A few months ago two friends, Caleb and Lindsey, had a minor disagreement. That is, it would have been minor, had it not happened the way it happened: online, in a public forum.
I (Caleb) had some friends moving into a new house. I asked the husband what I should buy for his wife as a housewarming gift. He suggested a hanging flower plant. There was a time crunch, and I didn’t know where to find a plant they would really value. Since I was buying a gift for a woman, and I had previously had women in my life who enjoyed helping me with this type of gift giving, I wished I had a woman in my life to help me with this task. I turned to the internet for help. I tried to be generic about my question, so I posted on Facebook, “I need help. I’m looking for an ‘outdoor hanging flower basket’ for a friend’s house-warming. I don’t have a woman in my life that I can delegate this to… where would I get such a thing.” After posting, I put my phone in my pocket and resumed the duties of my day. Turns out, that question wasn’t as generic as I thought.
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I (Caleb) was so busy with my day, that I hadn’t checked the post for several hours. In between meetings I checked my phone quickly and was shocked to read all these comments. I was frustrated that my intention, to save myself time by crowdsourcing my task, had backfired. Now, instead of saving time I had a controversy on my hands! Why couldn’t these women see past my wording to my intent? In my annoyance, and without taking the time to critically think, (because I was late for my next meeting) I typed the first thing that came into my head. My comment began with, “I don’t understand why you are making this about gender…” It didn’t get better from there.
I (Lindsey) saw Caleb’s comment and decided to add my voice. Does he really not understand why his comments are at the least annoying, at the most hurtful? Doesn’t he know that while his intent matters, his careless words are perpetuating stereotypes about women? Can’t he see, by the sheer number of women commenting that he should rethink his wording here?
At midnight I (Caleb) took the post down because it had spiraled way out of control. A few days later, after many conversations and soul searching, I posted a carefully worded apology.
Internet culture has provided a beautiful means to communicate in ways we have never had before in the history of time. I used to only know what was happening in my cousin’s life if I (Lindsey) picked up the phone to call her, or drive the distance to her house to catch up. Now, I know what she had for breakfast, and have a picture of her son’s new loose tooth.
But internet culture has also taken what used to be a minor disagreement and turned it into a major incident. If Lindsey and Caleb had been having a face-to-face conversation and he said he needed a woman to delegate choosing a hanging plant for another woman, Lindsey could have casually pointed out that a man can do that task and it’s probably not great to imply that this is a woman’s job, since women still carry an unfair burden of housekeeping in our modern society. Caleb would have responded that his intent was never to imply anything about women, and rephrase the statement. End of discussion. But when we bring the internet into the equation it makes the entire discussion more dramatic, emotionally charged, and public. If Caleb was giving a sermon and Lindsey disagreed with him it would be totally inappropriate for her to stand up on the platform next to him and publicly say so. “Anyone in the congregation want to ‘like’ my disagreement? A show of hands perhaps?” We have to remember that the internet is a public forum.
But even deeper than that is the tension we all face between standing up for what’s right, and having grace with people. This is not an issue exclusive to any side. We all must face situations in which we disagree. We can’t always just ignore a problem, never make waves, and remain silent. We are not called to be doormats. Philemon 1:8 says, “For this reason, although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right.” But we must also have grace with one another. Matthew anticipated this when he spoke of the future, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.” When we harshly condemn the actions of others, even when those actions were wrong, we’re forgetting that we are called to love. We must not allow our love to grow cold. When we judge our own mistakes we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, and the grace for our intent. When we judge the actions of others we are usually not so quick to offer them the grace we offer ourselves.
Here are some good ways to engage with those we disagree with online.
- Follow the Matthew 18 method. Contact the person privately first, then if they won’t listen, perhaps do a group chat with a small number of people. If they still won’t listen, a comment on a Facebook post might be appropriate.
- When you feel the need to correct someone, remember that through your screen is another person, with feelings. Ask yourself: Would I say this to this person’s face?
- When you are being called out by someone, recognize your natural defensiveness, and try to set it aside for a moment to critically think. Defensiveness is natural but not usually helpful. Ask yourself with humility, is this person helping me learn something? Do they have a point?
- Also, when you’re being called out, remember that on the other side of the screen is another person, with feelings. If someone is telling you that you hurt them, listen. When my kid is careless and accidentally hurts another child, they often get defensive when I tell them to apologize. They say, “But I didn’t mean to hurt him!” And I always say, “Even if you didn’t mean to hurt him, he is still hurt. And he deserves an apology from you.” Adults could learn the same lesson.
- When you’re on Facebook, or any social media platform, instead of looking for what you disagree with, look for what you agree with. Ask yourself, what can I agree with in this case?
- Resist the urge to dismiss people’s feelings. Remember that we live in a world that is highly polarized, both culturally and in the church. Online it’s so easy to dismiss other people’s feelings.
The internet can be a wonderful way to interact, and even engage these difficult issues. But it requires care, tact, and nuance, which are mostly forgotten when looking through a screen. As Christians we can and must do better.
Lindsey Painter is a writer and mother of two. She’s married to Jimmy Painter, a pastor in Northern California.