On publishing “fighting words”
… and rationalizing it
by Fr. George Washburn, CA
On August 22, in post #21 on the thread titled “Plea for an Audit; Financial Allegations” this site published a comment consisting entirely of the stated wish that certain people believed to be critical of Englewood should “go to hell.” I sent Mark Stokoe a pretty prompt and stiff criticism of the decision to publish and the accompanying editorial comment in which he explained the rationale. He invited me to post a reflection. I almost didn’t bother because of the time delay and because admittedly the percentage of such dreck is probably lower on this site than elsewhere.
But I guess I’ll try.
I am trying to focus on a single question: should this site publish something I will call religious “fighting words” on the rationale, as stated by the editor, that “everyone” needs to know about it so that “they” can deal with it “pastorally?”
There is a popular but fairly shallow idea in circulation that “free speech” in the United States is a universal and virtually absolute right. One supposedly gets to say anything one wants wherever and whenever one wants, and it is some sort of vile and enslaving interference with man’s God-given and fundamental freedoms to suggest otherwise.
While speech in our society is awfully “free” in at least one sense of the word, there is a well known exception in public policy debates for a kind of speech known as “fighting words.” This is legal shorthand for the kind of communication whose content value is so abysmally low, and whose violence-inciting potential is so high, that a free society will still ban the “speech” because experience teaches that irresponsible people use it to cause damage out of all proportion to any possible good that might accrue from their words. One of the legion of reported court cases that explain and apply this concept is called In re Alejandro G. and can be read at findlaw.com under the citation 37 Cal. App. 4th 44.
I believe the “go to hell” message I am “reflecting” on here is the ecclesial example of “fighting words.” No, I don’t expect literal punches to be thrown. I see the potential for something much worse: more division among Christians.
I concede that even the lowest and most worthless forms of “speech” always convey some modicum of content – if nothing more than the speaker’s stupidity or lack of love, self-control or some other virtue. But I hope you will also agree (with the best minds and policy makers our civilization has been able to produce) that there is and must be some tipping point at which whatever theoretical “value” free speech in the abstract or the actual content in question might have starts to get outweighed by the nastiness it expresses and/or encourages.
For me post # 21 is clearly far past that tipping point. What actual intellectual or spiritual value is conveyed? None, except the writer’s spiritual poverty. And we should recognize that the power of such words to inflame, to divide, to discourage , and to close minds is vastly greater than the theoretical “value” of “everyone” knowing such content.
I would also like to examine (and heavily criticize) the stated rationale for publishing the anonymous person’s outburst: the supposed need for “everyone” to know so that “they” could deal with it “ pastorally.”
First of all, a relatively low percentage of the readership here can be presumed to have any substantial calling or responsibility for pastoral care. But even if we grant that all good Christians can in some way help the bishop or priest with such responsibilities, in this situation it would be impossible for anyone, let alone “everyone” to do anything: nobody knows who the writer was or where s/he worships except possibly Mark, and he isn’t telling. Or if he is, and he knows who and where, perhaps he is telling the one or two people who need to know that such sentiments are being felt and expressed …and can try to help the person in question. But “everyone” needs to know so as to deal with it “pastorally?” Sorry, but that explanation is so transparent it makes a wet Kleenex look like the Berlin Wall.
And when the rationalization for telling “everyone” evaporates, what remains? Possibly a desire to use such a post to depict the people on the other side as mean-spirited? After all, the writer seemed to be coming from a point of view more or less opposite to Mark’s own editorial position. (And we don’t even know that the writer or message was real. For all we truly know, “anonymous” could have been someone from the opposite “side” of the aisle impersonating a defender of the administration in order to deceive us all and make the “other team” (we are all really on the same side) look bad
And if it wasn’t necessary for “everyone” to know about the post for “pastoral” reasons, perhaps there was also the subconscious desire to publish the inflammatory language to, well … inflame. This site operates, at least in part, through constantly creating and feeding a sense of corporate outrage and need for emergency action. I hope and believe that Mark is not an intentional manipulator of his position in that way, but once one takes on the identity of universal gadfly, perhaps there is an unconscious temptation to always keep the pot well stirred. (How’s that for mixed metaphors?!)
But does that kind of pot-stirring really help us to value one another on all sides of the debate, or help the various members of the Body of Christ toward 0giving diligence to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” as Paul urged folks to do in Ephesians 4:3? Sharing power between the Metropolitanate and the Diocesans (in the hostile and ever-shifting landscape of our secular North American media culture and our “unique” Church life) is not an easy thing for the bishops to work out and practice, let alone for us to make constructive contributions to. And much work remains to be done.
I believe the less anonymous people use this site to scream inflammatory nonsense into the debating hall, the better our chances. To the extent that any of us can contribute to working out a loving and mutually respectful balance of power, and I believe it is possible, I think we will be helped by the exercise of much a) editorial discretion on posting (or rationalizing the posting) of “fighting words” from either side of the aisle, and b) viewer discretion in believing o r reacting to any such that leaks through.