The internet is a funny place. In some ways it resembles real life. People interract, they communicate, share ideas, thoughts, emotions. People develop real relationships on the internet, although necessarily they are not the same kind of relationships that they develop in face-to-face social interractions. You cannot literally have coffee with someone on the internet, but you can talk with someone else who is also having coffee (or tea, if, like me, you do not regularly drink coffe.) There are limits to the level of interraction you can have on the internet. Hugs don’t really translate well, among other things. This does not necessarily mean that the relationships that develop on the internet are fake, only that they are different.
In other ways the internet is a totally different kind of world, the sort that simply couldn’t exist without the barrier of distance and anonymity that the internet provides. It is a world without filters, where all sorts of filth and vulgarity can be produced and consumed. It is a world without consequences, where you can say whatever you like to whomever you like. A comment that I would justifiably punch you in the face for in the real world can be made with perfect safety on the internet. My fist will never travel down the signals of wi-fi and fly at you out of your computer screen.
In a way the internet is a fantasy land. It is the imagination of millions upon millions of people made visible and audible. If the imagination of the person creating that particular site or post or comment is a beautiful imagination, the internet allows him to express it in ways that would not otherwise be possible. A prime example would be the incredibly talented artists who post their music on youtube, sharing it with the world for free. Writers who cannot afford to publish or who don’t have the time or personality to deal with the cutthroat world of the publishing industry can still share their writings with a world-wide audience. On the other hand, if the imagination is sick and twisted, or even just plain self-centered, what comes out of it will reflect that.
Well, here we are with this fantasy land, the absolute freedom to put whatever media our minds can invent on it, to be seen by anyone in the world. Small wonder if, once in a while, you run up against someone who disagrees with you. The disagreement can run the gamut from “You know, you make a bunch of good points, but I couldn’t help noting…” to “U R sch a —-ing morron i bet u never went to school i bet u never had a job why dont u get a —-ing clue!”
On the internet, as in life, it’s all in how you respond. The difference between the internet and real life is that on the internet, I rarely respond at all, and I never argue.
I rarely argue in real life, but sometimes I will make an exception. On the internet, however, I’ve learned to bite my tongue (or my fingers).
Part of that is simply time. I just don’t have the time to get sucked into a long term argument, especially at the pace most arguments maintain on the internet. My responses might take a week to come, and most people would lose interest in that time.
But more than that, it just doesn’t do any good. I have argued many arguments over the years. Since I joined the army I have spent countless hours debating with my fellow soldiers in the barracks, in the trucks, in the field, in garrison. I also spent far too many hours debating with atheists, protestants and other Catholics on the internet. As far as I can tell, which, admittedly, is not very far, not one single person has ever grown wiser because of those arguments.
Seriously, when have you ever had an argument on the internet in which someone said, “I have to admit, you’ve stumped me. I concede that you are right. I will no longer (dis-believe in God, argue about 2nd amendment rights, wear a bikini, etc.)” That doesn’t even happen in real life.
In other ages people knew how to argue reasonably and dispassionately. As C. S. Lewis said, they knew when a thing was proven and were prepared to change their behavior because of it. We don’t know how to do that. In our society argument has the exact opposite effect. Instead of making people better acquainted with the other person’s views, it makes them more certain of their own ironclad rectitude. In all the arguing I have done I have never once truly listened. I only listen when I do not argue. I listen when I shut up.
I have learned that people are not convinced by facts. Seeing is not believing, not to us. Believing is seeing. People are convinced by action, by consistency, and most of all by relationship. Argument hardens our positions, relationship opens them. If I try hard enough I can find something to disagree about with any person alive, but is that really going to bring anyone, least of all myself, closer to the truth?
Only in real life or in academia does argument have a legitimate use. In academia it is useful because the arguers may not be emotionally invested in the argument. In real life it may is only useful if there is a context of trust, a relationship that gives you a reason to listen and really try to hear what the other person is saying. In the end, the only reason to argue with someone is because you love them. If I don’t love you in some way, I simply won’t argue with you, because you will have no reason to listen.
But of course, the arguers will argue (and I argue it myself). Of course we have to love them. That’s called charity. It doesn’t mean you get all sappy about them, but you have to do the right thing and share the truth with them. That’s what love really is.
Ah, but you see, there is a hidden danger there. The fact that charity does require us to do good for someone is no guarantee that just because I am telling the truth I am necessarily doing so out of love. There are a million reasons why I could share the truth with someone that have nothing to do with love. I have seen the truth used as a hammer to beat people over the head. That certainly is not love.
More to my point, even if I truly do love someone, real charity is hard fare. The supernatural virtue of charity, the hard, fierce, burning love that ruthlessly acheives the good for the beloved at any cost, is beyond me. I am not ready for that and neither, I suspect, are most humans. There is a reason that God dilutes His love. Instead of hitting us in the thundering cataract of total self gift, He allows it to come to us by degrees, in softer ways. Sunsets, pizza, beer, hugs, handshakes, music, babies laughing, being in love, all of these are ways for Him to tone His love down to our level. Even if I truly do love someone and want to see them get to Heaven, hitting them in the face with that may not necessarily be the way to go about it. Perhaps what they need is not a lecture on why it is wrong to receive Communion in the hand. Perhaps what they really need is a cup of tea. Or to watch a movie. Or just to be listened to.
We don’t convince people by speaking to them. We convince them by listening to them.
*Since someone will undoubtedly think this means that I routinely punch people in the face for disagreeing with me, let me assure you this is not so. Not that I have anything against punching people in the face in principle, but there is a time and a place for it, you know.