ANONYMOUS AGAIN

Many years ago, I was approached by a friend to serve on a committee. Committees involve meetings and since meetings are something I try to avoid as much as possible, I didn’t (and don’t) do committees all that much. My friend knew all that but still wanted to nominate me for the committee. He explained his reason for asking me.

The committee was dealing with some significant issues in our denominational life, issues that I and many others, including my friend, were concerned about. He felt that the views we held needed to be expressed and he believed that I was the person to express them on the committee because I said what I thought clearly and openly and wasn’t intimidated by disagreement.

Over the years, I have developed a reputation as one who sometimes (often? too often?) speaks the unpopular view. I have a tendency to see things differently at times and in the right circumstances, am willing to speak out. Early in my ministry career, I confess to speaking out often and loudly. These days, I still think a lot but tend to speak less often and less loudly. I let a lot of stuff pass by—I might have some thoughts and even some disagreement but I am not really interested in putting out the effort to comment or engage.

However, when I chose to engage, I am always going to do it openly and clearly. When I disagree with something or someone, I will make it clear that I disagree. I am not going to hide behind someone else; I am not going to use an anonymous web name; I am not going to become a “they” whispering around the edges. I will speak in my own voice, with my name openly and clearly attached. If need be, I will even put it in writing, clearly accepting responsibility for what I am saying.

I am aware that this puts me at odds with a major trend in our society. Thanks to the proliferation of social media, a great many people get to make a great many comments about a great many things without ever having to take any responsibility whatsoever. It is incredibly easy to comment when you can become anonymous commentator 219. People now have an powerful outlet for the hate, the anger, the vitriol, the mindless, the pointless, the ignorance that at one point might have been put in an anonymous letter but which more likely rarely if ever saw the light of day in another age.

But today, anyone can say anything, safe and secure behind the barrier of their keyboard and screen name. As Randy Legassie, I am responsible for what I write and say. But as anonymous commentator 219, I am no longer responsible—I am anonymous and cannot be held responsible for what I have said or written.

Obviously, some people find that incredibly liberating and freeing. But in the end, freedom without responsibility is never a good thing. Freedom without responsibility tends to being out the worst in people. We become rude, nasty, biased, prejudiced and just plain not nice. I gave up reading comment threads on websites a long time ago simply because they very quickly degenerated into the kind of interchange I used to require my kids to take a time out for engaging in.

There have been times in my ministry when my comments and opinions have cost me. I have been fired, passed over and ignored. It would have been much easier to be anonymous—I might not have suffered as much. But in becoming anonymous, I would have suffered even more because I would have stopped being me. I would have lost some essential part of who I am. My ideas might have been expressed but I wouldn’t really be there—I would be hiding behind some convenient shelter.

That may work for some—and I can even envision a few scenarios where in might be the appropriate way to proceed. Those scenarios, however, tend to involve bullets, death squads and unjust imprisonment. Most of the time, though, well, hiding behind anything or anyone really doesn’t cut it for me. If I am going to say it, I am going to say it knowing that I will be held responsible for what I am saying.

May the peace of God be with you.

Advertisements

ANONYMOUS

I am not particularly surprised by what the guy in my office is saying. He and I have disagreed on many aspects of my ministry since I began working for the church. He doesn’t like some of what I am preaching and teaching. But the reason for this particular visit grows out of a complicated situation that I have been providing pastoral care for. He doesn’t know the whole story and feels he should. Furthermore, he says, there are a lot of people in the church who feel the same way. “They” are saying that I am a problem and that I am going to cause serious harm to the church. “They” are talking to him because he stands for right and I don’t.

I have always had a very strong response to anonymous reports. On the one hand, I do like knowing what “they” are saying. Any organization, including the church, has a background level of discontent that generally doesn’t often become serious enough that people feel obligated to take a stand but it serious enough that they talk about it, as long as “they” don’t have to become identified with the talk. Part of my pastoral responsibility to the church is being aware of this background discontent. That generally only happens when someone tells me what “they” are saying. Sometimes, people tell me what “they” are saying as a favour because I need to know and sometimes, as in this particular situation, because the person speaking somehow hopes that what “they” are saying will reinforce their comments. Whatever the reason, I think it is good for me as pastor to know what “they” are saying.

However, I am also very aware of the reality that whatever “they” are saying isn’t important enough for them to take any real risk. “They” generally want to be able to complain without dealing with the responsibility that comes from taking a stand. Comments like this may sound serious and may even have a serious base but in truth, when “they” lack the conviction or courage to make their comments openly, I have difficulty taking them seriously and even more difficulty basing my actions on what “they” are saying.

I am aware that there are some times when being anonymous is necessary to protect the life of someone. I can understand that and approve of that. But in general, anonymous comments, no matter how strong or how pointed or how serious don’t overly affect my decisions. If I hear that “they” are upset by the new tie that my daughter gave me for my birthday, I am not going to stop wearing it.

So, back to the session we began this post with. When the guy told me that there were others who agreed with him and that “they” were equally upset with me, I responded in the way I learned a long time ago. I told him that I don’t respond to anonymous comments made by “they”. If “they” had something they think I needed to hear, “they” needed to come to me personally. If and when “they” came to see me, we could and would talk about their concerns openly and directly. But until then, I would listen to his complaints and respond directly to his concerns but I would neither listen to nor respond to any comments from the anonymous “they”, no matter how many of them he claimed there were.

Eventually, “they” showed up in my office. “They” consisted of this guy’s wife, who had already made it clear that she agreed with her husband. There were no other “theys”, or at least there were no other “theys” concerned enough to take a public stand. And if “they” were not willing to stand openly for what they were saying, I have no obligation to take them seriously.

Being anonymous allows too many people to say too much too often without having to be responsible. Hiding behind anything or anyone means that I don’t really have much invested in my stance—I have courage enough to say it anonymously but not enough courage to say it in my openly. But if I am not willing to say it openly, how committed can I really be to what I am thinking and saying?

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT IS GOSSIP?

I love digging into the meanings of words–but I generally don’t bother much with dictionary definitions of words, unless it is a totally unfamiliar word to me or it is a Swahili word I haven’t used in a while.  Dictionary definitions of words are important and significant because they tell us what the general population means when the word is used.  But there are two problems with dictionary definitions.

The first problem is that that what words mean to people changes over time.  For some reason, people seem to shift the meaning of words in ways that no one can predict.  As an example, consider the word “gay”.  At one point, it was a synonym for “happy” and was used that way–a Christmas carol says, “Don we now our gay apparel” and the old Flintstones cartoon show promised us “a gay old time” in its theme song.  Today, the word has a very different meaning, one that can give a very ironic meaning to these old songs.

The second problem with words is that words also have another meaning, one that can be harder to define but which people tend to understand.  The meaning can have an emotional content, a practical content, a contextual content–all of which can go well beyond the dictionary meaning.

All of that is to lead into a discussion of gossip.  Dictionaries suggest that gossip is the passing along of information whose validity is in question.  But as I have been thinking about the word and the practise–or, to be perfectly honest, my own practise of gossip–I think that definition really only scratches the surface.

When I gossip, the issue generally isn’t whether what I am saying is true or not.  In fact, I have an aversion to being wrong so I try hard to have my facts straight, even when I am gossiping.  Generally, the issue for me is why I am saying something about someone.  And after some soul-searching this week, I realized that the times I can be accused of gossiping are the times I am saying something to make myself look good–I want to be seen as someone in the know, someone with knowledge, someone who has a superior grasp of the situation.

In my desire to look good, I turn another person into a tool.  I can climb on them to get myself higher.  Ultimately, I am guilty of disrespecting and dehumanizing the other person so that I can gain some selfish advantage.  And that selfish advantage doesn’t generally have to be some grand and long-lasting thing.  Just getting the best comment at coffee with someone by showing how much I know about another person’s issues is sufficient.

I don’t like that–and am not too happy that I wrote myself into the corner of having to admit not only that I gossip but also making myself look at why I do it.  Now, I could make myself look better by saying that I don’t do it very often and I at least try to have my facts straight and–well, there are lots of other ands but nothing really changes the fact that I actually abuse other people for my own temporary and minor gain.

I would like to say that having forced myself to take this look at myself and confess my sin, I am now going to change and never gossip again.  I would like to say that  but I know it isn’t that easy.  In all honesty, I have to say that I will likely gossip again–but I am hoping my confession means that I will feel guilty enough that the gain from gossip is blunted.  I am hoping (and praying) that having confessed, I will be more willing to seek another path that leads me away from using other people for my own gain and benefit.

While there are sometimes when people experience overnight change, I have generally found that I have a slower, more incremental process which I hope I have started with this blog entry.  When I realized that my gossip is actually an abuse of others, that hurt me and my self-image.  Now comes the hard work of changing patterns and doing what I have been telling others to do and which God is obviously telling me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

A PRAYER REQUEST

I mentioned gossip in the last post and that began a train of thought leading to this blog.  Mentioning gossip reminded me of a joke I sometimes use when talking about gossip and the church.  It goes like this:

Q:  How do Baptists (or whatever group you prefer) gossip?

A:  They say, “I have a prayer request to share with you.”

We humans love to gossip but since gossip is one of those things specifically mentioned in the lists of things we believers shouldn’t do, we need to find a way to do it that at least sounds acceptable.  We all know that the prayers are really a minor part of the whole process but it at least gives a veneer of respectability to something which is no different from what everyone does.

We humans love to talk about other human beings.  Sharing what we know, think we know or speculate we know is probably as old as speech.  Probably the first intelligible conversation between people was a warning about the predator hiding in the tall grass–but the second was probably someone telling about how so and so was so stupid that he almost got eaten by the predator.

Gossip seems to be almost a necessity for humanity.  Get people together, provide coffee, tea, wine, beer or boredom and the talk will almost always turn to someone who isn’t present.  Rarely will it stay on basic concern for that person’s welfare.  Eventually, the comments will become negative, pointed and exaggerated.  Depending on the status of the individual in the group, the comments can be gentle or nasty but in the end, the group members will feel something that made the process of talking about the absent one(s) worthwhile.  The person being talked about, however, rarely gains status as a result of the conversation.

And this is the real problem with gossip–it contributes to a lessening of both the one being gossiped and those doing the gossiping.  There are certainly legitimate times and reasons to talk about someone who isn’t present–but in general, the purpose isn’t to help anyone but to make the gossipers feel something–a superiority, a sense of being better, a feeling of being in the know, all at the expense of the absent person’s reputation.

As a pastor, I have an ambivalent relationship to gossip.  I think it is wrong to talk about someone absent without their permission and knowledge.  But at the same time, the gossip going around the church and community often provides me with important information that benefits my ministry–the gossip helps me anticipate and deal with issues that may or may not develop in the church.

But in order to get the information, I have to hear the gossip, which encourages the whole process.  I let people know that as pastor, I am not going to tell them anything I know about people and their situations because of confidentiality issues but in the end, it is as much gossiping to hear it as to say it.  I am still working on that dilemma because it does help me as pastor to know what is being said.  Could I do my work without hearing a lot of what I hear–probably–but I would likely be slower picking up on some things that are easier dealt with earlier.

If I could make everyone stop gossiping, things would be great.  But in truth, I can’t even really control myself in that area.  Give me a cup of coffee, some free time and a group of non-church friends and before too long, I am telling the group about our mutual acquaintance who….

So, at best I am a passive consumer of gossip (purely for professional reasons) and at worst, I am as involved as anyone on the giving and receiving of gossip.  But then, it gets even more complicated.

I am sometimes called upon to give a reference for people, a process that generally involves no more than writing a letter.  But sometimes, I get a call from the person who received the letter.  Or, I might simply be contacted about someone in the context of a job search, asking me about someone we both know.  Is it gossip to talk about the person to the prospective employer?

This is getting complicated.  Maybe I need to figure out just what gossip is–it might help me to know when I am receiving and sharing legitimate and important information as opposed to gossiping.   So that is my task and the topic for the next post–what is gossip?

May the peace of God be with you.