Can Charity Prevail on the Internet?

Deal W. Hudson
August 13, 2008

Go to any news Web Site and find an article on George Bush, Barack Obama, or John McCain. Start reading the comments section – there may be several hundred if it’s a major news site like MSNBC or Fox News. Before long, you’ll begin to feel like you have been punched in the face or dunked in the mud.

Sometimes, this is true here on InsideCatholic.com, despite very clear admonitions from our editor for visitors to remain civil. Fortunately, most readers have done just that, in spite of marked differences over politics, liturgy, and Catholic doctrine. That’s what we’re looking for: Our staff is committed to creating a virtual space where people can disagree, but speak with charity (we all fall short of that standard on occasion, myself included).

This is important if we want to have any kind of real communication. One disruptive commenter can ruin an otherwise constructive conversation.

The New York Times published an account of its own move to the Internet, and their experience echoes our own. One of its Internet editors, Kate Phillips, is “enthralled” by the readers’ comments, but gets discouraged by the invective – “I almost wish we could go back to the days when we never heard their voices.”

With media moving to the Internet and thus becoming interactive, the commonsense demands of courtesy are being ignored. Internet communication will never truly thrive until it demands the same decency people observe in other forms of interaction. That a relationship is virtual is no excuse for incivility.

So why are people on the Internet so… rude? Studies and surveys have confirmed that Internet use does make people act uncharitably who normally would not. The impact of digital technology has created so many new ways of communicating that it has fostered an atmosphere of freedom without responsibility.

In a humorous column titled, “On the Internet, everyone knows you’re a dog,” Michael Kinsley writes:

There is something about the Web that brings out the ego monster in everybody. It’s not just the well-established tendency to be nasty. When you write for the Web, you open yourself up to breathtakingly vicious vitriol. People wish things on your mother, simply for bearing you, that you wouldn’t wish on Hitler.

Kinsley thinks anonymity is the main culprit, but then makes the telling point that the social networking sites – where everyone abandons anonymity – are actually the most successful. If the implications of this are true, the bad habits of Internet “road rage” appeal to far fewer people than those who are in search of friendship and community.

Rev. Michael P. Orsi has diagnosed the problem well and has spelled out certain moral guidelines Catholics must follow on the Internet. He believes the problem boils down to calumny – the deliberate harm done to a person’s reputation (see CCC #2447) – which is endemic in the virtual world.

His analysis of online ugliness is simply brilliant and should be read by anyone interested in the ethical use of blogs and comment spaces. (Father Orsi is particularly insightful on the considerable craft some bloggers apply to their defamations.)

The Internet began as a place of pure immediacy and anonymity. Readers, cruising along the virtual highway, assumed their behavior would never lead to an arrest, or to any consequences at all. And so with no fear of being caught, they write what they want with no impulse control, nor any thought of the real people on the other side of the screen.

Good manners will eventually inform virtual relationships, though there’s much ground to make up. As Kinsley points out, most Internet users are interested in creating communities of common interests rather than providing an audience for the insufferable.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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