The Southern Cross, the South African weekly Roman Catholic newspaper announced that it was suspending the comments section on their website. The editorial states: ‘The comments section was intended to serve as a forum in which readers could exchange ideas on topics within the Church. Perhaps invariably, these discussions frequently became marked by intolerable levels of hectoring polemic; sometimes accompanied by calumny and distortion.’
Coincidentally, several other Facebook pages and articles I happened across appeared to be struggling with the same issue. The existence of such exchanges has been a problem on the Facebook page of the church I belong to, so in essence it is not news to me. However, my concern is that this quality of exchange appears to ubiquitous in any space which trades in strongly held opinions. I would love to understand the reason for this.
One possibility is this strange new world of social networking. Comments are not usually made with anonymity (at least not of Facebook), but the lack of immediacy of having to actually look one’s discursive partner in the eye seems to diminish one’s capacity to self-censor. There is a forthright nature to social networking which means one can spout one’s opinions without any need to support one’s statements. Worse than this, is the presumption that one can personally attack someone who holds a differing opinion. I certainly have learnt the hard way that trying to reason with those who are comfortable with this kind of approach through social media simply doesn’t work.
Nonetheless, it seems that simply ascribing this behaviour to a negative aspect of social media is insufficient. There seems to be something else stirring. It is exemplified in this commentary on recent political statements in South Africa. The general polemic orbits around what it means to be truly ‘African’.
It is true that relativism may be problematic if one is trying to establish some kind of group identity. But there is a fundamental difference between relativism and pluralism. Not everyone needs to see things in exactly the same way in order to hold the same basic ideals. More importantly though, there is no recognition in this kind of polemic that we see only partially. The ‘truth’ which we are so vigorously defending today may be revealed to be not quite right in time to come.
There is tremendous hubris (and a very poor knowledge of history) in this kind of absolutist attitude. And yet, it seems to be the most obvious defense against uncertainty. If I just shout loud enough maybe, just maybe, I can ward off the fear and avoid feeling the insecurity. Is this, in part, a reaction to postmoderism?
I don’t know the root of these issues, it may be that I simply expect too much from people. Regardless, it seems to me that our discussions would be far more fruitful if we were take the words of Ignatius of Loyola seriously. In his preamble to the Spiritual Exercises he states:
‘That both the giver and the maker of the Spiritual Exercises may be of greater help and benefit to each other, it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate means through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved.’