Thursday, December 9, 2010

Virtual Virtue

The internet is an interesting place. It’s a treasure trove of information and disinformation, fact checking and wild conspiracy theories, reasoned debate and all out flame wars. The technological advances we see before our eyes with its instant information and equally instant gratification offer both great opportunity and great temptation. My ability to research a topic has immeasurably increased since the advent of the online, but I’ve also been assaulted with the trivial at levels beyond imagination.

The internet is the human condition writ large in all its glory, depravity and absurdity.

If we’re to entertain our better angels in our online encounters, I suggest that we should consider a few moral guidelines to help us on the way:

Would you say what you’ve just typed to your own child, your parents, your closest friend?

Ah, but this person isn’t any of these. They’re my ideological, theological, political, etc., opponent. It’s my responsibility to show them what’s right and how wrong they are. I can’t help it if they’re stupid, insane, or evil. That’s their problem, not mine. I just have to tell them what’s true.

Ah. What’s true. Yes. Such an easy concept to come to complete certainty about. But there’s one little problem. What if your interlocutor feels the same way? Which certainty holds sway?

I am a creature of the internet if any person is. I’m officially an addict of facebook (just ask my friends) after having resisted it for some time. I tweet at will. I blog incessantly. I post on political, scientific and theological blogs daily, often on controversial issues. And as I’ve dived into the deep of the internet I’ve seen behavior that has been shocking, to say the least, and not least of all, my own. We live in the age of opinion, the era of arrogance, the pontification of the personal. And I’ve seen my own worst impulses of self affirmation at other’s expense expressed in all its inglorious permutations.

Above I asked if you would be willing to say to a loved one what you type in an online discussion. Now I want to ask one more question:

Can you (I) be wrong?

I have my beliefs. Anyone who knows me knows that. Whether it’s about religion, politics, science, or even art and literature or music, I have my strong opinions. But I have also changed my views on several subjects, both political and religious, and even on the truly important stuff like music and sports! If we can change our views on an issue that’s important to us, this ought to remind us that what we know is always moderated and quite often distorted by our cultural environment, whether at the personal level of our own families, or at the larger level of our ethnic or national or religious allegiances. As I said in my previous post about the Politics of Brokenness, if we acknowledge our part in the larger brokenness that exists, then there is some hope that we can speak across the divide that confronts us both politically and religiously, but also even within ourselves.

So it’s not if we can do this. We already know it can be done. Others have paved the way before us: Gandhi, Day, King, etc. The question that confronts us is whether we’re willing to do so.
Are we willing to act in a spirit of generosity even in the face of those who are not generous?
Are we willing to admit that what we believe is tenuous, subject to change, and thus allow that our debater might have something good to say?

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