Most of us know what it is to be misunderstood and have our good intentions pooh-poohed or disbelieved. If we’re honest, most of us also know what it is to misunderstand and treat others’ good intentions with suspicion or incredulity. Comparatively few of us, however, know how to clear up misunderstandings without making things worse. Only too often we say or do something that strikes the other person to the disagreement as being off-key. Hurt or angry feelings multiply and what began as minor ends as major. Recently, I’ve had a couple of experiences of that myself. In both cases I can say that I had no evil intention, and I assume my interlocutor didn’t, either. The fact that attempts to patch things up didn’t go as hoped doesn’t mean that trying to resolve differences is pointless or doomed to failure. I think we have to go on living dangerously, trying to resolve differences when we can, but the time may come when we have to recognize we are unequal to the task and have to leave the matter to God. Knowing when to do that requires humility, trust and charity in equal measure. To some, leaving a disagreement unresolved (or turning it over to God, as I have suggested) is tantamount to failure and a sign of weakness. A few of my friends suffer from the ‘I must win every argument’ idiocy. I can live with that. What I can’t do is live with it in myself, can you?
Most people know what it is to worry. We worry about our families, our communities, our jobs, our finances, our country. When we are young, we often worry about our exam results; in later life, our scan results. Worry preoccupies us, saps our strength, closes us in on ourselves. It tends to shut God and other people out and makes us unaware of, or at the very least insensitive to, the possibility of hope. It also clouds our judgment, making us view every act and word of others in the light of our own preoccupations. In short, worry imprisons us in a hell of our own making.
I was thinking this morning about St Cyrial of Alexandria (it is his feast today) and how much I admire his theology while loathing his methods (he closed the churches of the Novatians, expelled the Jews from the city of Alexandria and battled the Nestorians at Ephesus as though they were the devil incarnate). Was it zeal for truth or worry about the future that made him so combative? We shall never know for certain, but I think it is telling that after the Council, Cyril was moderate and conciliatory, making it plain that he had no wish to destroy Nestorius or any of his opponents.
I think there is something we can all learn from this. It is natural to worry during a time of unprecedented political uncertainty such as we are now experiencing in the U.K. and in Europe more generally. Those who assert that ‘God is in his heaven and all is well with the world’ are right in one sense, but in another, they do an injustice to those who have to live with the mess and try to sort it out. I suspect none of us is thinking very clearly at the moment. The lack of political leadership and direction and uncertainty about what comes next are not going to be resolved any time soon. That is why it is important not to make things worse by digging trenches that must later be abandoned. What St Cyril recognized, and we maybe have yet to learn, is that making an argument deeply personal is not the best way of ultimately achieving peace and unity any more than worrying is the best way to attain hope.
From time to time, someone on Twitter will decide to take another person to task about an opinion they hold, or are thought to hold (not at all the same thing), or will tag their name onto a tweet in the hope of getting their views into the other’s data stream and thereby reaching all their followers. It happens to me occasionally. Sometimes I’m not online to notice; sometimes I’ll engage in friendly discussion or disagreement. Sometimes, however, things take an uglier turn and I prefer to dissociate myself entirely from the other’s agenda by blocking them. Inevitably, that leads to howls of rage from the blocked, but, really, why should one meekly accept insults and accusations, usually expressed in screaming capitals, when one has not initiated the argument oneself and has no desire to press any particular point?
In the past few days, I’ve had two ‘interesting’ experiences of a Twitter argument into which others tried to draw me. My overwhelming feeling in each case was ‘this is a waste of time, no one is listening to anyone else, and hurling insults around makes it unlikely that anyone is going to want to listen to anyone else’. I preferred to withdraw (and was, of course, attacked for doing so) but I think if one genuinely believes in freedom of speech, one must allow others the right to silence. That is often forgotten on Twitter, where individuals sometimes assume the right to compel others to respond. It is, in effect, another form of bullying.
However, I accept that many people do want to use Twitter for arguing but don’t want to be bullies, so here are my five little tips for Twitter arguments. Before you begin, ask yourself
1. Is Twitter the best place to argue your case?
2. Can you make a valid statement in 140 characters?
3. Can you argue your case without attacking/accusing/insulting another? (Courtesy does matter; so does checking one’s facts and getting them right.)
4. Are you prepared to admit you are wrong?
5. Will you recognize that not everyone is as happy to argue as you are yourself?
I have to admit that my tips come more as a plea to the disputacious than the fruits of experience as I’ve never initiated an argument on Twitter and don’t think I’ve ever ‘won’ any in which I may have engaged. Twitter arguments often generate more heat than light, and people and reputations are sometimes badly harmed in the process. The most important advice I would give to anyone wanting to argue on Twitter, therefore, would be Mr Punch’s advice to those about to marry — don’t. Or, if you cannot manage that, at least think before you tweet.