A few weeks ago, I joined a group of colleagues for a meeting where we were brainstorming ways for a Mennonite studies scholarship project we participate in to keep pace with things like the changing flows of information, open access journals, and best social media practices. One of the things I caught myself thinking in that get together was this: “If this project ever has a significant web presence and hits the internet big time, I sure hope it doesn’t have a comments section!”
I was pretty surprised by this reaction, but then I sat with it for a while. My sense of surprise turned to a clear sense of “Of course!” as I realized that I’ve been suffering from a case of “internet stage fright” — or ISF — at least that what’s I’m calling it.
Months and months ago, I announced on this blog that I was going to share any number of “informed opinions” about a list of topics of concern and interest in our denomination. But I haven’t delivered. I told my faithful and fearless editor that I was suffering from writer’s block, because that’s what I thought the problem was. But as I worked on other writing projects and found the words flowed pretty easily, I wondered why I kept seizing up when I tried to write for The Mennonite.
ISF is my body’s psycho-spiritual response to what I fear will meet my words, thoughts, opinions, concerns, and fragile hopes for meaningful connection that will transform the seemingly interminable conflict that has a hold on MC USA. Like I said, I seize up. I can’t get my words out. I run and hide. I dismiss the belief that anything I, or anyone else, can say will bring peace when there is no peace.
The vitriol of the internet is well-documented. Back in 2012, Scientific American asked “Why is everyone on the Internet so angry?” While there wasn’t a clear answer to that precise question, there Natalie Wolchover reports a clear piece of conventional wisdom from the psychology guild regarding all those comments sections of most websites: “psychologists say this addictive form of vitriolic back and forth should be avoided — or simply censored by online media outlets — because it actually damages society and mental health.” Can I join that amen corner?
More recently Tariq Moosa contributed a blog post on The Guardian’s website declaring, “Comment sections are poison: handle with care or remove them.” He pushes back against our dismissive insistences like, “Oh, not all comments sections are problematic.” Or the shrugging shoulders that accompany the statement, “It’s the internet.” Moosa is trying to activate our collective resistance to the apathetic view that vitriol — a common word in these discussions — has become a necessary evil of life with the internet. And I want to believe him, but I’m not quite sure if I can. Certainly our little Mennonite corner of cyberspace is not an exception, and this is what freaks me out and brings on the ISF.
If you’ve read some of my work on this blog, you’ll know that I’m an advocate of nonviolent communication. Over the past several months, I’ve been taking my practice to new depths and I’ve learned a few things. One of the “big ideas” of NVC is that you and I do what we do because we’re trying to find ways to respond to our feelings and meet our needs. If we don’t take the time to understand what’s behind those feelings and needs, we will likely keep do the same things, getting the same results, and still feeling frustrated that nothing seems to change. Bolstered by the growing body of evidence gathered by neuroscientists, NVC holds that if as much as 90% of our decision-making is based on our feelings rather than on our logical reasoning, then it would be wise to take our feelings and needs into real consideration, especially when we are in conflict or feeling disconnected from others in our communities, families, congregations, and workplaces.
NVC is teaching me to ask some important questions. What feelings and needs are getting stirred up when we try to have conversations through blog posts and comments?
Being able to ask the questions is a good step, but that doesn’t make me immune to ISF, believe me.
“What if I say something that triggers an unpleasant emotional response in one of my readers?” I wonder.
“Well,” NVC says, “remember, Malinda: you are not responsible for how other people feel.”
“Yeah? Tell that to them!” I shoot back. “How am I supposed to communicate nonviolently with someone who doesn’t know or care about this approach to communication? If they’re invested in putting their opinions out in the world without regard for how their words might be received by others, or maybe even hoping to shame and humiliate others, then why should I even show up? I have better things to do with my time!”
That’s the internal dialogue that tells me I’m in the midst of a life-size attack of ISF. When I’m caught and readers who comment are caught — caught in a downward spiral of antagonism — that signals the powers and principalities are afoot.
What I am describing is more than conflict. Conflict can be creative and summon in us our best selves to step forward to solve problems together or be assertive in setting our limits in the face be being asked to extend ourselves beyond where we can go.
I wish that we Mennonites could develop discerning hearts and minds to see when we are using the convenience of disembodied, asynchronous communication to try to meet our very human and very beautiful needs.
I also wish that I didn’t feel quite so incapacitated by my ISF. What I want is a real conversation with pauses and (polite) interruptions, some joy that we care so much, empty coffee mugs to slide around as I share why I think personal narratives can be a really valuable source of theological reflection because it’s so often connected with conversion experiences, and that gesture you make when you’re about to try to persuade me that I can’t possibly be right.
Can you help me find a cure for — or maybe just a support group for ISF?