In Depth  |  

Why is it impossible to have a normal conversation online?

It’s that burning feeling of smallness, worthlessness and rejection. It’s feeling humiliated and exposed. It’s knowing you’ve embarrassed yourself and there’s no way to fix it. It’s shame, and we’ve all experienced it.

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It’s a feature of every human community, and according to Dan Wu, a lecturer at Sydney’s Moore Theological College, it is the way we humans identify behaviour or beliefs that fail to reach an ideal.

“In some ways that is morally and psychologically neutral … shame doesn’t have to be inherently morally negative or making a statement of personal self-worth. One of the reasons why shame has such a negative feel to it is because we automatically attach certain values to what we call shame,” he tells Eternity.

“But everything depends on the ideal you have in mind. Shame can be a really negative thing if the values it subscribes to actually cause damage and destruction to someone. But it can be a healthy thing if, for example, you have a group that values honesty, and there is a member who is entirely dishonest. It can be remarkably positive to expose the dishonesty, not for the sake of exclusion and denigrating the person, but for the sake of reconciliation and re-establishing what is truly worth holding on to, that which is truly honourable.”

“As soon as you put something small out there, it’s just going to escalate immediately and you cannot undo it.”- Dan Wu

Obviously, with seven billion people on the planet, humans are going to disagree on what we value, but Dan says, for Christians, it should be defined by God and his character.

“Our lives [should be] shaped around love and faithfulness, that which is honourable, worthy of respect and worthy of elevation. But if we fail to honour, to love, to be faithful, that actually damages and destroys and there’s a rightness to exposing it.”

In this way, Dan suggests there may be a rightness to Christians engaging in shame, within the Christian community, but warns that we need to be aware of the dangers of exclusion, and always seek to restore the person to the fellowship of the community.

“We Christians like to have a bit of argy-bargy, a little bit of debate, trying to establish who’s who in the zoo.” – Dan Wu

Since the advent of the internet, shame has become a much more public and permanent part of our everyday lives, with every other person taking to Twitter or Facebook to have their say on who is the latest loon speaking out about any given issue.

“I can see all the elements of online shaming in the schoolyard. But the difference with online shaming is the extent of how public and permanent things are. Online shaming is so powerful and destructive, because as soon as you put something small out there it’s just going to escalate immediately and you cannot undo it.”

Online communication has a certain degree of unreality to it, according to Dan. “Online, you just engage with a persona. You don’t see the full effects of what happens to that person behind the persona.”

Because it’s hard to remember there is a person behind that Facebook profile, it becomes very easy to rip into people, thinking and saying things like ‘you’re an idiot’.

“What I think is going on is when you debate an issue, you’re not simply debating the merits of the issue, not simply debating what is right and wrong; what you’re doing is you’re making a pitch to whose perspective, opinion and voice is worth hearing.

“What you’re trying to say is: ‘I think what I’m saying is right, I think what you’re saying is wrong, therefore what I have to say is worthy of a hearing and what you have to say is not worthy of a hearing. In fact, if we continue to give your idea airplay, that is dangerous’,” Dan says.

And Christians are some of the worst offenders.

“Our goal should be to love and care for those who we’re chatting to, even those who we disagree with.” – Dan Wu

“Like anyone, we Christians like to have a bit of argy-bargy, a little bit of debate, trying to establish who’s who in the zoo. And because of the flat nature of online interaction, we really lack the possibility of actually talking to each other and clarifying properly. You just get this stream of comments that are set in concrete, so it’s very hard to interact well.

“I remember some discussions I’ve seen where points have been made, and the opening line of the response is ‘oh dear’. At that point, [that person] hasn’t mounted an argument, [they] haven’t discussed the point, [they’ve] just belittled the person as if they were a child, by saying, ‘oh dear, how could you even say that?’ By that [they’re] trying to say ‘my opinion is valuable, your opinion is quite worthless.’ I think that’s quite unhealthy engagement for Christians, because it actually doesn’t demonstrate respect and love for brothers and sisters,” says Dan.

“Our goal should be to love and care for those who we’re chatting to, even those who we disagree with.”

Dan Wu is not on Facebook. 

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