Thursday, November 03, 2005
Watch Your Tongue - You Just Might Trip Over It!
An Opinion Piece
By Dennis E. McFadden
A very helpful attempt at identifying ethical guidelines for bloggers, particularly those choosing to comment on the current ABCUSA situation has been developed and published by Jerrod H Hugenot on the Roger Williams Fellowship site (http://rogerwilliamsfellowship.squarespace.com/ethics-of-blogging/). Although not without its own set of problematic elements, Rev. Hugenot has done all of us a service by his thoughtful piece.
Stating what I have long believed about the perils of e-mail, he notes that “Blogs are just as potentially troublesome as e-mail. Something written in haste and then sent out can be an occasion for great regret or sheepish recantation. Indeed, blogging can be an opportunity 'to get it off your chest' or fall into the same traps of gossip or near-slander of one’s ideological opponents.”
Dealing with the issue at hand, Rev. Hugenot offers three generalized guidelines for bloggers (and their readers):
1. If something pressing happens, be pastoral and prophetic but also let your thoughts simmer for awhile! Bloggers can fly to their computers when news hits and yet fly off the handle needlessly. I have read a few blog entries that have been prone to this. It is better known as “pastoral blather.” It is similar to that dislike of many congregants when a pastor commits “pulpit rage” (the homiletical equivalent to “road rage”) on a Sunday morning. Also, it can be similar to that queasy feeling one has when trapped at a pastor’s meeting with that one colleague who never knows decorum. This can easily happen in blogging! Fact checking also seems to be a lost virtue among some bloggers. Suppositions and hearsay are inexcusable and unethical in the pulpit--why not also at the computer keyboard? Bully pulpits feel great when one is behind one. On the other side, though, no one really listens after a spell.
2. The wiser bloggers that I read are ones who pride themselves in having thoughts on the day without placing so much pride in their opinions. Blogs can be seductive for the ego. Like theology, blogging should be provisional and humble. Perhaps the Rule of Benedict should be a governing tool for bloggers. Benedict wisely advises that we speak only when refining the silence.
3. Remember your ethical necessity to be collegial. Some bloggers just want to take cheap shots. I would challenge these bloggers to try their best to avoid caricaturing those who differ. Indeed, after some recent denominational developments, I have been appalled at how poorly national ABC staff have been represented in these blogs. One ought to consider one’s clergy collegiality with these national staff. Despite being in a local, regional, or national staff position, we are ultimately all colleagues in ministry. Making your regional or national staff (or in turn, local church clergy) the “other” or the faceless “them” ultimately does no one, even the blogger, any favors.
I have seen some stuff in blogs lately that causes me to wonder whether the pastor-blogger in question bothered to read his/her ABC/USA Ministerial Code of Ethics. One part of the Code of Ethics states: I will seek to support all colleagues in ministry by building constructive relationships wherever I serve, both with the staff where I work and with colleagues in neighboring churches.
Oftentimes, we are challenged in the practice of ministry with being collegial with those who hold convictions contrary to our own. We have this unintentional blind spot by virtue of how American Baptist polity works that allows us to think of “our” colleagues primarily as those in other area churches and rarely to think of our regional/national folks as other colleagues in ministry.
What would happen if we were more broad-based in our understanding of collegiality? Me thinks that some bloggers might have to be a little more provisional and respectful of “them” out in Valley Forge or the local regional office. One key area of respect that I have for national staff has been the sense that we are colleagues in ministry. Thus, when I read the caricatures of folks that I know to be decent people, I wonder less about the negative image being portrayed of national staff and worry more about the implicit collegiality issue that my blogger-colleague has in his/her writing.
In the midst of his constructive comments, Rev. Hugenot takes a few gentle swipes at those of us blogging from the right side of the ABC controversy when he writes, “Me thinks that some bloggers might have to be a little more provisional and respectful of “them” out in Valley Forge or the local regional office.” After reading some of his comments I wanted to ask, “Is it I, Lord?”
Those of us who know the principals in the ABCUSA conflict personally can vouch for their character along with our friends on the left. Dr. Medley, in particular, has always comported himself with the utmost decency and Christian gentleness. Even when subjected to withering questioning, as in the recent appearance in the PSW, Roy exhibited considerable grace and Christian restraint. However, try as we might to treat those with whom we disagree fairly and courteously, the issues at stake are stark and the emotions raw. It would be unreasonable to expect people to disagree without some measure of passion in their words and arguments.
One observation might be inserted to strengthen the observations Hugenot makes. All of us tend to see those statements of our position, those messages supporting our point of view, and those public articulations we find acceptable to our own in a very positive light. We call them “prophetic” and see them as positive encouragement to think and do the right thing. We all need a rallying cry to action, do we not? Conversely, we react (not respond) to those messages in disagreement with our own negatively, immediately jumping to pejorative labels.
For example, the Roger Williams Fellowship constituency tended to view Dr. Herzog’s Biennial dinner address as “witty,” “intelligent,” “provocative,” and “on target.” Yet, the ABE crowd uniformly denounced it as “condescending,” “insulting,” “patronizing,” and generally offensive. The same clever repartee that delighted the original audience was interpreted as name calling and worse. Indeed, the more verbally impressive, even artistic, the message, the more attractive it becomes to the proponents and the more offensive it is to the opponents. Dr. Z. Allen Abbott’s Biennial report, “The Baptists Finally Showed Up,” was replete with the kinds of rhetoric that delights supporters and infuriates the opposition (cf. my blog from yesterday).
In a similar vein, the pre-Biennial publications by Mr. Bill Nicoson in his ABE Connections served to both rally his own flock and to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the malignant intentions of the “evangelicals” to those on the left. Interestingly, both Dr. Herzog and Mr. Nicoson have proposed a separation in the ABCUSA. Herzog’s and Nicoson’s calls were roundly applauded or subjected to vituperative rejection, depending on which side one found himself or herself on in the debate. Those agreeing with Herzog's conclusion found Nicoson's statement of it incendiary; those affirming Nicoson's conclusion are still pointing to the divisive nature of Herzog's statement.
Both bloggers and their readers need to recognize the very human tendency to interpret the objectified “other” through the lenses of worst possible construal. Not only do we need to be humble about our own views, or “pride [ourselves] in having thoughts on the day without placing so much pride in [our] opinions” (Hugenot), but to recognize our tendency to be too easily offended by what we disagree with in others. The same verbal and argumentative techniques we find so endearing when used by our friends, becomes an offense of extreme proportions when employed by the other side.
Even the most careful among us (certainly not THIS blogger) tend to use our rhetoric as a sword and then wonder why the target of our written stab screams at the wound. Thanks, again, Rev. Hugenot, for calling us all to a higher level of discourse.