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I had occasion to speak to a very nice, young man last week about online etiquette. For me, what it boils down to is this:

Be nice.

It may seem simplistic, or perhaps reductive to some. But, I think it’s a good rule.

Two Kids Smiling

Photo by Toni Verdú Carbó

Be nice when you talk to people, whether you know them or not, and your conversation (or, at least your side of the conversation) will remain civil.

Civility, I’m finding, is a scarce resource in our online discourse.

Last week was heated. It seemed like every day brought with it another blog post about identity, and accompanying that post was a slew of polarized viewpoints. I read threads and noticed that people were not really listening to each other. People were regurgitating the same ideas, the same frustrations, and sometimes the same lines of snark.

The discussion about what “Pagan” is and who it includes was sounding a lot like the makings of a Pro-Pagan/Anti-Pagan platform.

I think we’re better than that, to be honest.

The problem arises, in part, due to the medium. Our method of communication and connectivity does not encourage a paced, patient way of dialoguing. Everything happens so fast on these blogs. We scan, we find the sentence that we take issue with, and our fingers race to compose a witty comment, a more informed perspective.

It takes no time to bark, it would seem.

Barking kid

Photo by Mindaugas Danys

We’re not assisted by facial expressions and body language cues in our online communication. We have no context for the people we argue with, and yet for some reason we still feel justified to argue. We walk blindly into conversations and state what we know, sometimes doing so without any consideration for how we’re saying it, who we’re saying it to, and what the ramifications are of our tone.

We’re not nice to each other, a lot of the time.

My husband asked me over the weekend if Pagans (and I think he may have included non-Pagan identifying polytheists into his use of that term) have some sort of ethic around kindness, and of treating each other well. It was an interesting question, and I was surprised to find that I didn’t have a ready answer.

The Wiccans do, I suppose. Harm none, right? But that’s so broad, and harm is so difficult to detect in our online conversations. We sometimes don’t know if our online speech is harmful, because what we’re doing is less like speaking and more like posting fliers onto a bulletin board. Someones posts one, and we post another on top of that, and then the next and the next. (Also, I think some people reject Wiccan wisdom simply because it’s Wiccan, just as some avoid any Abrahamic wisdom on a similar principle. Both miss out on a great deal of wisdom, I think.)

But his question, “Do we have an ethic around being kind to one another?” I didn’t — I don’t — know how to answer that.

I know that some people feel bullied right now. People on both sides of the discussion. Some feel bullied to assume a word that they don’t feel applies to them, and others feel bullied because they perceive themselves to be misrepresented. The point I’m making is not that either one is right or wrong, but rather that their sense of being bullied points to a problem in the way we’re communicating with one another.

When I spoke to my young friend about online communication, I gave him the following tips (which I’m expanding upon here):

  • If you are uncertain about your tone, read your comment out loud. Speak it slowly, and see if what you’re saying is something you’d say to a stranger, or a person you wish to be kind to. The post will still be there in five minutes. It can wait for you.
  • If you find yourself reacting in anger to a comment, wait to respond. Take a step back, and ask yourself if your emotional response is pointing to something unresolved in you. The person who wrote the comment may not even know you, and may not have been trying to offend you. Your emotional reaction is a tool that you can use to better understand yourself.
  • While you wait, take inventory of yourself; physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Ask yourself if you’re being true to your values and ethics, and look to see if what you’re sharing with the world is helping to build others up, or tear them down. When in doubt, do a meditation, a brief devotional or ritual, or simply shut your computer for a few minutes.
  • Default to nice. It’s a better place to begin. You can always walk away from an online conversation that’s becoming disrespectful. You can always take the higher ground.

We need not rush to make our point after every heated post. We need not be a people who speak without listening. We need not feel so threatened by one another. We can be nice, and disagree. We can be nice, and hold space for others who do not identify as we do. We can be nice, and in doing so we may discover that the practice of kindness actually helps to facilitate a deeper understanding between people.

I don’t know if we, historically, share an ethic around kindness, but I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t put one into place now.

Be nice. It feels good, for everyone.

Grinning Girl

Photo by Meena Kadri

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