A Feast of Friendship and the Problem of Internet Trolls

The festive board
The festive board

Yesterday we used the new monastery table for the first time for a meal with friends. Today would have been even more appropriate, because in the monastic calendar today is kept as the feast of SS Mary, Martha and Lazarus, a feast of friendship and hospitality. So, while the rest of the Church is celebrating St Martha alone, we are celebrating all three siblings together. For us, it is a reminder that all true friendship, all true hospitality, never involves just two but always three; that our Martha days, when life seems all work, and our Mary days, when we glimpse what it means to rest in God, are incomplete without our Lazarus days, when we know the depths of our own helplessness and the graciousness of God who stoops to the lowest part of our need. It is a day for praying for our friends, living and dead, and for learning to be good friends ourselves. Above all, it is a day for acknowledging what a great privilege it is to be friends with Christ โ€” something we would never have dared to say, were it not that he called us friends first.

So far, so good. Friendship is a great blessing, and we can all agree that friends are to be treasured, online and off. But the online world is also home to a particular nasty kind of cyber bully, the internet troll. Caroline Criado-Perez campaigned in the media for women to feature on British banknotes, but as soon as it was announced that Jane Austen would appear on the newly designed ยฃ10 note, she began to receive a torrent of abusive tweets, threatening her with rape and death. It is dangerous to generalize from a particular case, but I am sure many people have experienced unprovoked abuse and threats of violence online. Sometimes it is purely verbal: there are some who think that freedom of speech means they have the right to insult others at will and they say exactly what they want without regard to the truth of what they are saying or the feelings of the person about whom they are writing. The comments pages of many sites are not for the faint-hearted! Sometimes, the abuse becomes more hidden, as when an individual is stalked and bombarded with unwanted messages/images. That can be difficult to deal with, especially as some people will go to extraordinary lengths to attain their ends. At the risk of alienating some of my readers, I think there is a noticeable difference between the way in which men are abused online and the way in which women are abused. Men have their arguments rubbished; women are more likely to have their bodies rubbished, and, as in the case of Caroline Criado-Perez, to be threatened with physical violence.

Which brings me to my point. There is much discussion at the moment about how to deal with cyber bullying in all its forms. The official response from Twitter to Caroline Criado-Perez has been a bit weak, but I think the objection to a ‘report abuse’ button should be weighed carefully. It will itself be abused and will tend to drive abuse underground. What is hidden is much more dangerous than what is open, as anyone who has had to deal with internet trolls will testify.

I have no magic solutions to propose, but there is one course of action that I think we should all consider seriously. I think we need to be better friends to one another online. We need to watch out for one another so that no one need suffer abuse alone or fearfully. If we read an abusive or threatening comment or tweet, instead of just ignoring it with a virtual shrug of our shoulders, we could spend a moment or two countering it. If we do so politely, reasonably, but firmly we may encourage others to do the same. Bullies only have power because they think no one will stand up to them. Maybe that’s what we all need to do a little more often: stand up to them online. A faithful friend is a sure shelter, says the Book of Sirach (6.14). Please spend a few moments today thinking about how you could be a better online friend to others.

Spot the Dog
Dog-lovers are encouraged to look hard at the photo. Bro Duncan PBGV is there somewhere.
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15 thoughts on “A Feast of Friendship and the Problem of Internet Trolls”

  1. Hospitality is a beautiful thing. We enjoyed a wonderful housegroup barbecue yesterday with hosts who know how to look after us all very well. It’s such a great chance to enjoy and enhance fellowship.
    As for trolls, there is, of course, already a ‘Report Tweet’ option, at least on the phone app (though it’s rather a cumbersome process) but you’re right that this, too is likely to draw abuse. I used it once yesterday to report someone in precisely the case to which you refer (whose account has since been suspended). But publicly standing with the sufferer is of greater value (though I disagree with the somewhat aggressive feel of the ‘shout back’ approach).
    Thanks for making me think ๐Ÿ™‚
    And tell Bro Duncan he doesn’t need to be camera shy!

    • Thank you. Yes, I think most people soon get to know about report spam/abuse buttons, but I am not sure they do anything to lessen the feeling of vulnerability. Yesterday, after the CBC interview I did, we had three highly invasive and unpleasant emails sent to the monastery email address. Small beer to what some people experience, but a timely reminder of what many face entirely alone.

  2. You speak so much truth, and I hope that the message reaches the trolls.

    I love your picture, with Bro Duncan PGV peeking around the corner, perhaps wondering if there will be an opportunity for some discreet cadging there in a short while ๐Ÿ™‚

    I love the idea of hospitality. On several occasions already this year our parish has shared food and drink among the wider community not just within the church. And we hope to do so again soon. Somehow, our lack of a parish priest at the moment has brought people together a little more and more effort seems to be made to do more in the wider community. Perhaps this is something we need to put in our parish profile as the last interview process resulted in No appointment.

    It’s a hard place to be. A worshiping community without a visible leader? And nothing substantial can be done in terms of developing mission without that leader. But, practical outreach is something we can do readily and not surprisingly in my view, seems to be helping to bring the Kingdom nearer in our period of vacancy.

    • Thank you, Ernie. We keep you and your parish in our prayers. To be without ordained leadership is a hard trial, but it will bring out other qualities as I’m sure you’re finding.

  3. Thank you Sister Catherine for your thought provoking comments. I am especially struck by the Martha – work, Mary – time with God and Lazarus – our helpless and need of God moments. That, for me, will be my focus for many months/years to come as an anchor and prompt in my life. (Badly put, but I know what I mean – I think!!)…….and….hello Brother Duncan. Good to see you.

  4. I see Bro Duncan’s little face peeping out behind the table. He looks like a faithful friend!
    In Norwegian folklore Trolls turn to stone in the daylight. Trolls are ugly monsters who dwell in the bowels of the earth, but emerge to seduce young maidens. I agree with your proposal that the most effective way to deal with them is to let the light shine on them and expose them.
    As Christians we are called to be salt and light but it hadn’t occurred to me before now that letting the light shine might turn Internet trolls metaphorically to stone ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Reading about the Benedictine slant on this feast, I wonder if anyone can point me towards an online Benedictine calendar.
    (Not sure that’s the right word. Do I mean an ‘ordo’?) In friendship, Patricia

  6. We will be celebrating the feast of St John Vianney on Sunday. Sung Mass followed by an invitation to the Parisioners to join together to celebrate the Feast of our Patron Saint in the Church Hall afterwards.
    I thing Br Duncan is counting the table settings and wondering if he is included somewhere!

  7. Makes me think of the attempted trolling by a very grumpy reader of our local town blog. The town had just staged a successful Passion Play for the very first time (despite the snow) and everyone – members of the town’s churches, musicians, actors and audience, had agreed that it should be staged as a regular event. Sure enough, the local atheist piped up to complain and blame all the ills of the western world on religion. Only in this case he didn’t stand a chance, as he was politely drowned out by other contributors, myself included.

    Hmmm.. perhaps I should be less of a lurker and more of a participator.

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