In his essay “On Racist Speech,” Georgetown Law School Professor Charles Lawrence III argues that the purpose of the First Amendment is “to foster the greatest amount of speech.” To me, this goes to the heart of the American democratic experiment. Censorship by State or Church is not acceptable, primarily because it is usually those who are being oppressed by said institutions who find their voices silenced. However, Lawrence cites an important exception, the so-called “fighting words” exemption, defined as those words which “by their very utterance inflict or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” He maintains that racist speech falls under this category, and therefore should be silenced, because racist speech does not intend to proliferate more speech, but rather aims to stifle it or to incite violence.
I think the same thing can be said for people who are aggressive, rude, vitriolic, and intentionally disrespectful on Facebook. Their speech aims to incite anger, to elicit emotional responses from people with no real intention of moving toward understanding or dialogue. And while some may argue that this is not new, I think it is worse than ever. Frankly, I am sick of it and I won’t tolerate it on my page anymore.
Why do I bring this up? I recently had an unfortunate incident on my own Facebook page which I do not wish to recount in toto. The important points are as follow: my post was hijacked by one person, who took my original comments and turned the discussion into something I did not wish to explore. The conversation continued when another friend responded; when the language turned heated, and unnecessarily hostile, I asked for it to cease and desist. Three times I asked, and three times I was largely ignored. Finally, one of the parties involved—honestly and sincerely—recognized that the overly-charged rhetoric was counter-productive, extended an apology, and removed the offending posts. (In fact, I can tell that this has been an opportunity for reflection on the part of this friend, and I have no hostilities or ill-feelings of any kind toward this person; we remain good friends.) The other party did not follow suit, but rather turned his vitriol toward me. I will not dignify the bulk of the charges by repeating them here. However, I was told that asking for a change is tone means that I am overly-sensitive, unable to argue, and not a clear thinker. As a professor, writer, pastor-in-training, and, I hope, an overall intelligent and caring person, these charges upset me greatly. Perhaps I am too attached to ego; perhaps I am giving too much credence to a person who enjoys being confrontational; whatever the case, the words hurt. I began to think about quitting Facebook.
As part of this reflecting, I have come to the following conclusions: The experience bespeaks a larger gestalt that is gripping our country. The overly-charged rhetoric of American politics has trickled down to discussions on Facebook; interactions that should be conducted with respect and openness now are infused with insults, derogatory language, and anger. The sound bite culture in which we find ourselves, I think, has resulted in people writing with less care, less nuance, and less thought than ever before. We read sloppily and shallowly as well: people will look at the headline of an article, or the first couple sentences of a post, and will immediately hit “comment” before taking the time to appreciate the conversation that has unfolded, or the totality of the content in the original article or post. Some people swoop in, have a violent case of logorrhea, and swoop out, leaving chaos and resentment behind. This is a microcosm of the larger debate we see in Washington, D.C., a place where entrenched ideologies are more important than working toward consensus. As President Obama said in his State of the Union last night, “We need to end the notion that the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction; that politics is about clinging to rigid ideologies instead of building consensus around common sense ideas.” I have found this to be true of Facebook and online commenting: We need to turn down the temperature, and extend some respect to one another. We need to take the time to think about our comments, and not to jump so quickly to ad hominem attacks. There is such a thing as cyber-bullying, and I simply will not allow it on my Facebook page.
Back to my thoughts regarding my future on Facebook. Previously this offending party had caused such a furor among my friends, a few messaged me privately and said they felt uncomfortable with the hostilities. When I told the party to simmer down, I was accused of censorship and the stifling of speech. At the time, I took this to heart and thought about whether this was true. Am I trying to silence this person simply because we disagree? Should I allow this person to attack Christianity or people of faith, and simply understand that this is part of a free society? I now can say, confidently, that it most certainly is not. I do not accept that my Facebook page can be treated like free air-time for an individual’s SuperPAC ad. Uncited “facts” are wedded with vitriolic aspersions and aggressive posturing to such a degree, I can almost hear the ominous music in the background and I begin reading the comment in a low, gravelly voice. I do not believe it is censorship when I ask for a change in tone; I do not believe it is stifling of speech if I pull down those comments that are “killer” statements. Yet these are the accusations that are hurled at me. There is no attempt at real dialogue that I can see; what I witness is the desire to shut down other voices, to stop real discussion, and to inject anger and division into what otherwise could be a fruitful conversation. I have grown tired of such approaches, and I have to either accept that I will swoop in and remove these comments or I will have to leave Facebook completely. Either I think it is futile to have real discussions on Facebook, or I have faith that my friends will understand that I require a certain degree of respect on my page, and when it is lacking I have to become the 2 am bouncer: “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
Perhaps it is overly dramatic of me to spend so much time and energy reflecting on this, but I do not think such is the case. Today, I attended a Boundaries training seminar for the United Church of Christ, and the topic focused on Facebook, along with some other issues. I thought about my path of discernment, how I wish to be a servant of God and a person of service to my community. I think that it is important that my page be a place where we can discuss faith, literature, politics, world events, and a wide variety of other topics without feeling shouted down. I received numerous messages from people asking me not to leave Facebook because of this experience, as my posts and voice are something they cherish. That is humbling and gratifying. Yet, I will not subject them to ridicule or bullying. Most certainly, this does not mean that I will be the content police. Those who disagree are encouraged to post, as long as it is done respectfully. And if I violate these rules myself, I expect to be called out. I am not perfect, by any means.
In the end, I have come to really cherish my Facebook community. Facebook allowed me to agitate for justice when two friends were viciously attacked in the Oregon District; I wrote a letter that was signed by over 50 people, all largely because of Facebook. Facebook allowed me to share the final weeks of my precious dog’s life, and to receive positive thoughts and energy from others. Facebook has become a platform in which I can connect with some of the most intelligent, thoughtful people I know. In truth, it is the only way that I can stay in touch with a number of people that I truly value. But I am changing the way that I Facebook. I will not allow aggressive, divisive voices to hijack my page and to poke at my friends. I will not allow for the negativity to invade my life and the lives of those I care about; if that is a person’s sole aim, that person will find him- or herself locked out of what I think is a pretty good community.
And to quote Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”