Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Internet Hospitality

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks relates a story from Stephen Carter’s book Civility in his book To Heal a Fractured World. Carter’s family moved into a previously all-white neighborhood in Washington, DC in 1966. As the 11 year-old Carter and his brothers were sitting on front step of their new home, none of their neighbors greeted them. As Carter was thinking that they shouldn't have moved into a neighborhood where they weren't welcome and would never have friends, a white woman walking on the other side of the street said “Welcome!” with a broad smile. A few minutes later she brought the boys a tray laden with drinks and sandwiches. That women, who was Jewish, knew the importance of hospitality.

I remembered that story recently during a conversation about the virtual world of the web. In an environment when many of the usual ways that we show hospitality to others are impossible, we are challenged to find new ways to make people welcome, to discover the virtual equivalents of a broad smile and Welcome! and drinks and sandwiches. It is not enough, I believe, to avoid being rude. After all, none of the passersby called the Carter brothers names. If this virtual world is to be a place of hospitality, we need to be imaginative.

This is especially true in forums where we discuss matters of some importance. If we want to have honest responses to what we write, we need to find ways to welcome others - those with whom we agree and, more importantly, those with whom we disagree. Among the unwelcoming behaviors that I have encountered are generalizations, e.g., all progressive Episcopalians deny the Resurrection, the imputing of motives, e.g., the Episcopal Church refuses to negotiate with departing congregations out of spite, and the attaching of labels to people that they did not choose for themselves. After months of being called a revisionist, I decided to embrace the label, but I would have rather not have had any label applied by those whom I continue to refer to as traditionalists. Finally, one of the behaviors that I find most troubling because of its frequency is the cryptic one-liner response to something I have written. These may have made the persons making them feel good, but they rarely contribute much to the conversation.

While this may not be the best or the only forum for a continuing discussion of internet hospitality, I invite comments and links to other places where this is being discussed.

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