One of the striking features of the pre-Election debates reported in the press or commented on in Social Media has been the absence of debate. By that I don’t mean the kind of staged, presidential-style T.V. debates among party leaders that some favour, but engagement in genuine argument rather than slogan-mongering or dismissive, sometimes libellous, personal remarks. We seem to have had far too many of the latter, perhaps because Social Media have made it possible for everyone to express an opinion, so nearly everyone does; perhaps because we have become unused to marshalling our thoughts into an argument, so we rarely do so; perhaps, because we have become afraid to argue because of the possible consequences, so we avoid it. Am I being unfair?
The way we read has a great deal to do with the way in which we argue. I’ve noticed that quite a lot of people will react to a headline without reading the actual article or post to which it relates. That can lead to some surprising conclusions, especially if the headline has been provided by someone other than the writer or is deliberately provocative (a form of ‘clickbait’). Here in the monastery slow, careful reading, weighing every word, is the norm, which is one of the reasons our online actvities are selective. We simply couldn’t process all the information and opinion on offer. But for those who don’t have such constraints, I think there is a huge challenge to make wise and discerning use of what is available. I don’t suppose many people think of their internet/Social Media activity in moral terms, but there is an important moral dimension. We have a duty to be truthful in what we write about others, not to make rash assumptions or wild accusations, and it can be easy to forget. What I say of the written word is also true of our use of photo and video. It isn’t fake news we have to worry about so much as the half-truth, the suggestio falsi.
I think the way in which we respond to criticism is also an indicator of our willingness to engage in argument. Some people seem to think that anything goes. An insult, especially if expressed with a few swear words, is enough to see off X or Y. Personally, I hate such remarks and find myself very unwilling to engage because I know I can’t (won’t) do so on the same terms. That doesn’t mean one should take them lying down. Trying to find a way to respond that might open up genuine debate is difficult and usually wins one few friends. Then there is the ‘poor little me, how dare you?’ attitude which can be equally difficult to deal with. The expression of certain views, no matter how thoughtfully and courteously argued, has become unacceptable to many. This is an area where Christians in particular find themselves at a disadvantage. For example, what possible political enlightenment was to be gained from hounding Tim Farron on whether he thought homosexuality or abortion was a sin? He has not proposed any change in the law as far as I can see, and no other party leader has been grilled in the same way on the same subjects, but had he said yes, he thought either was sinful, I suspect that would have led to a concentration on that, and that alone, as far as his party is concerned. We do not all have to think alike or hold the same views, which is why argument and debate are as important a part of the political process as they are of any other in which we engage.
Monasteries are not usually thought of as being places where people argue, but the chapter, the meeting of the whole community to discuss the business of the house or matters of importance, has been an integral part of Benedictine monasticism from the first. Debate can sometimes get very lively. But it cannot be sidestepped. I remember my Junior Mistress telling me, very solemnly, just before I was professed, that I had a duty to speak up and should never be afraid to do so. One would hope that, in a monastic setting, goodwill could always be assumed. Can we assume such in the debates and arguments in which we engage with others? Perhaps; perhaps not. However, we should be sure of our own goodwill, of our own readiness to engage in argument truthfully and fairly. In the end, it is only our own conduct that we can control, and for which we must answer. As we continue our novena to the Holy Spirit, let us ask for all the graces that would make us good argue-ers!
In similar vein, I have blogged about internet apologetics here: http://bit.ly/2qtqSuw