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Call for dialogue to be tempered with ‘good old-fashioned’ kindness

Fr Michael Kane, asks that we show more consideration in dealing with other people whether it be virtual or face-to-face

Every period in history is marked by certain characteristics. In our own time, surely it is the speed of social change which has left its indelible mark.

Much of this change has seen huge improvements to our way of living. New technologies, for example, allow for constant communication around the globe at the touch of a button. As a result, we are more connected than ever before and the world seems like a smaller place.

Nevertheless, not all change has been for the better. Another characteristic of our age is the declining standards of civility. In recent times, I have become more aware than ever of the harshness that shapes public discourse. People often speak to each other or about each other without charity.

Communications

One area of life which is particularly poisoned in this regard is online communication. Former rules and social conventions have all but vanished as people find a new, bullish confidence from a computer keyboard.

People casually write or type what they would never have the courage (or stupidity) to say in a face-to-face dialogue.

This new world of communications, which was created to draw us closer to each other, is creating new barriers and social problems. It is now the chosen platform for uncensored rants and deeply personal attacks on strangers. It is especially brutal to public figures who often find themselves stimulating a feeding frenzy of abuse on social media feeds.

Free speech

Don’t get me wrong, I am no advocate for a ‘snowflake’ culture where adults cannot enter robust debate and argue their position on serious matters. Respectful disagreement is a hallmark of any free society which respects free speech, and adults should be able to withstand alternative viewpoints. The Church, too, must engage constructively in the cultural arena of ideas and state her case clearly and vigorously. But this is not the kind of enterprise which is concerning.

Dialogue should always be tempered by good old-fashioned kindness. Whenever our debates vere into personal attacks, or carry a combative tone, we have vered into a different kind of conversation.

Perhaps the most egregious examples of nastiness online are found on social media feeds where whole armies of commentators feel at liberty to pass judgement on all manner of subjects. Strangers are lambasted for the way they look or dress or speak. Those who have made past mistakes are hung out to dry in the court of public opinion.

Mental health

These comments are sometimes accompanied with vile attempts at comedy, usually at the expense of some unsuspecting individual who has shown some weakness or vulnerability. The media, too, has shown its ugly side in this debate, adding fire to the feeding frenzy in celebrity culture. They are happy to crush a person’s reputation, and then to report sympathetically on their surprising breakdown which they helped to construct.

This recent trend is continually creating new casualties. There is always a price to pay for this kind of hostility in public discourse. It is surely a huge contributor to the mental health crisis among our young people in particular.

How many times have we read of children who have self-harmed or taken their own lives as a result of online bullying or so-called trolling? No one is equipped to withstand a constant barrage of hostility, not least impressionable and fragile young people.

Responsibility online

So where has all the kindness gone? When did we just forget to be charitable and think the best of people? When did people start to ‘weaponise’ a computer keyboard?

If we ever hope to reverse this dangerous trend, then it must begin by re-awakening the idea of personal responsibility. Each person must come to understand that he or she has a role to contribute responsibly to public discourse, in the knowledge that our words have consequences.

We need to use kinder speech and to guide culture in a more positive direction. We need to show greater discipline in the words we use and understand the extraordinary power of words, both for good and bad.

Be kind

We need to reverse this cancer which has taken root in hearts and tongues. We must remind people that they are loved, especially when they are low and vulnerable and weak.

This is the core of our Christian Gospel: to make visible the love of Christ.

As we prepare to move in to Lent with all the change that it will bring, perhaps we could promise to show greater discipline and prudence in this area. I read recently some wise words that we might carry with us into Lent this year:

“Before you speak let your words pass through three gates: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?”

Together let us construct a more Christian society. Be kind.

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