As a youngster I was taught to be nice to others, to be respectful and polite. There was even a course in school called “etiquette” which reinforced these lessons and helped us apply them to a variety of situations. Being polite was sort of a social lubricant that allowed people to interact in a reasonable manner and with minimal conflict. It didn’t always work but for the most part it allowed people to get along.
In recent years the idea of politeness and respect seem to have been tossed out the window and onto the garbage heap of history. This especially the case with the rise of social media. People twitter whatever random thought come into their head and think little of it. We feel that we can criticize with impunity without much concern for the people it hurts. Sitting in front of a computer and saying what’s on our mind provides a barrier between us and the person to whom we are directing our words. It gives us the illusion of distance and safety, with little regard for the consequences. This is a dangerous illusion, as Twitter and other social media make our words public and capable of doing damage.
DC McMaster is a conservative blogger, pundit and social critic. Recently she got into a twitter exchange with one of the regulars on “The View”, a morning talk show. McMaster referred to the women on the show as “delusional mental midgets”. One result of the rant was that several publications that hosted her blog and had her as a guest commentator dropped her. It was also hurtful to Megan McCain, who is one of the regulars on the show and had considered McMaster a friend, even having invited her as a guest to her wedding a few years back.
It isn’t that McMaster didn’t have a right to criticize what is presented on a television show open to the public. She had every right to do so, but offering insults to people is not criticism. It is just a burst of poorly directed emotion. Indeed, McMaster later explained that she was frustrated with her husband at the time as he was glued to the NCAA March Madness tournament on TV. Criticism would have focused on some specific issue that she felt was poorly handled. It would have offered a rational argument for a different take on the issue. It would have been constructive in the long run.
There have been a number of publicized suicides of middle school students who appear to have been bullied by other students over the social media. These youngsters took very seriously what the other students were saying on twitter or Facebook or the current social media hangout for young people. The hurtful comments, often related to body image or social skills, were sufficient to result in the death of the targeted students. Middle school is usually a tough time for kids, as they are going through major life changes and feel awkward at best. If a youngster also has issues with depression, cruel comments on the social media can trigger dire results.
The point is that what we post on social media has consequences and we should never forget it. When we post something in the privacy of our home or on our cell phone, once we hit the “send” button, that thought has become public. We should never post something that we wouldn’t say to the person while standing right next to them face to face. Even then, we should mind our manners
The Roman naturalist and a provincial governor, Pliny, sent a report to the Roman Emperor about his territory. He asked for advice on what he should do about the Christians. This was a time between any of the major persecutions. Pliny noted that the Christians rarely caused any trouble and their most pronounced characteristic was that they loved one another.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could say the same thing about us today? Our love should be apparent in all that we do and say. We are called to be a people of mercy, as has been stressed by Pope Francis. This certainly includes our use of social media.