“Troll Lege” and the Virtue of Online Mercy

“Avoid the comments section.”

This is fairly standard advice that I and many others who write online tend to get. Indeed, it’s pretty good advice even if you are only reading what others have written. The comments section is intended as a space to continue and deepen conversation about a given article, post, or video. Some comments sections are even nicely designed, so that conversations are nested and hold together in a coherent way. Yet these pages often devolve into the internet equivalent of shouting matches: back and forth exchanges of ALL CAPS rage that, if they even respond to what one person was saying, only do so to call them a bigot/heretic/idiot/Satan-worshipper/Jesuit-lover/rad-trad who wants to see the church change everything/go back to the 1950’s/go back to the 1550’s/become Anglican/expel all but the faithful remnant.

This is not to say that none of those posts have problems or aren’t acceptable. Or to say that the church does not include some number of bigots, heretics, and idiots. Rather, what I’m interested here is how often the responses online offer more snark than light, more rage than discourse. Sometimes this takes the form of the Internet Troll, who delights in undermining conversations with vitriol, and sometimes it’s the cyber-bully, who attacks someone from the behind the relative safety of the digital screen.

Pope Francis and the iPad

Pope Francis and the iPad

In his 2015 message for World Communications Day, Pope Francis wrote about the frequency of “foul language….discord and poison” in contemporary communication. While his focus in that message is on communication in the family, one can just as easily see the Pope training his gaze on trolls and cyberbullies. There, Francis calls on us to “break the spiral of evil” through “blessing rather than cursing.” Indeed, he offers, in his own way, the common advice “Don’t feed the trolls.”

But, in line with the College Theology Society’s theme this year of “Liturgy + Power,” we cannot ignore that those who act viciously online have power. It’s certainly true that the mediation of the internet protects us from direct physical harm, but this may also be the phenomenon that enables the viciousness of some. Because we are not physically present to one another – we are not face to face – we do not experience the vulnerability of the other or of ourselves. I think here of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who said that the “face of the other” makes an ethical claim on me, and that claim is “thou shalt not kill.” In many cases, digital media means that we never directly encounter the face of the other, and so we never feel that claim. This can make it far easier to be vicious, snarky, or demeaning to one another.

And yet, we are vulnerable online. Just about anyone who has ever put themselves out there, whether through a piece of art, a written work, a YouTube video, has made themselves vulnerable. Ideas, commitments, beliefs are on display. There is something of the self put at risk, and the trollish response can cause pain.

Where does this response come from, and can it be otherwise? It might be helpful here to think here about the idea of formation, of habits. If we repeatedly act in certain ways, it will become a habit, a second nature, to us. There’s a famous quote, sometimes attributed to Mark Twain but actually from Abraham Maslow, that says “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” As we practice social media, we come to see the world through its logic. We speak (and even think) with things like “hashtag,” we see events as things we can Instagram or tweet about, we google people we’ve just met in order to know as much about them. We see someone write something we don’t like, and it’s easier to take a quick, cheap shot at it than to engage and challenge it critically.

But formation is not only about vices; more deeply, it is about virtues. While technology surely creates a formation system that trains us into its own logic, that doesn’t mean these modes of interaction and these media are in themselves entirely disposed towards good or evil. Rather, these habits that we form come largely through the choices we make about how to engage. Indeed, as Pope Francis notes, “It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal.”

Thus, as this year of mercy continues, I exhort us to turn away from the vices that we can forge online and instead inculcate some virtue. In particular, the internet is a place needing merciful people. In this year’s World Communications Day message, Pope Francis exhorted us

to remain especially attentive to the way [we] speak of those who think or act differently or those who may have made mistakes. It is easy to yield to the temptation to exploit such situations to stoke the flames of mistrust, fear and hatred. Instead, courage is needed to guide people towards processes of reconciliation.

If we can habituate ourselves to merciful blogging, merciful tweeting, and other forms of merciful engagement, perhaps the “first Areopagus of the modern age” can become a place of light, of community, and of charity.

Stephen Okey is an assistant professor of theology at Saint Leo University in Florida.

5 responses to ““Troll Lege” and the Virtue of Online Mercy

  1. That’s why I moderate and approve all comments. On my site, I set a couple of simple ground rules that must be adhered to and if they’re not, a comment or reply does not see the light of day. Yes, I do get reminders of the right to free speech and the First Amendment. I’ve been accused of censorship. I’ve been told I have no right to moderate and delete inappropriate comments. I’ve been called a Nazi and a control freak more than a few times.

    The truth is, I absolutely do have the right to determine what can or cannot be posted on my blog site. I think of it like this: No one enters my home unless I approve of that person. Not just anyone can walk into my house. And if I invite someone in and they become disrespectful, I show them the door and kick them out. It’s the same with a blog site or any website I might happen to own. I set the rules and if someone cannot follow those rules, their comments get deleted. Whether they agree or disagree with what I’ve written is not the issue. I can reason with disagreement. I won’t stand for anyone who values insult over insight.

    As for those who wrap themselves in the Constitution and demand their free speech rights, I often have to remind them that our freedom does have limitations (that is Biblical, by the way). For instance, the right to free speech does not mean you have the right to shout “FIRE” in a crowded movie theater. There are restrictions. There are rules. And yes, that applies to blogs and message boards as well. As the owner of a blog, you have the right to delete inflammatory content. You have the right to determine what’s allowable and what’s not. Maintaining order and discipline are Biblical principles. God is a God of order, not disorder.

    Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to allow a discussion to get out of hand in the “interest of free speech” or “so everyone’s voice can be heard.” That just turns your blog’s comments section into the online equivalent of a bar fight. Opponents and dissenting voices can be and should be heard, but they must understand that there are rules that must be followed.

    Thank you for bringing this up. This issue does need to be addressed from time to time.

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  3. Thank you for a thoughtful post. What is concerning to me is the fluid line between the real world and the virtual world. I’ve heard of such things as a middle-schooler who says a certain boy is dating her only on Snapchat. When they pass each other in the hall, they don’t even make eye contact. Their relationship is entirely virtual – but the emotions attached to it are actual. The extraordinarily inappropriate language and behavior manifesting daily on the internet looks the same to me. None of it’s real, but all of it’s real. It’s taking place in a virtual environment, and the dissociation you describe enables the participants to pretend that there are no consequences. Without consequences, anything is permissible. But sooner or later, the person behind those madly typing fingers will have an emotional or psychological reaction to the information being given or received. And when that happens, where can that reaction be experienced? It isn’t real, remember?

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  5. I’d like to add that it is so much easier to think of people in the abstract and as numbers when online. I notice this everytime I talk to my mom. She can’t use the internet. She refused to learn. I notice that she hardly ever talks about people in the abstract. She has individual and personal conversations. If she has to communicate indirectly she writes letters or makes phone calls. These are much more intimate forms of communication than Twitter or forums. Yet I think that some categorization is needed today to understand systematic oppression. Many protest movements have begun on Twitter. Gabriel Marcel thought technology interfered with interpersonal relationships – so essential to his philosophy. Identity is born from a relationship between two people. Is a person I encounter only online through Twitter really a person for me?

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