Debate, Not Discord

It would be stating the obvious to say the Internet has forever changed the way we communicate. In the past, people gathered in their local cafés and on street corners to exchange ideas and debate politics, religion and life in general. Today, message boards and chat rooms allow us to exchange those ideas with one person living across town and another living on the other side of the world.

A message board becomes it’s own virtual community, drawing those living in cultures or circumstances vastly different than our own, and it gives the participants an outlet to express their feelings, ask questions and get advice on their love lives. Sounds perfect, almost utopian.

Well, not quite. The reason that utopian societies never work is because they are populated with human beings who come from different cultures and circumstances resulting in conflict when viewpoints inevitably clash. Our own sinful natures don’t help things much. Every topic imaginable is discussed in online forums, including the two that cause the most conflict: politics and religion. Two people who have a friendly disagreement over U2’s best album end up in a bitter argument over some point in the Bible.

Disagreement is inevitable, but online forums offer unique problems. Instead of debating someone face to face, a person is reading words on a screen. It seems that some people forget that behind the words on a screen is a real human being. I’ve read many mean spirited comments directed towards others on message boards, and I doubt that many of those comments would be said to a person’s face.

Another problem is that a person reading words on a screen does not have the benefit of observing another’s tone of voice and body language. Some conflicts on message boards begin when one person misinterprets or misunderstands the comments of another despite the advent of avatars and smiley faces.

While disagreement is inevitable, outright verbal warfare is not, or at least it shouldn’t, be the norm. We can learn so much from the people we encounter on message boards and online forums. Anonymity and the impersonality of the Internet may be a base cause of problems on forums, but it can also be a good thing. A person who may have questions or doubts about a certain issue like homosexuality can find advice and maybe some answers on a message board, whereas in the real world, their questions and doubts might be met with condemnation. I’ve often found my preconceived notions on different issues challenged by the things I have read on various message boards. However, I believe many people, including myself, block out ideas or suggestions when they are presented in a hostile and condescending manner or environment.

Debate is healthy, but not discord. The element to keep the one from becoming the other is respect. It is important to realize that a human writes the words on the screen, and we all can agree that all humans deserve respect and civility no matter what their stance on predestination vs. free will. Like any community, you’ll encounter people who you don’t really care for or disagree with quite often, but that’s not anything unusual. Applying the same rules to a person who annoys you online as you do to a person who annoys you at church is a good strategy.

Another good rule of thumb to remember is never to respond to something in anger. Instead of shooting off an angry response to something that offends, take a minute to respond calmly and reread what the other person wrote. There’s a chance you might have misunderstood what they said. Also, if issues keep coming up that cause discord on the forum, leave the discussion behind or step back and let newer voices take up the issue.

The capability of exchanging ideas with people from all over the world has been one of the blessings of the Internet. It allows us to catch a glimpse of life outside our own comfortable bubbles. It’s a shame when angry discourse overshadows healthy debate, but a way to minimize the discord is to remember the respect we all deserve as people made in God’s image. Who knows, you might learn something.

[Alecia Stephens is 24 years old with a B.A. in English and works as a receptionist. Her career goals include having a job where she never has to answer a phone again.]

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