Friday, 8 January 2010

Good Manners on the "Blogosphere"?

Martin Luther

Reflecting on recent discussions, my own and others', on different blogs, I want to ask a question about "behaviour" on the so-called "blogospere". A couple of comments have been made by others about the way we may, or should, express ourselves in blog discussions. There are recognizable limits, but should Christians have higher standards than simply avoiding disgusting references and language (and what does "disgusting" mean anyway?). We are invited to report blog "abuse", and it seems clear what that is according to the usual rules, but what do Christians mean by abusive language?

I don't mean to present myself as an example of rectitude here. I have written two posts which I should have re-read, edited or simply deleted. One I removed myself, another (thankfully) was not accepted by another blog and was presumably deleted. Some people think there is entertainment value in insults. You can buy books of insults by famous people. We all know some of the most memorable, and they are often amusing and witty, but we should not miss the cruelty of some of them, nor should we treat lightly the kind of language or responses that would not be acceptable at parish meetings, staff meetings, priests' conferences and even family gatherings. The old saying about sticks and stones etc is untrue. The Bible makes clear in more than once place that words are important - sometimes very important. Insults are not the same as friendly banter, and what is acceptable between good friends is not recommended with people we hardly know (as in blog discussions). I have seen on one blog (which I no longer visit) the idea that blogs are somehow "different" and that it is not only allowed but expected that one be "forthright" and "blunt" (or similar words), so that what are in effect seriously judgemental and insulting remarks (sometimes involving untruth and therefore qualifying as rash judgement) are not only tolerated but celebrated.

I am reminded of the idea that politicians may leave their religion (as least as regards moral judgements) at the door of the parliament building, or at least, at the door of the Cabinet Office. A recent book about Tony Blair has the title, "We Don't Do God". I skimmed through it to the part where Mr.Blair was advised by his local Catholic priest (in the North East) that he need not make a public statement about his views on abortion on becoming a Catholic. It is clear that somebody was advising him, from time to time, how to square his private religious views with party policies. The same problem has caused American Catholic bishops to come out fighting against politicians who say they are "practising Catholics" but have no problem - indeed think it a duty- supporting party policies which go against Catholic teaching. If anything is a heresy, it is the idea that there are certain activities or aspects of human society that are beyond, above or separate from Christian morality.

Of course, the question about blog posts and discussions is nothing like as serious as the problem with politics, but the principle is the same. An insult is an insult; rash judgement is simply that, and false accusation (does this involve deliberate lying at times?) is unjust. No matter how entertaining these things may be, they are simply wrong. Having said that, there surely is room for "righteous indignation" and even "just anger" against injustice, cruelty, serious deliberate deception and other evils, but should these responses be aimed at individuals? If the answer is "sometimes", then it surely implies the necessity of searching for truth rather than relying on second or third-hand information, half-truth, rumours, unproven accusations and (especially this one) personal prejudices.

Where do we draw the line? I came away from one blog because someone suggested that "priests like me" were responsible for much of the "damage" to the Church over the last 30 years. Another person on the same blog accused me of not caring about people in Bradford where a magnificent neo-Gothic Catholic Church (St. Mary's) was closed. I was accused, as its last parish priest, of being neglectful of the building, with its extraordinary war memorial. This person does not know me, has never met me, and has certainly no idea what I wrote in my letters to the bishop at that time, nor what I have said, then and subsequently, to others about the closure of that church. In short (and this is not self-pleading) it was an example of rash judgement. He was corrected by somebody and another person wrote to apologise on his behalf, but from him there was nothing. Some people will say, "Get over it Father, this is how blogs work", but just because we have and contribute to blogs does not mean we are exempt from the kind of behaviour we would be expected to show elsewhere. I have often wondered - and have heard it asked by other priests - what would happen if a parish priest was to react in kind to some of the comments and criticisms he must now, all too often, take from his parishioners and others. I have no problem with irony, mild sarcasm and "banter". I have even learned to accept the necessity of "tough love" but, personally I have to draw the line at insults, rash judgement, unjust accusations and plain bad manners. In the words of Dame Edna Everidge, "Call me old-fashioned, but...." (and it's no joke).

I stuck Martin Luther at the top because he was notorious for his language and his intemperate attacks on Pope and Bishops and on certain areas of Catholic life. Luther was one of my favourite studies at university and seminary. I strongly believe that a fundamental part of the Reformation - and one reason why it had the impact it has had - is the use of language. This is clear because of the advent of the printing press and the ability to print scurrilous, unjust and insulting language which, included in anti-Catholic propaganda often had the effect of not only making dialogue difficult but sometimes impossible. The fault was not all on Luther's side. The language sometimes used against him (including the word "heretic") may have helped to harden his attitude against the Catholic authorities. At one important point he felt himself pushed into a corner and could only say, "Here I stand!"

Hopefully we have learnt much since the 16th century, but if Christians are going to help others to steer clear of political or religious extremism, we need to be careful of our own use of language, especially when speaking to each other. Those outside Christianity easily see the hypocrisy of our saying one thing and doing another. Our Lord, Jesus Christ warned us about this. Do people really say something like, "See how these Christians love one another"?


  1. Very important post Father, thank you. My behaviour has not always been the most well mannered on blogs and in general, I am sure. I have hopefully improved.

    I think the problem starts for me at times when life's burdens have been eased for a little time. I have this repeated inclination towards complacency, which inevitably ends up with me in a situation I hadn't prepared for, usually due to slacking off my prayer life. It is then that I sometimes become indignant (in order to justify my mistake etc) and sometimes have spoken rashly on blogs defending some unconfessed fear within myself, rather than owning it as my own fault. So If I'm being nice, I am praying. Anything else people sense, including self pity is a warning sign.

    Once I am reminded of my constant need for God's Mercy, it is amazing what an effect this has on my attitudes towards others and how I address them. A bit like Scrooge on Christmas morning, having realized he has been given another chance.

    I must try to remain in a grateful frame of mind, an altered attitude that refrains from nit picking other's faults, and remembers His Mercy and the cost of that Mercy towards me. Lord help me to stay constant and kind and not judge others whilst expecting God to forgive me, over and over.

  2. I think our rule of thumb with regards to behaviour on the blogsphere ought to be, "Would I say this to the Blogger face-to-face?" This is my rule of thumb anyway and tends to serve quite well. All too often people use blogs or comment boxes as a confidence booster whereas in reality, I doubt they would ever say such things. Blogging ought not to be opportunity to indulge in fantasy, rather it should serve as a place where our Christian Catholic witness can overflow from our ordinary lives into the technological side of our lives. We all make mistakes however and need to learn from those mistakes.

  3. Hello Father
    This is an excellent post and a good reminder to all of us. My own personal opinion is that we should always treat people (on blogs or in person) with respect. I don't think there is ever a good reason to be rude or unkind. Of course, we should be able to state our opinions but always respectfully. It is as easy (USUALLY) to be kind as it is to be nasty. Having said all of that, I, to my great regret, often fall short of my own ideal but I think the important thing is to keep striving to attain it. God bless you Father.

  4. Father,

    You say;
    “At one important point he (Luther) felt himself pushed into a corner and could only say, "Here I stand!"

    It may be of interest to quote the Catholic Encyclopedia:
    It may not be amiss to state that the historicity of Luther's famed declaration before the assembled Diet, "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. So help me, God. Amen", has been successfully challenged and rendered inadmissible by Protestant researches. Its retention in some of the larger biographies and histories, seldom if ever without laborious qualification, can only be ascribed to the deathless vitality of a sacred fiction or an absence of historical rectitude on the part of the writer.

    Whether the Encyclopedia is correct or not I cannot say, but that is what it says.

    Michael Ryan

  5. Thanks Michael for this. I was not aware of such research. I suppose it is one of those things that many of us just accepted since we read it so often. However, I think it works at the level of "myth" (in the proper sense)in that it accurately portrays his attitude. I will do some more reading on what he actually said, but my point about language is, I think, still valid, and particularly in the sense that careless language can cause further problems.