My dissertation was on the topic of civility. My upcoming book is on the same topic.
Civility is a big deal to me, but it’s not because I am naturally good at it. It’s my field, but I have to work at it. I try, with varying levels of success, to practice what I preach. So when a good friend of mine wrote with some questions about how to engage in civil discourse online, it allowed me to do some thinking and sharing about my online habits.
Here are his questions, followed by my response:
Kevin, what is your view on bloggers or others writing through social media who interact with the writings and podcasts of authors and well-known Christian leaders and pastors? I was discussing the topic the other day with a pastor friend. He brought up the topic and said his view is Christian leaders, especially local church pastors, shouldn’t on social media criticize, disagree with, or otherwise comment in any way that might be perceived as negative because too many people take offense and take it as a provocation to fight. He asked what I thought, and I said I understood where he was coming from but thought it sad that people couldn’t have a reasonable conversation about disagreements, even if no agreement was reached.
I’ve also heard some argue Matthew 18 requires if you have a disagreement with a pastor/speaker/author/etc, you must contact that person first, etc, etc. I said in my opinion that’s a misapplication and misunderstanding. Again, the question is not whether or not to critically engage viewpoints and theologies. The question is whether one is doing so fairly, accurately, and civilly.
Civility and the Public Nature of Publishing
When one puts their perspectives out to the public, the public can and will respond. In fact, I believe the public should respond. Civil discourse promotes healthy and appropriate levels of engagement and accountability. In my opinion, one would be naïve to publish and not expect both agreement and disagreement among readers/listeners. Likewise, I would find it odd for someone to place a pastor, blogger, author, podcaster, or other figure’s public content beyond the scope of public criticism.
I think it is reasonable and positive for a local pastor to respond to something put out by a big-name individual. This could serve to sharpen the skills of the pastor by engaging in discussion on a more visible platform. It can help the big-name person remember that people make up their platform – so they should listen. It also can keep them humble. On both ends, feedback, even if in the form of pushback, will help us better understand and articulate our own views and those of others.
How then to disagree?
Of course, one should disagree in a manner that is agreeable. Put another way, disagree by way of civility. A friend of mine articulated a clear and concise description of what such a civil response looks like
“A civil disagreement with a viewpoint, doctrinal position, leadership paradigm, etc, is fair as long as one doesn’t denigrate or assign bad motives to the original author, and as long as one states the position with which one is disagreeing fairly and accurately.”
When addressing another blogger or public figure, I make sure I provide a link to the blog, speech, or article in question. When possible, I deliberately state where I might be in agreement with them on other issues, or I state my respect and admiration for their position, work, accomplishments, etc… In other words, I seek to affirm the person however I can while disagreeing with their position. I also frame my disagreements in the form of a conversation. I invite readers and the one with whom I disagree to contribute to greater clarity and understanding of the issue. My intention is not to compete, it’s to converse. I also leave open the possibility that I could be wrong in how I have understood the issue, and may indeed be less than correct in my response. Reserving the right to be wrong is key to meaningful dialogue, but I could be mistaken. 🙂
What about Matthew 18 and the directive to go to the individual first?
Because publishing is by its nature the public distribution of one’s content, I’m not sure it’s necessary to personally contact an author before offering disagreement on their content. I’m an advocate of the principle, “work the problem, not the person” or “speak to the issue, not the individual.”
Matthew 18 provides a framework for addressing disputes that threaten the personal and corporate health of Christ’s Body. The nature of such disciplinary / reconciliatory actions appear to encompass issues of personal character. At play are not mere disagreements, but issues of division, disobedience, disrespect, or other issues of character. Therefore, if one had cause to believe an author is engaged in something immoral, illegal, or something rooted within the realm of character, then I would advise a private and personal contact before public response is pursued.
When such an approach does not yield correction or reconciliation, I do not believe it uncivil to publicly respond to the offending individual’s actions, especially if they are proven to be abusive, exploitative, or an affront to Orthodoxy. Civility is rooted in compassion, but is fueled by conviction.
Okay, here is a teaser … my next post is being written in response to another blogger with whom I disagree. Let me know if I adequately practice what I preach …