Lent is a time that many Catholics choose to give up social media, but for those of us who stay active, Lent is a good time to rethink our online behavior. In the spirit of Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli Tutti, perhaps we can also reflect this Lent on the way we engage in arguments online. Can we be kinder? Can we try to create “processes” and bring about a culture of encounter instead of trying to win at all costs?
Here’s a list of ten suggestions and tips inspired by Pope Francis to help make the Lenten experiences of your friends and followers just a little more bearable this year—and maybe yours too.
1. Pick up the phone
Francis reminds us that “digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges,” in part because it lacks “the physical gestures, facial expressions, moments of silence, body language and even the smells, the trembling of hands, the blushes and perspiration that speak to us and are a part of human communication.”
When we are actively present with someone, we convey our love in a million unspoken ways before we even open our mouths. But when we’re engaging online, it is easy to forget that we are communicating with real people. For particularly heated or emotionally charged discussions, it may be best to pick up the phone, schedule a Zoom, or better yet—when it is safe to do so—find some time to talk in person over a drink or a cup of coffee.
2. Help your opponent make good arguments
In a rush to make our point, we are often sure to pounce on any weakness in our opponent’s argument. We demand that others argue perfectly, and we are sure to remind them when they don’t, sometimes with haranguing or even trolling. But berating others doesn’t convince them; it usually has the opposite effect of entrenching them further into what may have been a mistake or misunderstanding. This helps no one.
One simple suggestion is that you rephrase your opponent’s argument back to them. Do this in a way that makes the most sense to you. Make it the strongest possible version of their argument, not the weakest. Do they agree with your rephrasing? Why not? This does require some empathy and a change in perspective, but by coming to an agreement on the argument itself, it will be easier to make progress toward a resolution.
3. Kindness rules
In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis writes that kindness is an “attitude that is gentle, pleasant and supportive, not rude or coarse.” This might seem a bit shallow in the grand scheme of things. Of course we should be kind! What is remarkable is how many people aren’t kind when they are on social media. Francis observes this, writing in Gaudete et Exsultate, “Christians too can be caught up in networks of verbal violence through the internet and the various forums of digital communication. Even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned.”
We are probably all guilty of this, and we can see that the small decisions we make to interact without kindness can have a big impact. Shifting to a kinder way of communicating would dramatically improve everyone’s experience on social media if more people practiced kindness in their tweets, posts, and comments.
4. Your opponent is not an ideology
We should never assume that just because someone belongs to this or that group that they believe everything that group believes. People are more than the ideology to which they might subscribe. This has critical importance, particularly in political discussions when partisanship is at such extreme levels. The oppositional nature of social media makes us more likely to devolve to ideological fighting than to find common ground.
Pope Francis recognizes this, writing in Christus Vivit, “The way many platforms work often ends up favoring encounter between persons who think alike, shielding them from debate. These closed circuits facilitate the spread of fake news and false information, fomenting prejudice and hate.” To break through this situation, we need to truly engage with people by recognizing that every person is different and has a unique perspective and set of beliefs.
5. Logic is a tool
Logic is an important tool when engaging online. It can help point out contradictions or resolve seemingly irreconcilable differences. However, very few people online debate with logic alone. Many of us engage with others primarily using personal experience, or by analogy, or by appeals to the conscience. Sometimes, we argue strictly on the passion of our opinions. It is important, then, to acknowledge not only what someone is saying but also how they are saying it. Meeting an impassioned screed with cold logic and facts is likely to only infuriate or fall on deaf ears. If engagement and dialogue is a process, we should employ the correct rhetorical techniques called for by the situation.
6. Test your assumptions
We often try to pin down the underlying intentions of those with whom we are engaging. However, in doing so we must always give others the benefit of the doubt. We must assume that they are acting and arguing in good faith until proven otherwise. Francis calls this challenge “to communicate by encountering people, where they are and as they are.”
If we suspect someone is biased or engaging dishonestly, we should approach the matter directly to verify whether our suspicion is accurate. All too often our back-and-forth arguments are really a cover for a hidden, much more fundamental, debate. For example, one could easily ask, “It seems to me by saying X that you are really saying Y. Do you agree?” By being honest and transparent about our own assumptions, we can move closer towards finding common ground than away from it. We can pray for this in the prayer from Pope Francis for this year’s World Communications Day, and ask God to, “Teach us to go out and see, teach us to listen, not to entertain prejudices or draw hasty conclusions.”
7. Be patient
In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis talks about the importance of consensus in a pluralistic society. However, at times neither we nor our opponent are in a position to have an honest dialogue. It is okay to simply step away and come back again another day, or in another forum. Pope Francis said in a recent homily, “There are times when conflicts arise and no immediate solution can be expected, nor should hasty judgements be made. Time is required to step back, to preserve peace and to wait for a better time to resolve situations in charity and in truth.” If we instead rush to find resolution—or to win—we may end up doing irreparable damage to our relationship, ensuring that any consensus will be fleeting at best.
8. Pick your battles
Sometimes, dialogue is not just difficult, but it is altogether impossible. Whether due to the person, the topic, the context, or the circumstances, there may be times when it is clear that no one has a real interest in reaching a new consensus or discussing the issues honestly. Dialogue is a two-way street and there is no obligation to engage those who will not help create the “culture of encounter” that Francis calls for.
Of course there is a fine line between being rudely dismissive and enforcing boundaries, but if we are acting with kindness and honesty, we are better able to do the latter. Hopefully there will be an opportuntiy to re-engage if and when the situation changes.
9. It’s okay to lose
None of these rules is a guarantee of success. Engaging with kindness and honesty makes us vulnerable. Kindness doesn’t always win arguments. Sometimes others will take advantage of us to court public opinion to their side. At other times, they might try to goad us into responding angrily or to distract us with tangential arguments.
We have to recognize that losing an argument is okay if it means that we can preserve God’s peace in our hearts. This is the gift of meekness. As Pope Francis said, the meek “protect their peace. They protect their relationship with God and they protect his gifts, God’s gifts, preserving mercy, fraternity, trust, hope, because meek people are merciful, fraternal, trusting people with hope.” In the end, God is the protagonist of evangelization, and we trust that the Spirit will win in time.
10. We are all human
We all make mistakes, but as Francis reminds us Fratelli Tutti, “The dignity of others is to be respected in all circumstances, not because that dignity is something we have invented or imagined, but because human beings possess an intrinsic worth superior to that of material objects and contingent situations.” Even if consensus seems impossible and our opponent holds opinions we find reprehensible, we cannot lose sight of the fact that everyone has dignity. Everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect.
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Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman and finance professional. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of "encounter" with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts. He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing and coaching soccer.