Tuesday, January 10, 2012

From Apology to Confession: Toward Better Online Dialogue

It seems to me that apology leads to a lot of apologizing. I've gotten into a lot of arguments lately. Mostly on Facebook. And mostly about things having to do with religion or politics. And I have to say, I'm tired. I'm exhausted by the constant pressure to explain a thought here or defend a statement there. After a while, it just takes a toll.

I can't be the only one who feels this way. Debates seem to arise everyday in the Facebook 'News Feed' or in blog commenting. Surely there must be others out there who feel drained like me. Surely there are others who are tired of their stomach turning or their brow furrowing by another comment publicly challenging their perspective. Surely there are others.

My instincts tell me that I'm not alone. I see enough of it around the internet to infer that there must be a large number of people who, like me, are tired of debates. Debates are exhausting. They're exhausting because they demand that we stand on the defensive the entire time. I've played enough of basketball to know that constantly playing defense is exhausting. The same is true in social interaction.

I've noticed a trend - especially in online communication - and it seems that many, myself included, are constantly on the defensive. The default mode is defending. The default mode is apology, a word that comes from the Greek apologia, meaning "to speak in defense." Even when we are challenging someone else's perspective, I submit that we're really just defending our own. We attack the other's view because we want to make sure that our view is right and true. We're in apology mode.

And rightfully so, I must add. The views that we hold are precious. They make us who we are. They drive our behavior and give our existence value. The views we hold on topics of ultimate meaning are held near and dear to our heart. Like our heart, our beliefs are the center of our being. Indeed, our religions - i.e. our systems of meaning - are so close to our heart that it feels like we are sharing our heart itself when we talk about them. No wonder we want to defend them.

But at what cost? Is my heart more important than yours? Is your heart expendable? Should I step on your heart in order to save my own? Defending one's heart is exhausting. No wonder my heart is tired of thumping in fight or flight mode. There has to be a better way.

Samir Selmanovic writes, "Only when we believe that the other is not there to hurt us - though the other may struggle to understand us - can we begin to share not only the light but also the shadows of our religion." Perhaps Samir is right. But how can we genuinely believe that the other is not out to hurt us?

How can we be sure that our opinion will not immediately go to trial once it is posted online? How can we be sure that the other is not out to publicly condemn our perspective? How can we be sure that the other is not just trying to trample our heart and protect her/his own?

Perhaps the answer lies in shifting from apology to confession. This term confession comes from the 14th-century Latin confessio, which stems from the word, confiteri, meaning "to acknowledge." To confess is to reveal something personal with honesty and openness. Confession means to share from the heart and to own the confession as a personal opinion. Confession does not speak in universal propositions, claiming to know the truth for all people at all times. Confession speaks in the humble language of conviction. Confession does not speak for others, it speaks only for itself.

Confession cannot be deconstructed by debate because confession is simply the truth. It is a the admission of one's conviction. Whereas apology demands that the other conform to its will, confession invites the other to a safe place for exploration, regardless of whether or not the other conforms. Unlike apology mode, confession mode recognizes that others too are confessing their opinion. To see religious opinions as confessions allows us to see something that can be explored or ignored, but need not be attacked or "fixed."

And perhaps most importantly, confession mode requires "to acknowledge" others. It differs from apology because confession demands a true listener, not a debater. As Selmanovic explains, "Our mysteries need one another." The late, great Dietrich Bonhoeffer captured the necessity of listening when he wrote:
Just as our love for God begins with listening to God's Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God's love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God's Word, but also lends us God's ear. We do God's work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. ... Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God. [Life Together, 98]
Perhaps online "listening" means refraining from instinctive apology mode and the need to respond immediately to a divergent opinion. Perhaps online "listening" means sending a private message rather than a public comment. Perhaps online "listening" means asking clarifying questions rather than making presumptuous condemnations.

Online "listening" demands that we renounce "a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say," (Bonhoeffer, 99). Authentic listening demands love. It is the kind of love that dares to slip into the shoes of another person and see the world from their perspective.

I believe that confession, rather than apology, can cultivate online environments that invite safe, authentic dialogue. We're all looking for a place to share our heart because, at the end of the day, our heart is who we are. But I agree with Selmanovic, we'll never share our hearts with each other until we believe that others aren't out to hurt us.

The thought of sharing my heart with brothers and sisters online brings me joy. The thought of confessing my deepest convictions without the fear of being hurt by others brings me peace. It brings to mind a community with little need for apology, let alone apologizing.


  1. Hi Josh--I don't really know you but saw this on Kaylan's FB page. Great post! We all enjoy the righteous indignation of slaying an infidel online, whether their sin be related to personal holiness or social justice. It takes courage to allow others to speak to us, consider their opinion, allow it to shape us, and respond humbly. Good thoughts.

  2. Josh, this is a really great post. I loved reading it, and I definitely needed to hear this right now. Really encouraging, so thank you.

  3. "we'll never share our hearts with each other until we believe that others aren't out to hurt us."

    I think sometimes others really are out to hurt us. Or maybe they don't regard us at all, which kind of inevitably wounds.

    So what I'm also looking for is a way to transform those situations.

  4. Dave, I think that it is true that others are really out to hurt us sometimes. The question that deserves exploring is whether or not such malicious agendas are caused by their own fear of being hurt. Thus, what we're dealing with is yet another "cycle of violence." And like physical violence, this dialogical violence can only be healed when we choose to risk being hurt - modeling for the "malicious persons" that there is no need to be malicious.

    How 'bout that for a Mennonite approach? ;)

  5. As my husband always says, "you get more bees with honey"...

    or is it money?


    good post...the older I get, the more important it has become for me to hear rather than to be heard- just a good discipline to learn.

  6. just the other day, my fundamentalist cousin wrote a status about biblical feminism. i have a relationship with him, and though we do not agree, we respect each other. i do not know his friends, and so i knew that anything i wrote would immediately result in being destroyed by no less than a dozen angry southern baptists. i sat there and looked at it and even said to my wife, "i need to not touch this or else i will regret it". why did i comment on it? i don't know. why did i spend an hour responding to every attack against me? it was as if i had to defend myself against dozens of inquisitors. of course, the anonymity of the internet means that they could say anything at all to me. i got accused of being a faithless christian, a godless heathen, and even a scientologist. moral of the story, anonymity breeds uncivil discourse. the only way to move forward is to do so within relationship. thanks for your willingness to share your beliefs, thoughts, and feelings. i appreciate you opening up the communication and being honest about it.

  7. Zack, thanks for sharing such a personal story. And thanks for pointing out the element of Anonymity - that is a crucial point. You're right that the internet breeds a kind of anonymous dialogue that allows for a really low level of discourse.