Answer the online trolls with some ancient wisdom from the Bible
'It's so easy to laugh, it's so easy to hate, it takes guts to be gentle and kind...' sang Morrissey 30 odd years ago. Sadly, the man himself has succumbed to more of the former than the latter in recent years, but his words stand the test of time.
It is much easier to snipe and snarl than to be kind. In fact, when those lines were written in the mid 1980s, the ability to abuse complete strangers was limited to haranguing them in the street. Now, though, the internet, among its myriad positive impacts, means that we can abuse each other at the click of a button.
And my how we have taken that opportunity as a species.
This week's announcement of a new star for Dr Who, a first women to fill that iconic role, was just the latest in a long line of events which have prompted an outpouring of vitriol from strangers towards each other.
Women receive horrific abuse from some men online. Witness the recent litany of terrible comments read out by Diane Abbott MP which are directed towards her on a regular basis. Abbott suffers horrendous racial abuse too. Being a white man, I've simply not experienced anything like it, but just hearing a fraction of the bile was equal parts enlightening and horrifying.
The open antisemitism on display on Twitter and other social platforms is also hard to comprehend. Ancient canards about Jewish people are packaged up and tweeted by conspiracist cranks with thousands of followers.
It's a depressing picture of life online in the 21st century. It also pours bucket loads of contempt over those utopian visionaries who thought cyberspace would be some kind of paradise. Sadly, human nature applies even when we're online.
Does our faith have anything to offer here?
Critics might suggest that ancient wisdom from the Bible – a book written thousands of years ago, couldn't possibly have anything to say about such a contemporary phenomenon as online abuse and the incessant arguments some of us seem drawn to.
But of course, there is nothing new under the sun and the Bible has plenty to say.
The first two verses of Proverbs 15 seem tailor made for the social media age. 'A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.' Has there ever been a more eloquent denunciation of the keyboard warrior culture?
The writer here isn't necessarily saying that if you don't rise to the bait, then other angry people on Twitter will suddenly turn nice. Instead the insight is that offering a kind answer may reduce the rage in them and also in you. That naturally de-escalates a situation. If the other person continues in their anger, fine – that's their problem.
In fact, further Biblical teaching can help us in this area. In Romans 12: 20, St Paul says, 'if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.' Initially, it may seem he is merely adding to the total amount of rage here. Instead, Paul is actually saying that we need to go above and beyond just ignoring our enemies. We need to go out of way to be nice to them.
The burning coals imagery is a metaphor. It's a strong one to be sure. But imagine the burning fury felt by some ranting online haters when they receive a pleasant reply from one of their victims. It is so effective!
None of this means we should put up with abuse. If you're being targeted by someone, then report them, block them, basically do whatever you need to do to remain safe and in a good mental place.
But Paul's advice isn't bad. If you feel able, reach out and offer a pleasant word to the person who hits out at you. Rather than hitting back with abuse of your own and adding to the rhetorical spiral, undercut their attack by being kind back to them. Not only might they be infuriated by it, it may be so unexpected that it causes them to question what they're even doing in the first place. A powerful answer to the online culture of hate is a culture of kindness. Let's do it. Let's resist.