I have something hard to say. It is about some of ourselves, some of the time.
Let me start by offering you my perspective on negativity on the internet: people are not always conscious or mindful. We let our bitter wounds affect our ability to listen to each other and respond in compassionate ways. Being compassionate does not mean we have to agree with each other. But it means that we shelf our ego and do not immediately jump to disregarding another’s experience or perspective; we can disagree without being harsh. We can be honest, while being kind.
There is some negativity in the comments from regular FAR readers and contributors that I want to speak to in hopes we can become a more supportive community and a better model of peaceful difference. Support simply means that we will create a more safe space for people to share their experiences, give their opinions, and be able to disagree. Diplomacy is the key. If diplomacy does not feel authentic to you. If it feels repressive and you equate it with being polite, then let’s look at the definition of the term:
Diplomacy: “The art of dealing with people in a sensitive and tactful way.”
‘Tact’ is defined as “skill and sensitivity in dealing with others or with difficult issues.” The word comes from the Latin tactus, which refers to touch or the sense of touch.
When I feel harsh and unmindful, I am more narrow and one-directed, less reciprocal. I tell others what I feel and think from a distance. I definitely don’t feel I am touching them. A touch is connecting, intimate, and it is also communicative and strong. I’m not asking us to quell our power or wisdom. I’m asking us to do what one religious leader incited his people to do: be wise as serpents and innocent as doves . . . because we are sheep among wolves (Matthew 10:16).
Wolves do not have to be designated as “the bad ones.” None of us are wholly good or bad. But when I think of wolves, I think of sharp teeth. And sheep have all that wool that can get entangled in sharp things. Teeth entangled in soft wool is a kind of contact but not a kind of touching that might be conducive to anything but emotional or physical harm for either creature. We are all sheep and wolves, getting potentially caught mistakenly in strange attachments but also potentially relating to each other’s sheeply and wolfly elements, and so it makes sense to have more compassion and curiosity for both.
In writing this, I know I could be talking about being diplomatic and then not actually be diplomatic. I want to keep from doing that as much as possible (it may take a revision or two). My strategy must be that I am also writing to myself, in my most undiplomatic moments (so many of them on the internet and real life).
Many of us know how harmful reward/punishment systems can be if we think back to manipulative relationships and institutions in our experiences. When people start to understand what gets rewarded and what gets punished, they might feel compelled to mold themselves into what the rewarder/punisher wants, knowing what kinds of messages or stories will be accepted and what will be shown protest.
But in a system where ideas are not punished OR rewarded, but taken into the fold and dealt with in loving, equanimitous ways, people can take risks, they can be experimental and curious, they are encouraged to be authentic because they know the commitment is there. Enough love is shown to be able to bear criticism and disagreement. In this way, people can grow and transform, celebrate and admit more easily when they are wrong, all helpful for individual human beings and the community. There is a difference because the users of one system end up (consciously or subconsciously) controlling others and the users of the other end up showing they care more about relationship than being right.
I am taken back to Carter Heyward’s book Saving Jesus from Those Who Are Right: Re-Thinking What It Means to be Christian (1999). In it, Heyward says, “’Those who are right’ refers not only to the Religious Right in the United States and elsewhere today, but moreover—and more importantly, probably—to all of us whenever we assume that we know it all or that our way is the only way to think or act. Those who are right tend to be impatient, I suggest, with God, themselves, and others” (1). Heyward goes on to say, contextualizing it theologically, that the Right among us and within us, do not accept incompleteness, fail to hold mystery graciously.
Perhaps we can hold the mystery of each other’s differing perspective with graciousness and patience.
Personally, I feel comments should be made with a certain element of curiosity. Sometimes when we oppose another person’s response to or articulation of their own experience, it feels like we’re smashing it or pointing at it with disgust and distaste in our mouths; we take on the tone of a policing parent instead of having the instinct of getting closer to a person’s words and feelings, touching it, inquiring about it.
Do we pause and consider the possibility that we might not understand? Do we aim to discuss with at least an inclination of resolution? How do we learn if we come to the table with staunch presumptions? Again, we can disagree but still be kind and open. Then, if we feel bitterly opposed still, let us craft our own post, not necessarily calling another out, but using the opportunity to fully express what probably cannot be expressed in a comment, and perhaps should not, being inspired and thankful that a post’s perspective reminds us of our own deepest values and ethics.
Heyward explains that Jesus needs to be saved so that we do not destroy relationships.
Maybe we need to save feminism in a similar way for the same reason.
Elisabeth S., Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches online composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a chapbook of poetry and traveling through Iceland, Spain, and Ireland.