It is a cold day in March. I am sitting in my professor’s office. I am indignant and frustrated, and I am telling my professor about all the ways that women’s voices have been ignored. I am telling my professor that women have been intentionally left out of the canon of literature at the hands of men, and that women everywhere have a right to be mad about it. I am angry as a hornet, and I am ready to go to battle.
As is his usual custom, my professor listens until I am finished talking. As usual, he pays attention to what I say, considering it thoughtfully. And then, quietly, he poses a question. “What might it mean to write charitably?”
The question has me pondering for days.
What might it mean to write charitably? Well, for one, it means that I’m not free to write whatever I want. I’m constrained, in one sense – if I am to write charitably, I am required to refrain from saying certain things, and I am encouraged to say other things. Or perhaps, I am free to say just about anything, but I have to say it with candor, honesty, and wisdom. If I am to see all writing as communication with another person, then my writing is no longer about myself, but rather, it is about the relationship that I have with the other.
In light of the recent SCOTUS decision, and the general political landscape of late, I have noticed that we seem to have collectively forgotten this about the act of writing – any kind of writing, whether it be the composition of a beautiful poem or a hasty forty-word tweet. I found myself telling a friend the other day that the kind of dialogue that is ubiquitous on social media platforms actually makes me very anxious. I lament as I see lines drawn, opinions shouted, careless words posted in abundance. What is it to write charitably? Perhaps it is to approach any kind of writing with the utmost reverence, to regard writing with the gravity it deserves as one of the powers of communication.
I suppose there are two things that I want to suggest. One is that on social media, it seems that our writing so often disregards the other. It is about the I. And this phenomenon leads to harmful consequences. When the platform is about one’s own ideology, one’s own identity, and one’s own opinions, one forgets to pay attention to the other – to their needs, their hurts, their differences. One forgets to respect the dignity of difference, and to recognize that many people believe many different things, and that most people have good reasons for their beliefs. When writing is about the I, rather than the other, it is all too easy to believe that the other is idiotic, or ignorant, or just plain malicious. It is more difficult to believe these things when you are speaking directly to another, looking into another’s eyes, when you are forced to recognize that they, too, are human, regardless of difference.
The second thing that I want to suggest is this: let us seek to be gentle. There are too many roars, and not enough quiet words of comfort. Too many words that harm, and not enough words that heal. When did we forget to be gentle with one another? We do not know the battles that are being waged within those fellow human beings who are walking the road of life alongside us; therefore, it is imperative that we treat one another well. Let us not forget that the words that we write on social media are never written into a void, and are always received by other living, breathing human beings. Let us seek to treat each other well, with charity and kindness.
I believe that words have power, and that what we say, and what we write, matters a great deal. I believe that words can slice open old wounds, or they can knit them up. I believe that words are incantations of meaning, and that it is imperative that we treat them with the greatest respect and the greatest reverence. I believe that words have more power than even we know, and that we are in possession of this power, for good or for ill. We can be careless, and throw our opinions into the mayhem however we wish.
But I think we can do better than that. I think we’re bound to do better.