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Cynicism and online abuse have poisoned debate in politics and the Church

Moderate people need to reclaim conversations, both in the digital arena and the public square, by Fr Michael Kane.

One of the small but significant changes which has taken place in parish life in recent times is the way in which we communicate news to our parishioners. Up until fairly recently most parishioners read about parish news in the weekly printed bulletin. For those of a certain generation this remains the main source of parish news. But increasingly younger people are opting for a digital version of the bulletin which is available to view or download from parish websites or social media feeds.

In fact, in my own parish many more people now access our online bulletin than take home our paper version after weekend Mass. This reflects our growing awareness that the internet has the capacity to share information about the work of the Church at a local level. It also opens up our mission to a much wider audience of people across the world. It can connect people, engage those on the periphery and even evangelise.

 

Societal shift

Of course, this positive change is not confined to the Church. It reflects a broader shift in society, with the internet and digital media playing an ever-increasing role in our lives.

The power of social media in particular can mobilise huge numbers of people around a particular common cause and can open up important conversations among people seeking action and change.

This is an undeniable fruit of a growing online community. It has given a voice to many people who otherwise may have felt disenfranchised or excluded from the public square.

Nonetheless, it does seem to me that the digital space is increasingly becoming a place of concern.

Some people opt to use their online voice as an outlet for the most uncharitable kind of conversation, a place where boundaries of civility are constantly being pushed and challenged. Such an approach can have the negative consequence of polarising entire swathes of people, creating unhelpful binary lines and ‘them and us’ camps.

 

Ugly discourse

All too often online discourse morphs into a breeding ground for ugly discourse where a legitimate disagreement over ideas soon turns into a personalised character assassination.

In fact, the internet seems to have given birth to new, surprising personalities in some users. Words, ideas and views which no serious person would express openly in a one-to-one conversation are typed without any care for the ensuing impact or fallout.

A cursory glance at any comments feed of a news article shows the scale of this growing problem.

Social media is especially combative with Facebook posts and tweets crammed full of lengthy rants which often contain exaggerated and depersonalising language, not to mention unfettered fake news claims. Some people excel at squeezing as much cynicism as possible into a tweet lasting just a couple of hundred characters.

 

Extremity

The often anonymous nature of such conversations adds fuel to the fire with users often drifting quickly to coarse and extreme positions. Such nameless encounters encourage a ‘free for all’ online culture where masked individuals feel at liberty to speak with impunity. Most reasonable people see the injustice of such a scenario when dangerous words cannot be connected to a name or a face.

Of course the real danger of all this negative online communication is that it is now finding concrete expression in real life one-to-one relationships. I think people are much more confident about dispensing with the ordinary rules of engagement when it comes to civil disagreements, and public discourse today, across the board, is overwhelmingly cynical.

 

Bitterness

We see this time and again in politics, popular culture and also in the Church. Disagreements today often carry a more extreme vocabulary, and are often much more personal, bitter and deep-seated.

Gone are the days when you could disagree with someone and move on as friends. In the modern age, it seems much more appealing to strip dissenters of their good name, and tweets and Facebook posts have become the new weapons to wield in our social space.

Today more than ever moderate people need to reclaim these conversations, both in the digital arena and in the public square of ideas. We need to apply the brakes to this dangerous trend which is gathering pace, infecting the very bonds that bind us to each other.

We cannot underestimate the power of our language to build up or to erode relationships. Christians especially must remember that Faith doesn’t end at the computer keyboard or the ipad. We are called to speak truth in love, to engage in robust dialogue, but always to remember that there is another person on the other side of the computer screen.

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