As we approach that terrible anniversary, the passage of Roe vs Wade, there will probably be, as in recent past years, an uptick in pro-life posts on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. This is natrual and good. As in other spheres of our lives we must find a way to incorporate our religious beliefs into our daily interactions. If nobody can tell from your “wall” that you are Catholic, you’re doing something wrong. As sites like these become a larger and larger part of daily life and public discourse, we recognize that they are a new and powerful tool in bringing the pro-life message to the world. At the click of a button we can display any image or article we like or share any opinion with the world. Yet this very ease comes with a pitfall. How quickly we can slip into carelessness, and carelessness in this case can be both uncharitable and also counterproductive. Therefore I propose this “Examination of Content” to help decide how and what we use to get our message across.
I tend towards the opinion that any method (so long as it is moral) may be a part of the pro-life toolkit. There are various charisms within pro-life activism which can have their place, and happily coexist. Still, each tool has its proper use and when used in the wrong way can either be useless or indeed harmful. It behoves us to consider what tools are best suited to social media and learn to use them skillfully.
Life is a concept that only exists in individual instances of life. To Respect Life therefore means to respect lives, to respect the personhood of all human beings. This is what can be so easily lost in the strange virtual reality of the internet. So in choosing our posts we should consider two groups of individuals: those who are the subject of any post and those who are the object or audience.
Facebook and its ilk are a strange hybrid of public and private. That is to say, we are at once reaching everyone when we post (very public), and speaking to them from our homes directly into their homes (very private). We tend to treat such sites as the “public square” in the literal sense of ye olde town square where one might give speeches, post edicts, or sell goods. Yet we should not forget that our audience may be reading our words in their pjs over a morning cuppa, or skimming on their lunch break. This has more in common with a quiet discussion amongst friends. Those two more traditional modes of discourse would tend to take on a very different tone and this juxtaposition online makes for some complications.
For example, in my own friends list on facebook I have post-abortive women, pregnant women, infertile women, rape survivors, and couples who have suffered miscarriage or still-birth. Given the nature of the topic there are probably others who fall into any number of these categories but have not shared that fact with me. Each of these experiences will colour their reactions to the things I choose to post and some things would feel like a downright assault, especially when one’s guard is down scrolling through a list of chipper family updates and inane quiz results. Our thoughtlessly chosen words or images may cause deep pain and distress, open wounds, and may also harden hearts against us. The natural human response to hurt after all is often anger and to distance ourselves from the source.
Perhaps it would seem that I am essentially requiring that nobody say anything about anything controversial. After all, abortion will always be an uncomfortable topic. So it should be! A heartbreaking topic as well. Still I think we all recognize that there is a charitable, respectful way to discuss difficult things. A way that engages our adversaries yet shows our love for them and for all mankind. A way that at least acknowledges the pain of others even if we must discuss something that may relate to it. Like a doctor carefully treating an injury, there may be pain related to the cure, but it should be limited as much as possible and treated with compassion. Let’s be aware of our “bedside manner.”
On the other hand, we must also consider any individuals who may make up the content of our post. This includes the children whose lives have been lost. My son, a still-birth at 21 weeks, could literally be the poster child for the pro-life cause. I do in fact have, and treasure, photos of his tiny and perfect body, never meant to be outside the womb. These pictures I will share with any of my friends, and would also share them in the context of discussing abortion and life in utero. However I do not post them on social media. Why? First because of the above consideration, that these images might hurt other women for whom I feel the empathy of one who has suffered the same. But perhaps more importantly, because he deserves dignity and privacy in death. He is not a political tool to be gawked at by anybody while they are sitting in the dentist’s office waiting room, clipping their nails or otherwise wasting time. He is a human being.
We naturally feel the obligation to allow our dead to rest in peace. This is how we expect victims of any other crime to be treated. We might use photographs before a jury, or even in some forums to educate, but we don’t want them splashed across our magazines. In our desire to stand up for the humanity of the unborn and their inherent dignity, do we sometimes rob them of this very dignity by indiscriminately sharing their image or speaking of them in shocking language to score points? These children have been robbed of their human rights by those who should most fiercely have guarded them. They deserve—in death at least—to be afforded the reverence we would show any other victim.
Other individuals who might be the subject of our posts are our adversaries. These too must be treated with respect. We must guard ourselves against the sins of detraction and lack of charity. Informing the world of hard truths is necessary and right. Revelling in the sins of others or wishing ill upon them belies our message of love, possibly causing scandal and undermining our cause, not to mention being gravely sinful.
I have steered clear of making a precise list of things that are or are not appropriate for social media. This is because I am not sure there could be many hard and fast rules and as mentioned earlier, there are many tools each with its purpose. For example, an article itself, to which we link, could contain more troubling content because then we have invited a person to read further and they have chosen to do so. In a nutshell then I urge you to consider three things before clicking share:
1) Is the content of this post and any link in it effective, truthful, and charitable to all concerned?
2) Will a picture appear in the newsfeed along with this post and if so is it respectful and properly represents the values I espouse? Is this the proper forum for it?
3) What is the headline of the article or what words am I using in my status? Are they needlessly inflammatory or shocking or do they seek to engage my audience and catch their attention in an appropriate way?
And take a moment to acknowledge to yourself all the individual cases of life that you will touch as you stand up for Life. For, “If I speak with the tongues of men, and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” A powerful metaphor to remind us how speaking thus can be both ugly and ineffective.