November 23, 2017

Monica Doumit: I thought I couldn’t be shocked, but I was wrong

PHOTO: Igor Ovsyannykov

You wouldn’t know it from the thousands of articles which were written last week, but very little information about the case involving Cardinal George Pell is available.

We know that multiple charges from multiple complainants have been laid by Victoria Police. We know that the Cardinal has taken a leave of absence from his position and will return to Australia to defend himself. And we know that there will be an initial court appearance on 26 July. Other than that, we don’t know anything else, really. Anything more than we heard last week was just speculation and reaction. And I don’t want to add to the noise.

But there is a related topic which struck me as I was flicking through the reports and the reaction on social media which I want to talk about: the extraordinary vitriol which was so unashamedly on display.

Not much shocks me these days. Spending as much time as I do perusing media reports and comboxes on matters relating to the Church, particularly when it comes to the Royal Commission, I have been pretty desensitised to the blatant untruths reported and the viciousness of what people say online.

But some of the stuff I saw last week went to another level. I’ll give you just one example.

There were a number of media outlets camped outside Cardinal Pell’s home in Rome, and we had various images of the outside of the building.

Someone out there in the Twittersphere took the feed of the Cardinal’s apartment building and photoshopped in the window an animated image of a shadowy figure hanging themselves, and posted it online.

As I said, not much shocks me, but that did. And it was just one occurrence of many similar things I saw last week.

In real life, or “IRL” as they say online, I don’t think I have encountered anyone that callous; who would find it amusing to mock up a version of a fellow human being taking their own life.

But this week, there seemed to be thousands of them: in the Twittersphere and in the Facebook comments on articles, on sites like Reddit and in any other number of forums, there was a collection of people who were posting the most horrible things.

At first, I thought it remarkable that I had lived such a sheltered life that I have never come across anyone capable of such hate. But on reflection, I know that’s not true. All of us, unless we consistently practise virtue, can be capable of such awful things.

I once read a book in which the author had written something about our sometimes-inflated sense of our own goodness.

In it, he said something like: “We think we are virtuous because we haven’t killed or inflicted serious violence upon another person when in reality, it’s not our virtue that prevents us, but our stomachs. If we were less squeamish when it came to injury, we would do a lot more harm.”

For the life of me, I can’t find the quote or remember the book, but the words came back to me when reading all of the commentary from this past week.

The internet isn’t as anonymous as we like to think it is, but most people still feel comfortable in expressing things online which they would never say out loud and in the company of others.

We feel there is less accountability online, and so feel “freer” to say what we are really thinking.

Given what I read this week, that’s scary. If, when given the relative safety of a keyboard and a screen, we don’t feel the need to guard against our inclinations to be hateful or hurtful towards others, then the thing which separates us from those who would physically harm others might not be our virtue, but simply a lack of favourable circumstances.

As horrible as the comments about Cardinal Pell and the Catholic Church more generally were this week, what was more alarming was that people made them so often and with such ease.

The comments say less about their targets and more about those who made them, and the society which accepts the words as accepted commentary on a current issue.

I’ve had to bite my tongue so many times this week, and will need to keep my mouth mostly shut until this case is over.

Now that charges have been laid, the law – and due process – requires that public discussion of a case under consideration by the courts ceases.

As frustrating as this is, it is probably good training. As we’ve seen, there are too many people who have had no problem in expressing their unfiltered thoughts this week. If I want people to practise restraint, I will start with myself.

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