Take a look at your social media feeds. Among all the pictures and updates, statuses and stories, you’ll find less-than-great posts. You’ll find controversy and rage. Maybe it’s a political post. Maybe it’s about the Church. You’ll find comments sections filled with venom and anger.
Welcome to the Internet, where we’ll say things we’d never say in person to friend and stranger alike. Social media comments can be a minefield, but it’s possible to navigate them well.
1. Know the Wounds, Yours and Theirs
Every human being is wounded. Not only from original sin, but also wounds from each other, wounds from circumstances, wounds from life experiences. We’re all wounded, and sometimes when we talk to each other, it exposes our wounds. By remembering everyone’s woundedness, it helps when disagreeing.
We like to be liked. We like to be right. If our self-worth isn’t grounded in something solid (i.e. God), then it might be grounded in whether people agree with us or whether we win the argument. I say this not only about those with whom we dialogue but also about us. Just look in the mirror: am I commenting because I want to “win” or because I want to be a witness to Jesus?
So, when posting, think about how they might react to it, especially in a wounded state. It might mean going out of your way to assure them that you respect them or you think their intentions are good even though they’re coming to a bad conclusion. Affirming the good in what they say, showing what you have in common, all of these things help with woundedness.
And, controversial or clickbait-style comments tend to appeal to people who already agree with you and push away people who don’t. “No Catholic in good conscience should ever ____” will probably come across as preachy and disrespectful, even if you mean well. The way we say something matters as much as what we say. You might be right, but if you’re arrogant about it…
“God opposes the proud, even when they’re right.”
2. Remember Their Dignity
Not only is every human being wounded, every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. Every person you interact with, anonymous or not, has a great dignity as a child of the King.
Mother Teresa summed up the Gospel in five words: “You did it to Me.” The comments I make online, would I say them to God? Because whatever we do to the least of these, we do to Him.
They may insult you. They may hate you, try to get under your skin, or not honor your dignity. And it hurts. Yet their dignity remains intact. Even if you don’t feel like respecting them, you don’t have to do it because of them, do it because of God. Loving what God loves includes loving them because He loves them.
Love desires the good of the other. What is their actual good? Treating them with respect is their actual good. Correcting errors is good. Being a jerk is not.
St. Ignatius of Loyola went even father:
“Any good Christian has to be more ready to justify than to condemn a neighbor’s statement. If no justification can be found, one should ask the neighbor in what sense it is to be taken, and if that sense is wrong he or she should be corrected lovingly. Should this not be sufficient, one should seek all suitable means to justify it by understanding it in a good sense.”
– St. Ignatius of Loyola, Presupposition to the Spiritual Exercises
That’s an extreme love. What a beautiful way to remember their dignity. “You did it to Me.”
3. Don’t Assume
So we know that everyone we talk to, online or in-person, is wounded and is a child of the Most High. Even in the midst of remembering both those things (woundedness and dignity), it’s easy to assume we know where they’re coming from or what their intentions are. It’s especially hard when it’s just words on a screen. We can’t tell tone or body language. Misinterpretation abounds.
We won’t know their intentions unless we ask. We won’t know where they’re coming from unless we ask. And we should ask, otherwise it’s easy to assume they’re stupid or irrational. But why is it always the other person who’s stupid or irrational? Why do we never say the same thing about ourselves?
By not assuming, you take a position of genuine curiosity. It forces you to ask their thoughts, their intentions, their motives, their reason. You can fairly and accurately restate what they’re saying to make sure you understand it. It makes sure you totally get it..
Not only does it build trust and show that you’re a human being too, but also it means that when it’s time to address their argument, you address their actual argument. Addressing one that isn’t theirs just makes people frustrated.
Putting It All Together
We have a chance at every moment, in every interaction with others, to spread the love and message of Jesus. Or we can choose to hinder it. The saints show us examples of how to preach the truth in love. The saints of our age have the Internet, and sure, online disagreements have their own set of challenges, but we can still be witnesses.