Are you being a bully online? #digidisciple (@goannatree)

Well, are you?

Am I?

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve watched people lambast Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar on their announcement that they are expecting their 20th child. Yep, number 20. But that’s not really that surprising. What suprised me was the vitriol of comments on the news articles and Facebook shares I saw. So, too the comments on Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries’ marriage break up, that now infamous #gaystapo article in the Church of England Newspaper, and anything involving Herman Cain or Joe Paterno published in the last three weeks.

I was (surprisingly) even asked by a New York Times journalist to comment on a piece about KK and KH and why reality TV fascinates us and what is says about our social values. I said No, mainly because I wasn’t entirely sure I had anything to say about the breakdown of a marriage of two people I’ve never met and who I frankly don’t know much about. Also, because if we started talking about marriage, I couldn’t think of a way my comments wouldn’t be interpreted as me being judgmental of two people in a situation that is really difficult and very sad. Besides, I’m not married, and anything I have to say about being married is rather theoretical at this point.

But what upset me about many of the comments on the posts I mentioned above — what overwhelmed me — was their meanness, judgment and sheer bile. They were not about constructive debate; nor were they about truth, they were just judge-y and preachy and mean. Like if you ever heard your kids say something like this to their peers they’d go to bed without dinner, be grounded for a week and lose all pocket money for a month mean.*

There’s been quite a bit of discussion happening about issues relating to men and women in the church and in society, including some pretty heated discussions on twitter about feminism, women and Christianity. Hannah Mudge has a round up of some of the blog posts that have fueled discussion on the topic of late. Some of these conversations, within digital media, have been productive, thoughtful, and reflect a variety of views passionately but carefully expressed. But I’ve also been watching as people throw words back and forth that have the potential to be quite hurtful. I know I was on the receiving end of some comments that became a bit much and made me wonder whether or not these were topics I wanted to continue to discuss on Twitter at all.

I am not saying that being a Christian online is all about being calm and sweet and non-confrontational. Sometimes it is about rocking the boat. But, as I’ve wondered in a previous column: Are we too busy playing Devil’s advocate?

I’ve been beginning to wonder whether a lesson your mother taught you really should apply to our online interactions:

Sometimes if you don’t have anything helpful to say, you might want to think about saying nothing at all.

We all need a dose of humility sometimes. We’re not god’s gift to the internet, no matter what we might think. Step back and think a little about whether you’d say the judgmental thing (that of course you mean in a spirit of peace and truth) to that person, should you have a chance to say that thing you just wrote to them if you were talking face to face.

Sometimes, even though you really believe you are pointing out (for the fiftieth time) the truth that the other person has obviously not seen, ask yourself whether or not you might be coming across as a bully when you shut down any meaningful dialogue.

Is your comment moving the discussion forward in a constructive way? or are you just sounding of?

There are important issues at play in each of the stories I mentioned in the first paragraph. In some cases Criminal charges, but name calling never solved anything. Neither does serving to perpetuate every stereotype there is of hypocritical Christians sounding off at every opportunity.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t challenge, or write about issues and situations that you feel compelled to comment on, but there’s a way to be a person about it. There’s a way to extend grace, just as you have been shown grace. Please do not read this as saying what it is not saying: I made no assertions about men being “aggressive” or women needing to be “gracious” – I’m talking about all of us.

I wrote about Calling out Christian leaders in the age of Digital Media a little while ago and i’ve been thinking more about what it means to disagree well, and gracefully. I was particularly challenged and humbled by Joy Bennett’s piece on How to Disagree Well.

Sometimes you need to let things go, and agree to disagree.

And just because someone doesn’t agree with you, it doesn’t make them an idiot or worth less than you.

Connect with Anna on her blog, Goannatree, Academia.edu, Linked In, Facebook, & Twitter.

* Maybe people don’t do any of these things when disciplining their children anymore, but anywhoo.

About Anna Blanch

Australian-born writer, arts critic, and photographer, Anna Blanch, spends alot of time thinking and talking about thoughtful and biblically founded engagement with arts and culture. She has had scholarly & freelance articles published in a wide range of publications including Englewood Review of Books, Australian Folklore, and Case Magazine and she often talks about literature and theology at academic conferences. With degrees from the Australian National University and Baylor University, Anna is presently in her final year of a PhD at the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts, at the University of St Andrews, Scotland where she is also a tutor. Her academic research focuses both on the work of iconic British author, E.Nesbit (author of Railway Children) and the role of literature in spiritual formation. She finds photography, enjoying her environment and its fruits, and being in community bring her joy. She can also be found at Transpositions, a collaborative project on Theology, Imagination, and the Arts, and even more often on her blog, Goannatree, where she provides resources for Christian Scholars, muses about Theology & Literature, and reflects on her expatriate life. She likes to ask people what's been inspiring them lately, because the answers inspire her and she loves hearing people's stories and she's find that this is a great way to get people talking.