vicious critiques on your blog?” she asked.
“The thing is,” she said, “reading comments on your posts is like willingly sticking your hand in a moving blender; you get pretty much exactly what you expect to get. So if you do it, you have no one to blame but yourself for the anxiety that results.”
Here are just a handful of examples pulled from the comments section of my blog. Keep in mind that the truly profane, and even violent, ones, have already been pulled by the site owners. These are the ones that are still allowed:
Why do we act this way online, especially when we’d never act this way if we were face-to-face?
Consider how we act in our cars. Ever pulled up next to someone at a light, only to find him headlining his own private concert in the driver’s seat? We do all kinds of things in our cars, from picking our noses to venting pent-up rage toward a fellow driver. We become someone very different when separated by little more than a couple of pieces of glass and the sense that we’ll likely never see these people again.
Add to that the levels of abstraction that the Internet affords, and you start to see why anything goes online. We can create self-constructed identities for ourselves, living out all of the impulses we’d otherwise repress. And we can rest in the assurance that no one will actually know who we are — never mind the damage done in the name of the faith we claim.
In addition to the issue of anonymity, the web makes it easy to dehumanize others. In a recent Intel labs survey of 12,000 adults, a full 61 percent of them said that they felt the technology we use on a daily basis has a dehumanizing effect. In an article on BigThink.com, David Berberry suggests that the added level of distance and abstraction of online interaction helps create this dehumanized perception of others.
“Classifying people as not-human,” he writes, “is a common psychological license for doing unto them what you would not want done unto you.” So we react out of some sort of primal impulse, never pausing to consider the emotional harm we may cause the recipient.
Such behavior isn’t simply relegated to comments on blog posts. From exploitive business practices to sexually denigrating hook-ups to brazen hate speech, the infinite reach and relative invisibility of virtual interaction brings out the absolute worst in us.
So what is a Christian to do online? How do we respond to hate from our fellow believers? Certainly we can’t just shout louder, condemning those who violate the basic tenets of Christian compassion — can we?
In my forthcoming book postChristian: What’s Left? Can We Fix It? Do We Care?, I argue that “personal contact is perhaps our most powerful weapon in waging peace.” It’s one thing to lodge salvos at a faceless “other” from a safe distance; it’s another entirely to look someone in the eye as a fellow human being and try to do the same.
This is a critical role of Christian community, particularly in an increasingly distributed and virtualized culture. Christianity should serve as the connective tissue that binds us together, helps us — and if necessary, forces us — to recognize one another’s humanity and to respond as if each of us is a God-inspired, God-created miracle.
Such social healing and reconciliation is not achieved through aggressive legislation, fiery sermons of judgment, or even through religious ritual or doctrine. It’s found in meaningful, fully embodied person-to-person contact. And there are so few opportunities for this in today’s world that Church — with a capital “C” — would do well to understand what an important mandate this is for our future relevance.
Image via Chinen Keiya.