The company I work for recently published a review of Jordan B. Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life on their blog. My knee-jerk reaction when the file arrived was to put it in the Nope Folder. The writer in me was unimpressed with the quality of the piece. The millennial in me was not naive enough to think it would be received well by our faithful readers. Twitter garnered a couple of likes and nowt else but Facebook made even me raise my eyebrows. I guess I expected better. So here are three rules of engagement for when you see something online that you disagree with.
1. Actually Read the Source
As incredibly stupid and patronising as this tip may seem, it needs to be said. I see comments and reactions to things all the time where you can tell that the person hasn’t even bothered to skim the article of listen to the first thirty seconds of the video. TL;DR summaries aren’t good enough, you can spin them however you like. Read the article.
Taking offence at something you haven’t bothered to look at first is the height if arrogance. You cannot assume that you are going to disagree with something based on the stance you assume they will take.
The West doesn’t believe in real debate anymore, just in mouthing off. In order to truly learn or engage with anything, we have to first listen — even and especially if we disagree. At the very least, you will be better able to represent and refute the person you disagree with if you know their viewpoint to begin with.
You have no right to say anything and no right to be heard or listened to until you have done the same courtesy and listened to or read the problematic piece. But that comes to the second rule of engagement.
2. Don’t React Right Away
We live in a very impatient society. Technology demands that we constantly be consuming and reacting — and the less time between the two, the better.
This isn’t healthy.
The wise man will always weigh his words. Often our initial reactions to things will change (if you are a thoughtful person). As you give the information and arguments time to digest in your mind, you may find that there are things you agree with after all and that what was said (though potentially wrong) makes more sense on further reflection.
Even if a piece is as bad as it initially sounded, waiting will give you time to cool down and be less emotional and more rational in your response. Striking back in the heat of the moment almost always leads to ungracious words you will later regret. I have found that leaving time before replying to things that irk me reminds me that some things need not be dignified by a response at all and that there is wisdom in picking your battles.
This slow to respond approach means that you will find yourself spending less time in fruitless mud-slinging and more time fighting more productive battles — if you even need fight at all (hint: often you don’t).
3. Check Your Sources
One of the people angrily decrying the Peterson article (and our folly for posting it) replied that it was no surprise we were endorsing his book (we weren’t if you read the first paragraph) since we refused to sell a well-known, well-respected theologian’s works. This caused quite the outrage among other commenters though no one thought to check our website. If they had, they would have seen that there are 44 titles by said author, commended and sold, and ten Spanish editions available to boot (not to mention works about the chap). It was a different company that pulled his books and that was well over twenty years ago.
Gossip can be apologised for but it can never be fully retracted. When you contradict, correct, or accuse someone online or anywhere else, make sure that you have the correct evidence and information and then speak to them with grace. Don’t be wildly throwing around misinformed hear-say as though it were verifiable fact, it can do great damage to the other person and it makes you look like a fool when it proves to be untrue.
In a similar vein, it is perfectly alright to ask the person you disagree with for their evidence and sources, so long as you make an effort to read them before engaging further (see tip #1).
On Civil Discourse
All in all, it is rather simple to be civil in online disagreements. It boils down to taking the time to read and understand the arguments, taking time to think about it, then (if it’s worth bothering about) making and presenting a solid refutation or case of your own.
One would have thought basic listening skills and good manners would have taught the internet this but, alas, it is not so.
Granted, there are times when we must breathe fire (graciously) but social media is hardly ever the time or place, particularly if we don’t know the person we’re speaking to. Even if we do know them, it might be better as a private conversation if they’re being reasonable.
So, top tip and a heartfelt plea: please be civil in your online interactions (you can still be firm of course). If you are a Christian, remember that you can tell the root by the fruit and that applies to your own heart first. Strive to be more Christlike online. Be convicted by all means, but please be courteous.