You've either read or written rude words on the internet. Probably both.
Online comment sections can be an embarrassment to our species. Facebook, each fall, seems to motivate millions to do Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly impersonations. . . but with more bias. Right after a church service about kindness and grace, people tweet complaints about their Sunday brunch waitstaff like they're participating in a roast. It seems if folks are free to anonymously speak into the electronic ether, more often than not it's ugly.
But what if this is because everyone is so nice?
Do the manners and decorum we use in real life (vs. online) mask what we've known/feared to be true all along? In other words, are our attempts at refined civility in place because we know we are actually neither very refined nor civil. And when in the perceived social safety of an online forum, and the risks and consequences for being relationally reckless feel removed, are we simply letting the pent up (but untamed) beast out for a roar?
Religion plays a majority role in telling people there is an acceptable way to act without first shining unthreatened light into the interior of the actor. In fact, religion often rewards people for lying about what they are, so long as the exterior performance is in keeping with "how one should behave." We reward people for successfully hiding their interior while punishing people for being forthright. If you're a lustful person and public about it, you're anathema. But if your lustful and a good liar about it, you can serve on a board of elders that kicks lustful people out. You can even picket outside all the best strip clubs. Same with anger and cynicism and all manner of relational negativity. We can have all sorts of pent up things in us, but we don't get it out at church because the church, all too often, delights in a certain presentation, not the truth about the reality boiling beneath.
"It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society."
I have been encouraged in the last couple months by how I've heard people refer to their own faith journeys. Over the years I've heard people reference the amount of time they have begun to spend reading, listening to sermons, going through workbooks, their church attendance, etc. as markers for "spiritual growth" occurring. Even how certain social or political issues have begun to matter to them. All good things, of course. But these things don't necessarily speak to the core of a person. They are behaviors and communally favorable opinions, but not necessarily growth. But lately I have noticed people saying things like,
"I feel like I'm waking up."
"I've really begun to understand why I've settled for so little in the past. It's like I can see now."
"Man, it's a great thing to have clarity of mind. I can see I've been foolish."
These and more come on the heels of multiple, long conversations where the person wasn't made to feel like inclusion was on the line. They felt like their own aware, awakened humanity was. Their behaviors weren't put at the center, or the head. Their heart, and its habitual response to having been marred and broken from an early age was. There's something so freeing, so peace-giving, about showing your interior and it not costing you anything more than your own ongoing, willful ignorance.
Motivating people to be deceptive, even in the name of proper doctrine and conduct doesn't grow them. Shame motivates deception. Ultimatums and conditions and requirements on inclusion all do the trick too. These things cut a person in half. One person, becomes two; A public face that uses a fork, says thank you and leads Sunday School. And then the secret reality beneath- the ashamed social, theological liability kept secret in the basements of men and women's minds. God is one, and we are made in the image of this God. If we tell people God wants certain behaviors or they'll be rejected, many people don't deal with what's real but simply become two (or more) in order to remain. That is to admit, God's church often unwittingly demands and incentivizes hypocrisy, calling it Holiness.
I'm wondering if online ill-manneredness comes in large part from an unmet desire to be one. To be at peace with what is, rather than what must be. Maybe the repressed, fearful bigots, the self-centered brats and enraged, insulted children who never matured because they were only instructed to behave, are exchanging their regular fig leaves for the leaves of online anonymity. They're not so much acting, as ceasing to. Yes, people are responsible for their own behaviors on some level. That discussion aside, perhaps we should consider people's online communication as intel. I'm not excusing it. I'm observing it as evidence that people are too often not "one", with each other or themselves. Perhaps we should consider web incivility as part of a review on the effectiveness of what we stress in our faith communities, how we parent, and our strategy of inadvertently rewarding people for having a chasm between what they are and what they are rewarded for pretending.
Remember your manners in the comment section below.