As you’ll know if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, I’m a big believer in the power of social media to give each of us a voice. On a global scale many do not have access to these technologies, so it’s crucial within in debate on this topic to remember that the Internet does not represent free speech for all; this is easily forgotten in our digitally-on culture. For those of us who do have this privileged access it is a powerful tool to enable us to share our views and engage in debate.
Social media is comparable to the Roman Forum back in ancient times where the people of the city gathered to discuss important issues. It has become the ‘digital Roman Forum’ for our society and its reach transcends the walls of a city, spanning timezones, cultures and nations. It’s meant to be a place of discussion where ideas can be hammered out, but as with physical society there will always be the ‘trolls’ who insist on anti-social and even criminal behaviour to shut others voices down.
Much of my online engagement involves the topics of religion and feminism. It’s been interesting for those of us who’ve passionately debated the role of women in the Church on Twitter (e.g women Priests and women Bishops, or whether women should be able to preach sermons or lead congregations in the Conservative Evangelical Church). One particular form of ‘shut down’ has been frequently used against us by fellow Christian Tweeters: “You women are sounding really angry – we think you should be more gracious“.
The graciousness argument
The reoccurring use of the term “gracious” has really demoralised many of us Christian feminists. It’s a religious and moral way to attack a view that the person does not like. Those opposed to our arguments can simply attack us for a ‘lack of gentle character’ and this seems to be happening with increasing regularity.
This approach of attacking character on Biblical grounds, rather than simply refuting our arguments, robs social media of one of its finest strength – the power to be honest, to express your views and also to be faced with the views of others who disagree. It’s also very patronising; we are educated women wanting to be argued with on the basis of our intellect, not on the basis of our alleged failings to live up to Christian ideal for female character traits.
I find the idolising of “graciousness” by Christians as the number one ‘online goal’ as flawed. Looking to Jesus I’d hardly call his cleansing of the Temple an act of graciousness. There must be a place online for righteous anger and expressing pain and passion about issues that really matter. Graciousness seems to have been blown out of proportion as the litmus test for good Christian online engagement. Jesus was so revolutionary that he got killed – hardly likely if he’d put graciousness as number one on the agenda of his interactions with everyone.
However, I’m not saying that in throwing away the idol of graciousness we need to throw out the need for good manners online. These are crucial; after all it is called social media for a reason as it’s meant to be social rather than anti-social. Ascribing to the goal of good manners and calling each other out if we fail to live up to these is a much fairer playing field. Using the term ‘graciousness’ in a Christian context feels innately sexist as it carries with it overtones of Church history teaching women needing to be meek, mild and seen and not heard. Good manners is a non-gender-specific goal that feels a lot healthier.
Good manners do not mean that passion has to be curtailed. As with any great debate – and I watched many back when I attended the Oxford Union – strong views can be delivered without having to attack or offend those on the other side. Debate is an art form and when practiced well disagreement is quite possible yet without personally attacking the other. Yet today ‘free speech’ is often used as an excuse to throw one’s weight around. Those making this case fail to recognise that they aren’t promoting free speech at all as their bullying approach robs other of their free speech as they are cowed into silence. Free speech is either for all or for none; bullying and trolling do not represent this freedom at all.
The tricky thing is figuring out where that line of healthy self expression is. We are learning as we go with social media as it’s a technology still in its infancy. Perhaps accountability is the key; being open to hear when others say your online behaviour is damaging them and having honest friends who can tell you when you need to reconsider your conduct. Openness and humility seem to be much needed traits in a digital age where everyone has a strong opinion and shares it freely.
In a religious context, among Christian Tweeters in particular, the argument that women should ‘be more gracious’ really must stop. In almost every case I’ve seen (and endured myself) it is men using this argument. Words are frequently used of women that wouldn’t be used of men online; ‘shrill’, ‘bitchy’, ‘upset’ and ‘over emotional’ being just a few that I see thrown at my Christian feminist friends. If men disagree with us then challenge our intellectual arguments, not our so-called failure to embody the Christian (wrong) ideal for a woman’s meek and quiet character.
Let’s aim for good manners online rather than graciousness (as it doesn’t carry gender-specific overtones) and remember that free speech means ALL must have freedom not just a few bullies who throw their toys out of the pram. I want to be free to express my passionate views online, but I also long for social media to be a place where debate can happen with respect.
Social media is virtual, yet it is also deeply real. Real people sit at the screen on the ‘other end’ of your communication. Real people read the messages and hurt as much as they would from a face to face delivery of the same words. In our brave new world we need mature wisdom to handle the powers technology gives to us and use them wisely. To all my Christian feminist friends: don’t let the arguments of ‘a lack of graciousness’ silence you. Call others out if they are bad mannered and let’s keep up the task of campaigning for the equality of women within the Church. It’s crucial that we do.