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A while back, I wrote a post on “Etiquette for Interfaith Discussions”, which was meant as a sort of guide to discussing faith with people of different faiths.  As a person of alternative religious beliefs that lives in an area where proselytism seems to be as popular as my beach on a holiday weekend, I’ve seen a lot of in-person discussions of religion go down the toilet very quickly–even when two people have seemingly similar beliefs from an outside perspective.  Online, its even worse…even in communities of people with similar (or at least similarly alternative) beliefs.

So…I thought it might be a good idea to talk about extending the conversation about appropriate etiquette for discussions about religious and spiritual discussion.   The assumption here is that our goal in these sorts of conversations isn’t to piss people off, in which case, I think it goes without saying that all of the etiquette points in the previous post still stand, though some of them are more specific to direct interpersonal conversation than others, and should be adapted a bit.  If, of course, the goal is to piss people off without regard for furthering dialogue, disregard the following…

Responsibilities of the Writer: 

  1. Know your audience.  As a writer, you should know who your audience is–its just sort of common sense that one needs to know who they are writing to, and what interests and perspectives readers might have, in order to appropriately address topics.  But part of knowing your targeted or expected audience is also knowing that some of them might just be curious drop-ins…  If your goal is to foster thought and discussion solely within one’s community, that’s fine (though a consideration of how they could be taken by others might be a good idea)…but if your goal is to spark discussions across communities (either sub-groups within the same faith group, or between faith groups), then perhaps its a good idea to see what your words feel like from an outside perspective and model them appropriately.
  2. Strive for accuracy and honesty.  Try to emphasize when something is a personal opinion (albeit a hopefully educated one) as opposed to a fact-based statement.  Particularly when discussing contentious topics (in which case, try to acknowledge if not address different opinions) or in environments where you could be construed as a subject matter expert or a representative of a particular view.  If you know you are biased on a particular topic, ante up and admit it.
  3. Write  with respect.  The bottom line here is to write with respect for one’s subject matter and one’s audience.  Sometimes that can be a quite difficult balance to achieve.  There are a number of ways to do this: cite sources, admit bias, use inclusive language, make ‘I’ statements, and overall…be kind–or at least as kind as possible if and when criticism is necessary.
  4. Make it readable.  I admit, I’m totally guilty of tl;dr at times…and UAWA (using abbreviations with abandon–and yes, I totally made that one up as a joke), incredibly bad humor, and overuse of ellipses and parentheses. Look, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be able to be read and understood without too much difficulty.  If most people struggle to read it, there isn’t much of a point to have written it!  Things like format (hello, paragraphs!), punctuation and spelling, syntax and grammar matter, as does clarity and specificity in language (terminology matters!).  And for the love of all that you consider holy, use paragraphs–I won’t even bother to try to decipher a total wall of text, it hurts my eye balls and my brain.

Responsibilities of the Reader:

  1. Know the audience of the writer.   Lets be honest here, writers write with a specific audience in mind.  So be mindful of whose internet home you are walking into.  Don’t jump down someone’s throat for disagreeing with you when you wandered into their site (this doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with them).  Religious beliefs are opinions, and a person that wanders into a community with different opinions from theirs should expect to disagree with them.  Don’t automatically take disagreement, even at a fundamental level of how your own beliefs are viewed, as a personal insult.
  2. Read with an open mind and an open heart.  Try to see things from the writer’s perspective and experience.  You don’t have to agree with them, but try to see where they are coming from and why that background could lead them to see things as they do.  Don’t take a general opinion as a personal attack, even if that is how they feel…often people have opinions that they have absolutely no real world experience with (and usually those opinions are the most offensive ones!).  A decent person can still have a shitty opinion, so try to refrain from passing judgement on a person, instead of their ideas and reasoning.
  3. Give some “benefit of the doubt” to the writer.  Writing well can be hard and writing well on hard topics can be even harder.  Sometimes people say things in a way that is not immediately clear what they mean, or they give insult where none is intended because the words they use are not understood in the same way they were meant to be delivered.  In light of an entire post, try not to take single comments out of context, unless they are an illustration of overall disagreement.  Unlike a face to face discussion, where a person has instant feedback and can see that a conversation is starting to go off track and clarify points or ask questions, internet discussions are dependent on when someone can get back to it (and a whole lot can go wrong in that time).  On the other hand, the key word here is somesome comments need to be challenged, whether it be for their sheer offensiveness, or because the author is someone that should know better (and if they don’t they need to be told), etc.

Responsibilities of the Responder/Commenter:

  1. If you didn’t read it all, don’t comment/respond…9 times out of 10 I’m willing to bet it will leave you breaking my next “rule”.
  2. Don’t be an ass.  A responder/commenter is both a reader and a writer and is responsible for behaving as both, the only additional duty you really have is to not be a jerk when you respond.  Ask yourself questions like “Will this contribute to the conversation?”, “Am I voicing a legitimate concern or critique that shows alternative points of view and furthers the discussion?”, “Do my comments get the author and other readers additional insight into the situation?” and “Would I say this to my mother/spouse/child/best friend?”.   If the answer to questions like those is “No”, then perhaps a rewording or rethinking of the comment is in order.
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