Murder on the Internet Express

Social media today has made the spreading of information quick and simple. Our pictures, our points of view, indeed every aspect of our lives can be quickly shared with multitudes of people with only a few clicks and shares. Learning how to use that media appropriately, and drawing new boundaries between what should and should not be shared with the world, seems to be an ongoing learning process.

Most people, especially those within the LDS church have heard more than one Sunday School lesson on bearing false witness and a lesson or two on gossip. Yes, we know that we should not lie about others. It can cause all kinds of problems.

"Murder, adultery, and stealing, dealing with respectively with life, virtue, and property, are generally considered more serious offenses before the law than the bearing of false witness. And yet, what the latter may lack in severity, it more than makes up for in prevalence. As a matter of fact, most of the readers of these lessons will most likely shun--the first three of these major social offenses; but consciously or unconsciously, we may all at times be tempted into the carelessness of rumor and other forms of bearing false witness.

"To bear false witness is to pass along reports, insinuations, speculations, or rumors as if they were true, to the hurt of a fellow human being. Sometimes it comes from a lack of correct information--sometimes from lack of understanding, or misunderstandings--sometimes from a vicious disposition to distort and misrepresent.

"Whereas murder involves the taking of human life, bearing false witness centers in the destruction of character or its defamation. It reaches to the ruin of reputation." (Elder Adam S. Bennion, "The Ninth Commandment," Ten Commandments Today, pp. 134-136)

But what if we're only "telling like it is," at least from our perspective? Lest we excuse ourselves by saying, "well everything that I reported was 100% true, take a moment to read D&C 42:27.

27 Thou shalt not speak evil of thy neighbor, nor do him any harm. (Doctrine and Covenants, Doctrine and Covenants, Section 42)

We are told that not just bearing false witness, but any evil speaking of one's neighbor is forbidden. This has been something discouraged since very early on in the church. We should not be "murdering" others' reputations. Grievances are not to be aired in public, naming names or titles. The church has always encouraged first trying to work something out with someone personally, and then if there is still a true rift or inability to come to agreement or understanding, one or two priesthood leaders can then be involved, visiting that person with you to address the problem. It is only if after that point there are no resolutions to be found that any further measures should be taken. And they usually don't involve public accusation. 

How does this relate to the Internet? Anything that you type into a public forum or onto a blog becomes publicly searchable and viewable. Things that you post on your blog can be copied, pasted or linked to, and things posted on social sites can be liked, commented on and shared. At that point you no longer have any control over where the information goes or how it is used. A rant about or accusation of another in a moment of anger can quickly become the focus of a lot of attention. Since our interaction on social media sites usually consists of people who like or care about us in some way, these tirades will often garner a lot of sympathy and support for you and your plight. They also will often make many unkind comments about the person who offended you. People can only know what you posted. They usually don't and can't know what is in the minds and hearts of both people involved in a conflict. This leads to more misunderstandings, frustrations and reputation-damaging than could have been originally intended. And in the meantime, nothing has been solved. You've aired your frustrations, demonized another person, and have been given permission to hate them by your internet friends. Feelings of anger and injustice might even become amplified as your friends point out other aspects of just how wrong the other person's behavior clearly is. That person's reputation has now been tarnished, and a bigger rift has been created. What may have at first been just an accident, misunderstanding, or even just a bad day, has grown into character defamation of unknown proportions, and the problem has become much harder to just sit down and talk about in order to clear the air. Frankly, things are going to be solved much more quickly by discussing something one-on-one than by complaining to the Internet or any other public group of people. The verses below shed some light on the proper way to address our concerns:

88 And if thy brother or sister offend thee, thou shalt take him or her between him or her and thee alone; and if he or she confess thou shalt be reconciled.

89 And if he or she confess not thou shalt deliver him or her up unto the church, not to the members, but to the elders. And it shall be done in a meeting, and that not before the world.

90 And if thy brother or sister offend many, he or she shall be chastened before many.

91 And if any one offend openly, he or she shall be rebuked openly, that he or she may be ashamed. And if he or she confess not, he or she shall be delivered up unto the law of God.

92 If any shall offend in secret, he or she shall be rebuked in secret, that he or she may have opportunity to confess in secret to him or her whom he or she has offended, and to God, that the church may not speak reproachfully of him or her. (Doctrine and Covenants, Doctrine and Covenants, Section 42)

Let me point out that offending someone openly and rebuking them openly probably has nothing to do with hearing someone say something that you consider horribly wrong and then defaming them on the Internet. It is much more likely that it is speaking about the person who is doing the public defaming. Let's not be the ones making that mistake. There are three verses there that talk about private confrontation. Clearly, it is important to go about things in a more circumspect manner than is now the fashion, given such immediate access to media and public validation of our feelings.

This problem also ties into the many exhortations to unity in the church. If we are fighting amongst ourselves, getting upset that this or that person said something wrong in church or a private interview with a church leader and publicly calling them out on it, it is doing more to hurt the work of The Lord than it is to help. And isn't the work of The Lord more important than your personal grievance or pet theory or belief? Should we choose to defend one interpretation or aspect of the gospel while simultaneously ignoring the calls to charity, long-suffering, single-mindedness, unity, no evil-speaking your leaders, or even just being the better person? Note that I am not referring here to responding those who already post their views publicly online, sometimes with the inent to harm or "change" the church. A public response to a public article or interview is probably just right and fits well with verse 91 above, though there's nothing wrong with sending the offender a private communication first in order to get clarification and seek a resolution. I am mostly referring to personal grievances and public "outing" of your neighbor who misspoke in church or elsewhere.

Satan encourages contention over doctrine. We have many times been warned as a people that Satan will use this tool against us. It is not a tool of The Lord.

28 And according as I have commanded you thus shall ye baptize. And there shall be no disputations among you, as there have hitherto been; neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine, as there have hitherto been.

29 For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. (Book of Mormon, 3 Nephi, Chapter 11)

A public attack on another cannot be an appropriate response to one's attack (real or perceived) on you, your particular beliefs, or your lifestyle. If someone has offended you or sinned against you, perhaps you should just take a moment (or a day or two or three) to consider both sides, points of view or circumstances, approach the person if necessary, and then if you simply must respond publicly about it, it can often be done without accusation and naming persons or titles. An issue that you consider a problem can instead be posed as a response to a general problem or belief that is prevalent within the church or population, because it is almost certain that there are many more than one person thinking or behaving that way. You are likely to win over more hearts and minds with your sincere testimony of the truth of a thing than you are if you attack, belittle or publicly defame another child of God. Can the Spirit of Truth be present in your public rant? The spirit of contention certainly is.

"If we, in our wards and our branches, are divided, and there are factions not in harmony, it is but and evidence that there is something wrong. If two persons are at variance, arguing on different points of doctrine, no reasonable, thinking persons would say that both were speaking their different opinions by the Spirit of the Lord..." (Elder Harold B. Lee, In Conference Report, Apr. 1950)

Even when someone is disfellowshipped or excommunicated from the church, there is usually no public announcement made of their sins. Why? Because we believe in repentance and the atonement. Public defamation damages the ability of someone to live anew after repentance because "everyone knows what that person is really like. So-and-so told us all about it." The reputation that you gave them could follow them around forever--damaging interpersonal relationships, ward relationships and family relationships. 

Gossip (and yes I will call it gossip because of its harmful nature) requires us to first harden our heart towards the other person and then cause them harm. The people that are in the "in" group are the ones that hear your messages about them, while the one being gossiped about has been put into the "out" group. That is a separation, not a unification. When trying to make someone look bad while gossiping about them, factors are often left out in order to reinforce your information and opinion as correct. The person being gossiped about is in a sense "dehumanized" in order to be worthy of vilification or other generalizing sentiments. Is this the type of feeling that we want to encourage in our families, our church and our own hearts? It seems very far from "loving one's neighbor as thyself." We always have excuses for our own behavior--reasons why we may have acted or reacted the way we did, but the person being gossiped about is afforded no opportunity for explanation or clarification as the "news" is being passed on.

The person on the receiving end of gossip and internet gossip often has no idea that they are being gossiped about and their reputation destroyed. This is not only dishonest on the part of the gossiper for not confronting them in person, but it prevents the victim from defending themselves or offering a counter-explanation. Even if it is discovered by them, how can they be sure to reach all the people who have heard or passed on the gossip in order to correct the misinformation?  If they were in the wrong and did repent of their sin, how will that be communicated to all the people who heard the gossip? Gossip is isolating and harmful to others. It works well for a tabloid, but prevents us from being united in love, fellowship and harmony. Used among the saints, it only increases anxiety and distrust of each other. People can be denied love or acceptance because of another's careless words, which on the receiving end can be much more painful to some souls than others. 

Above all, let us not with our words attempt to socially block another from the gift of the atonement which we have so often partaken of. While receiving the atonement of Christ has nothing to do with what other people say or think of you, those that symbolically deny someone the atonement with their words do great harm not only in the minds of others but in their own souls. One cannot partake of atonement and forgiveness and then verbally deny that to others without being one who draws near with their lips, "but their hearts are far from me."

4 Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.

5 And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;

6 And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;

7 And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.

8 For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

9 But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. (2 Peter Chapter 1)

Yes, there can be exceptions to these teachings. Everyone can always find their exception, and in some cases it is absolutely right to publicize the secret acts of those that represent a danger to others.

As representatives of Christ on the earth, we need to be striving to represent him well both at home and in public. Pettiness, condescension, and maligning of others doesn't fit with someone who should be following the spirit and seeking to model their life after that of Christ. Our words need to represent Him as much as possible. Yes, we all have bad days, but we should work to make sure that our bad day doesn't ruin someone else's life and reputation.

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