Forgiveness in a Digital World

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, Eugene Volokh asks:

Say a blogger posts an accurate story — perhaps based on a news report or a court decision — that discusses some minor misconduct by some person. The post names that person.

Several years later, the person asks the blogger to remove the post, or to remove the person’s name from the post. The person is not a government official or other important figure (at least at that point; one never knows what will happen in the future). The past misconduct was pretty minor, and doesn’t suggest that the person will be a serious menace to his friends, neighbors, or others. But it’s embarrassing, and the person doesn’t like this story coming up whenever the person’s name is Googled.

The person asks the blogger, as a favor and not as a legal demand — which you can assume would be groundless in any event — to help out. “I’ve suffered enough for my minor misbehavior,” the person says or implies; “please help me start afresh with my new friends, acquaintances, and business partners.”

Prof. Volokh presents a moral dilemma that I think is best resolved by trying to place oneself in the shoes of the person making the request — i.e., by following the Golden Rule. But instead of focusing on how his question should be answered, I want to point out that this is the first time in the history of the world in which this kind of question could be asked.

Reputation is the collection of ideas and opinions held about us by others in the world. Throughout the course of history, the geographical and temporal scope of individual reputations has been growing. Long ago, the scope of reputations was limited to word-of-mouth within extended kinship circles. This is why, for example, at weddings the officiant will ask whether anybody present has any reason to object to the marriage. Before written records of marriage, it was up to eyewitness accounts and word-of-mouth to ensure that the marriage was legal.

As technology improved and economies grew more wealthy, the use of written records became more prevalent. The printing press was another major leap in the potential scope of reputation, as it became economic for tracts, pamphlets, and other information to be distributed to large groups, and also, just as importantly, for that information to be stored or archived for posterity.

But in reflecting on the differences between how information was shared before the Internet and after, I am struck by the persistence of digital information. Newspaper and magazine stories are widely distributed, but often forgotten within a few news cycles. Prior to the Internet, these stories were archived in libraries, available to historians or others willing to take the time to dig them out, but otherwise mostly forgotten.

By contrast, now anyone with casual interest in knowing something about another can type that person’s name into a search engine, and obtain a record of their entire history online. Moreover, that history includes now not only newspaper or magazine articles, but blog posts, blog comments, social network profiles, and even text messages sent through services such as Twitter.

In reflecting on the new digital world, I was reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:

[E]very idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment: For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.

This is a powerful message, and it runs counter to much of the culture we find developing on the Internet right now. In many online forums, one may observe people attempting to grab attention for themselves by writing or saying things, or presenting images, that most of us would be ashamed to say or show at a party with the same people invited offline. The online environment lulls us into a false sense of security, anonymity, and control over our separation from other people. In fact, as anybody will admit upon reflection, online environments are less secure, less anonymous, and less subject to our control than offline environments, according to many ways of measuring these.

As a follower of Jesus I am subject both to the same temptations to draw attention to myself in destructive ways and to the same desire (of which I believe God approves) to socialize and get to know other people online. Are there any prescriptions to be found in the teachings of Jesus that might assist in considering how to behave online? Here are my initial thoughts on this subject.

Our reputations or identities are a collage of how both others and we ourselves have perceived our activities both at present and in memory over the course of our lifetimes. We reinterpret that collage — usually in small ways, sometimes in big — as we make conscious choices for ourselves about what to believe, what goals to pursue, who to spend time with, and so on. Digital technology means that we have more work interpretive to do than ever. The collage now stretches across the globe and persists over decades and centuries. We must consider not only of how what we say and do will affect those in our family; we must consider how it may affect the entire world.

And part of the difficulty in interpreting the collage is that we are inconsistent. Paul talks about this inconsistency as a war between flesh and spirit. That war will become explicit as more and more of our thoughts and feelings move online, and become exposed to others around us.

I believe that an important task for us as followers of Jesus is to create a culture of forgiveness for each other. As I see it, digital memory and reputation presents the world with two alternatives: either we can use past records as a record of wrongs with which to attack each other, or we can use past records as a record of how much we have learned and grown through various experiences. Christians have a unique opportunity to mirror the love of Jesus by turning the other cheek online, and creating a safe haven for people to change their opinions — and eventually their reputations — online.

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2 Comments on “Forgiveness in a Digital World”

  1. Collin Says:

    This reminds me of a story — I don’t remember (!) where I heard it exactly, but some variations of it seem to be floating around. There was a woman, the story goes, who said she had actual verbal conversations with God, you know, like Moses or Abraham did. Now her priest wanted to straighten her out on this, or so he thought. “The next time you talk to God,” he said, “ask him what that sin was that I was so ashamed of when I was attending seminary.”

    Some time later he saw her. Had she had any conversations with God since last time? Yes, she had. Did she ask God that question? Yes, and she got an answer. The priest was stunned (you know what’s coming, don’t you?)

    “He said he doesn’t remember.”

    Did the woman have actual conversations with God, as she claimed? I don’t know. (Did this story even take place, actually? I don’t know that, either.) But the answer was theologically sound, as we see in the psalms, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us” (Ps. 103:12). Again it is written, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:12, Jeremiah 31:34).

    I think he really means that. And that’s good news.

  2. That’s a great story. I appreciate the quotes from scripture as well. For some reason, I remember my grandmother (who taught Sunday school for 30 years) telling me that “God forgives, but does not forget.” That’s not what those passages say.

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