My friend Ennie Hickman recently commented, “The internet is the new mall.” This struck me as delightfully accurate. You see, back in the 80’s/90’s shopping malls were the places where kids hung out. Obviously, the primary purpose of a mall was to sell stuff, but kids (being the social geniuses they are) grasped the secondary benefits. Malls provided a pseudo structured environment that was entertaining, “private”, in the sense that it was parent free (because what other kind of privacy did you want as a teenager?) and most importantly: NOT SCHOOL. Malls were havens of diversity. Young-ins were no longer limited to the social pool available to them in school. They could fish from other ponds. Make new types of friends. Learn about other people. Express their opinions. Compare and contrast world views. Meet girls*…
Time at the mall could also become an opportunity for battle, or an occasion for bullying. Jocks “accidentally” dumped milkshakes on their rivals, and beat up geeks who ventured too far from their arcade quarantine zones. Nerds argued amongst themselves in comic book stores over the minutiae of character arcs, and story continuity. “Mall rats”, aka good-looking girls, spent time degrading or approving their peers based on arbitrary beauty standards, while admiring themselves in the mirrors and windows.
So, what happened to the Mall? They still exist, and I’m sure some kids still spend time there; but no one can say that they are the social bastions that they used to be. Ennie’s point (and my own), is that malls have been replaced by the internet. Specifically, social media.
Everything that can be said about “the Mall” (except for the fact that malls are physical), can be applied to social media, and even more so. Social media is a center of commerce and entertainment that provides everyone, not just kids, a semi-private place of diversity to meet new people, express opinions, compare and contrast world views, and meet girls*. Although Jocks might not have the power they used to, there is always ESPN and daily-fantasy. Geeks now have an almost infinite arcade (so do farm-ville moms). Nerds argue about the minutiae of everything, not just superheroes, (but still superheroes) on Reddit and YouTube. Girls now compare and contrast their whole lives, not just their clothes (but still their clothes) on Instagram and Facebook. Mirrors have been replaced with selfies.
More than anything, social media has accentuated an area of the human social experience that the mall naturally limited: battle and bullying. The advent of blogging, and micro blogging a.k.a monologuing, and micro-monologuing has provided a lot of people the opportunity to say whatever they want. Unfortunately, most of it is ignorant. By “ignorant”, I mean uncharitable, mean-spirited, and ignorant. Which leads me to my main point (remember that observation about monologuing from a sentence ago? Don’t judge me).
Two days ago, we celebrated the Immaculate Conception, which is also the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. There are already a plethora of better articles which explain and meditate the year of Mercy, so go Google it if you have no idea what’s happening. Also, you should watch Pope Francis open the Jubilee Doors/ read his homily. It’s legit dope.
Now I want to get practical, because my biggest challenges in being merciful come from social media. In truth, I have a hard time showing mercy to certain groups and individuals in real life, because of the things they post on social media. I have experienced the emotional trauma of being RIPPED A P A R T (in a certain sense deservedly, although definitely disproportionately) for ignorant things I’ve said. I also know plenty of kids and adults who have directly received, or initiated, some sort of personal attack via the web. It’s a big problem. As much as I don’t want to take it personally, when it happens, it’s hard not to.
So, here are 4 (or 5) tips for being merciful on the internet.
1. Know What “Mercy” is.
We often equate “Mercy” with weakness, or a weak form of sympathy. In reality, mercy is far from weak, and much more than sympathy.
Mercy is a direct result of Charity (aka Love, self-gift, the golden-rule, Mt. 5-7, Jesus, God) “Love is itself the fulfillment of all our works. There is the goal; that is why we run: we run toward it, and once we reach it, in it we shall find rest” (St. Augustine; CCC 1829). It is “The Loving kindness, compassion, or forbearance shown to one who offends” (CCC Glossary).
St. Thomas Aquinas defines mercy (taken from this article) as being both an emotion and an action. Affective mercy is an emotion: the [authentic] pity we feel for the plight of another. Effective mercy, on the other hand, is something that we do, a positive action for the good of another, taking steps to relieve the miseries or meet the needs of others.
Ultimately Aquinas says that the Latin word "misericordia" literally means "having a miserable heart"—both affectively and effectively—for another person's misery.
In essence, we usually equate mercy and forgiveness. But forgiveness is an act of mercy. Mercy is the general disposition of Love in response to all kinds of evil, moral and material.
2. The Truth should be your goal
If you are not authentically convicted of the truth or you are not genuinely trying to seek it, don’t get into a debate. If you are reacting out of fear, disgust, scandal, or anger, you’re probably going to say something dumb. Let it go…let it goooooo….
3. Always assume the best
Whenever you encounter a tweet or article link you disagree with, the first thing you should do is adopt the strongest stance of the other person’s argument. Even if they are presenting you with stupidity. For example: Maybe you disagree with abortion. When you encounter someone who is pro-choice via the web, the best thing to do is to approach them as if they were giving you the strongest argument for abortion they could possibly find. One of two things will happen. a) You will have an enlightened discussion or b) You will end up better understanding their point than them, which then gives you an opportunity to argue against it even more effectively.
4. Don’t attack the weakest argument
The internet is full of “straw-man” argumentation. Arguments that are pithy but easily defeated. Just like you should assume the strongest argument of your opponent, don’t waste time attacking weak ones. Maybe you can knock out a baby in one punch, but that doesn’t mean you’re strong, it means you’re a bad person.
Beating up weak arguments tends to breed false confidence, and does more to reveal a lack of intelligence than anything else. Plus, it doesn’t bring anyone closer to the truth.
5. Be Socrates
Don’t just talk; asking questions is the quickest way to clarify, and convince.
6. Spit-Knowledge, don’t throw shade
Along the lines of #3, it might be fun to shut somebody up, but it’s never very effective in changing minds. Always educate.
7. DON’T HAVE AN ARGUMENT ON FACEBOOK OR TWITTER
Just don’t. It’s like having an argument in a food court. Everyone is annoyed, no one cares. Find another place to flesh out your opinions.
8. Silence is Golden
If someone won’t let themselves be educated, or engage in a civil debate, don’t respond. Their ignorance will speak for itself. On the flip-side: if you don’t know what you’re talking about, you didn’t read the whole article you want to post, you are not ready to defend yourself, or you are about to post something inflammatory, the most merciful thing you can do is to do nothing.
There are many ways with which to show mercy on social media. Let’s talk about them; comment your ideas. Let’s keep the mall a nice place to visit.
BONUS: Here is a conversation, although it’s a parody, that I could have transcribed from Facebook today.
*or boys, or non-binary gender partners. I’m not ignorant, but give me a break for the sake of writing style