Gobsmacked by vitriol
For most of the time, social networking sites are a useful tool for maintaining contacts with like-minded friends and work colleagues. You can chat, or ask questions and usually receive useful answers. And since writing can be a lonely business, they also provide a substitute for those office 'water cooler' moments.
There are, however, times when they give you a glimpse into aspects of human nature that are disturbing. And the recent visit to the UK of a small (not much taller than the queen) old and frail looking spiritual leader in crimson satin and white lace, with a rather fetching line in red shoes, was certainly one of them. In fact, I’ve come off my site of choice for a spell, needing a little time to think and regain my equilibrium.
I was brought up as a Roman Catholic. We weren’t what’s known as devout. My Irish grandmother had married a Methodist. My Polish father was a kindly and tolerant scientist who wasn’t about to be dictated to in matters of religious belief. I was raised with an appreciation of the ceremony of the Catholic Church, a real affection for the Gospels (RC teaching is generally New Testament orientated) but with very little of the accompanying guilt, and with the useful ability – for a writer of fiction – to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
In Leeds, there was a certain amount of residual prejudice although, as so often in these cases, it was as much about anti-Irish sentiment as anything else. We were Cat Lights. They were Proddy Dogs. Bad enough, but that was as far as it went. And anyway, my beloved grandad was a Proddy Dog himself. When I was 12, we moved to the West of Scotland and suddenly became aware of other and more intense levels of prejudice, sometimes verging on hatred. But with those too, I suspect that there was a strong element of anti-Irish feeling.
I’m gobsmacked by the rudeness of so many of the comments. What most of them amount to is, ‘You’re utterly deluded'. This is not the stuff of real debate.
I seldom go to church these days, but when I do, it’s a bit like returning to a once loved home. I may not want to move back in, but I’m certainly comfortable there. I feel wanted, accepted, recognised. I know the routine. My head worries at the paradoxes. My heart listens to some faint but enticing music, beyond all that. And – if I’m honest – it may well be that the Catholic church is a little like Hotel California – you can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave.
I have written for the Scottish Review before about the church, the child abuse scandal and my own marginal experience of hushed-up paedophilia in another context. But the visit of Pope Benedict has provoked more online vitriol than I have ever encountered and – moreover – has provoked a wholly unexpected response in myself. I find myself distressed and angry, to the point of physical pain. Why? Because I’m gobsmacked by the rudeness of so many of the comments. What most of them amount to is, ‘You’re utterly deluded'. This is not the stuff of real debate.
If this could be dismissed as the usual internet trolls at play, it would be easy enough to ignore. And I’ve had plenty of heated, face-to-face debates about religion with friends over the years. I work in theatre. I’ve written plays about belief. There have been long and sometimes emotionally charged discussions, late into the night. And why not? Everyone has the right to a point of view. Everyone has the right to their own beliefs. But these debates were always conducted with a certain amount of decorum. We were never crudely dismissive of each other, however strongly we felt. And we never became gratuitously and personally rude to one another.
To be fair, some of the online debates have been like that: interesting, thought-provoking and allowing an insight into various points of view. But far more of them involved exclamatory and simplistic posts, glib and ill-informed insults from people who, in any other context, would consider themselves to be liberal intellectuals. Worse, one such post would invariably provoke a storm of additional comments. 'Do people actually believe in a god or is it just faith as an obsessive compulsive syndrome?' was one of the least offensive observations. 'As for the Pope, he is not only blinded by his faith but struck brain dead,' was another, along with a great many ugly and facile jokes, all hailed by the pack as the last word in wit and wisdom.
There is no debating in this context. Even the mildest rejoinder is flamed with such hostility that there is no possibility of further debate. They assert that they are neither militant nor aggressive but 'just putting their side of the argument'. Which would be fine, so long as they don't then label anyone who dares to disagree with them 'a bloody fool'. I'm left wondering whether they are aware that for those of us who wrestle daily with tensions between the spiritual and the secular, this is about a bit more than some 'sad old guy in a dress'.
The day I’m so certain I’m right that I have to insult my friends to prove it, will be the day I really might as well be brain dead.
Am I a practising Catholic? No.
Am I an atheist? Absolutely not.
On the other hand, I don’t dismiss those of my friends who are, as either mentally unstable, or dim-witted. Nor do I patronise them by claiming to 'tolerate' them, much as one might tolerate a recalcitrant child.
Might I go back to the Catholic church one day? It isn't an impossibility. On balance, it has given me more that's positive than otherwise, including an interesting perspective on mysticism, and a warm fascination with humanity, warts and all.
Foolish and stupid? Well, maybe.
There’s another old guy, Epictetus – actually, he’s an old, dead philosopher (doubly dead, according to the funny little guy in the wheelchair – and no, they’re not nice, these crass personal insults, are they?) who said 'If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.'
I’ll run with that one. Not sure about anything. Quite content to be thought foolish and stupid. The day I’m so certain I’m right that I have to insult my friends to prove it, will be the day I really might as well be brain dead.
Catherine Czerkawska is a playwright and author