Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Love and Compassion in a Virtual World

In Australia recently, a teenager committed suicide about being bullied on the internet. Although I’m not a teenager and I wouldn’t exactly call it bullying, nor did the episode leave me feeling at all distraught, let alone suicidal, I too have experienced a fair bit of nastiness from people over the internet.

It left me wondering why people seem to be so cruel when the internet is involved. And whether we treat people differently on the internet than we do face to face. And most importantly, how should we interact with others in cyberspace?

When Jesus told his disciples that the greatest commandment was to love others, they could never have foreseen a world in which we communicate with people on the other side of the world. We write messages and interact with others who we may never see and never meet, who often seem not quite real to us. Not only that, but we ourselves can communicate in such a way that we remain mostly anonymous. We are virtual people talking to virtual people, living in virtual realities.

So does interacting in a virtual world mean we are only to love others virtually? Or does love and compassion have no place on the internet at all? Or should we always seek to treat others with dignity, love and compassion, regardless of how we are interacting with them?

It almost sounds like the question the disciples asked Jesus. Who exactly is our neighbour? Back then, I’m sure they were thinking of whether their neighbour was their friend or their relative or the people of their home town or a fellow Jew. When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus expanded the idea of neighbour to include much more than they would have imagined.

Today, we might ask ‘Well who is my neighbour?’ Is it just the people I can see and touch and know. And I’m pretty sure that Jesus would expand our idea of neighbour to include even those people we only ‘meet’ on a computer screen. Even if we don’t know their name, even if we don’t know what they look like, even if they’re misrepresenting themselves, they are still our neighbour.

It is tempting to treat people in cyberspace differently than how we treat people we meet face to face. One reason why we may treat people differently on the internet is we are anonymous. The face that many of us show to the world is not a true reflection of what’s in our hearts. We treat each other with love and compassion, but our love and compassion only goes skin-deep. We act in a certain way because we don’t want to lose friends, or gain the disapproval of others.

The internet strips away many of these reasons. We cannot lose friends, because we don’t know the people we are communicating with. And if people disapprove, it doesn’t really matter, because they don’t know who we really are. In fact, the internet can often be an excuse to act out what really is in our heart, without fear of being found out or judged.

Jesus said that it’s what’s in our heart that matters. And the way we act towards others on the internet may be a good guide as to what we’re really like inside. We may think we are nice and fair and kind. But if we don’t act that way when we're anonymous, then perhaps we’re not really that way at all.

And we should also remember that just because we have certain thoughts in our mind, doesn’t mean we should put them out there where they can hurt other people. The fact we think something doesn’t mean we should write it. If what we are thinking is hurtful or mean, we should probably try to readjust our heart, rather than letting it all out on the internet.

Another reason we may be tempted to be cruel in cyberspace is we don’t know the people we are communicating with. And it’s harder to care about people who we don’t know. Different people will reveal different aspect of themselves. But for some of the people we interact with online, we know nothing more than the name they have chosen to use. We don’t know about their families or their friends or their problems or their lives. It is harder to care for people, when we know so little.

Not only do we know so little about them, but we see so little about how our words can hurt them. When we talk to someone in real life, we can usually tell when we have upset or offended someone or hurt somebody’s feelings. On the internet, we only know what someone chooses to reveal to us. Not only that, but we do not have to face their reactions to us if we don’t want to. We switch off the computer and no longer have to deal with it.

Sometimes it’s hard to even remember that they are real people. They feel a bit like the Microsoft Help paperclip. Just part of our computer experience. We turn the computer off and the person goes away. We read their comments. We interact with them. But we get no sense of who they really are, and so it’s easy to forget that they really are someone. They’re not just a character in a software program. They are real people who lead real lives. They care. They cry. They feel. And most importantly, God knows who they are. They are real people to Him. People that God cares about. And so we should care about them too.

(Image Details - The Good Samaritan - George Frederic Watts.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

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