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Giles Fraser: Why blogs can be bad for the soul

29 April 2009

In her excellent blog for The Times, Ruth Gledhill raises the question of why religious people are so nasty to each other on the internet. She writes of a “blog eat blog world”, where “authors and commenters sip vim-and-vitriol under the cover of Christian sanctimony.”

Ms Gledhill points the finger at conservative blogs such as Stand Firm, after having been referred to as “an instrument of evil and cultural sickness” by one contributor on that site. I went to have a look at it, and picked on a thread at random. The first comment said that the Arch­bishop of Canterbury “has been continually and intentionally doing, writing, saying and teaching evil. He should be dethroned.”

I read no further. And that, of course, is the real problem with the general nastiness of internet com­ment: it drives people away.

Of course, there are some fan­tastic blogs and threads, and there are many places where decent argu­ment is respected and encouraged. Yet some sites are moral pigsties, where the most disgraceful com­ments are justified, and even encouraged, as a show of democracy and internet freedom.

It is easy to imagine that all this unpleasantness originates with a small number of obsessive blog “com­menters”, operating from sweaty bedrooms that have never seen the light of day, living off pizza and pornography, and getting their kicks out of being unpleasant as compen­sa­tion for their own social in­adequacy.

Oh, that it were so simple! The people who are being so cruel to each other are just as likely to be wearing pinstripes or flowery dresses — or even clerical collars.

Part of the problem is that too many contributors do not recognise that they are being unpleasant be­cause they believe themselves to be justified by some higher cause. This creates a blind spot, which is why the nastiest stuff comes from “believers” with a mission — believers in Daw­kins, believers in GAFCON, believers in the public ownership of the means of production.

The other problem is that, on the internet, the other does not come with a face. The French philosopher and Talmudic scholar Emmanuel Levinas has based his ethical philos­ophy on the sense of responsibility for others that originates in the face-to-face encounter. Only by looking at someone’s face does one properly appreciate his or her vulnerability — a vulnerability that cries out not to be harmed.

The quick-fire argument on the internet has cut itself adrift from this sensitivity, and has become cruel. This is why too much time going through blogs and comments can be bad for your spiritual health.

Canon Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.

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