The rapid expansion of online media in recent decades has brought about a lot of good. But in its wake it has also fuelled a new kind of commentary which is unsavoury and which is lethal.
It has never been so easy to sit in front of a cup of tea and react instantly to whatever is popped up in front of one by an online forum. And the majority of these reactions are ill-informed, not thought through, often expressed in intemperate language and are heavily influenced by the words used by previous responders.
And it can happen to a bishop!
The Bishop of Waterford, Alphonsus Cullinan, issued the kind of apology today that is unprecedented for a bishop. A few days ago, he commented about the HPV vaccine (which is issued to young girls to immunise them against cervical cancer) in terms that he now acknowledges were uninformed. His apology follows an online onslaught of criticism. The Minister for Health, Simon Harris, had labeled the bishop’s comments as “ignorant“. The HSE’s national director of communications, Paul Connors, weighed in saying that the bishop’s “miscommunication of information in this way puts the health and lives of women in Ireland at risk. This is unacceptable for a person in his position.”
The Association of Catholic Priests (ACP) also joined the line-up. “While his comments could be considered idiosyncratic, they are ill-informed and dangerous.” (But it has to be said that the bishop wouldn’t be expecting too many of his supporters to be among the membership of the ACP.)
So, it seems, the bishop got carried away by the energy applied to the submissions to him from a minority group who are campaigning against the vaccine. Lobbyists of any hue are likely to be selective in their use of information. It could even be aid that some lobby groups thrive on spinning webs of fake news.
While references have been made to the health and welfare of women, at least no one has died because of this furore.
Across the globe, in a casino-speckled desert in the state of Nevada, USA, thousands of people are shattered by the random shooting dead of dozens of people by a one gunman shooting from high up in a hotel bedroom. This atrocity goes straight to the top of the news across the world. Online, the news coverage is mixed in with a vitriolic argument about gun control, terrorism and strings of hate-filled language for the now deceased shooter.
But the reaction is laced with the same toxins that triggered the loss of life.
It is all too easy to utter words that are hateful. It is easy to jump in condemnation of someone. It is easy to pass ugly comments about a person we have never met or seen in person. Just because the screen or the keyboard are at hand. And even the people with leadership positions — who themselves are daily victims of this vitriol — have now jumped out of their respectful and dignified offices to duel with words of ugliness in the populist squares of social media. International diplomacy about war and peace is reduced to a spat between a “rocket man” and a “deranged man” on opposite sides of the world.
But the air of discourse is filled with the exhalations of each of us. The public square — mostly online now — can be saved if each individual refrains, pauses, rereads, thinks, wonders … before hitting the upload button. Instead, let’s restore a space for dignity, respect, toleration, difference, tomorrow … virtues that will not light the fuel of hatred in the mind of a man who has upgraded his armoury from expletives to explosives.
This responsibility belongs to all of us.