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Measuring the Words We Use Online

The virtual world, with its online spaces now infamous for their aggrieved, angry and even hateful speech, can exert a powerful negative pull on young people.


Baha’is recognize that dynamic, and the democratically-elected global leadership body of the Baha’i Faith, the Universal House of Justice, offers a contemporary perspective on the internet and how we use it, which can reflect both the integrative and disintegrative forces of society:


It is useful to bear in mind that the Internet is a reflection of the world around us, and we find in its infinitude of pages the same competing forces of integration and disintegration that characterize the tumult in which humanity is caught up. In their use of the Internet, Baha’i’s should stand aloof from the negative forces operating within it, availing themselves of its potential to spread the Word of God and to inspire and uplift others, while ignoring any negative reactions their efforts may from time to time elicit. – From a letter dated 9 April 2008 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual Baha’i.


Baha’is recognize how these negative forces of societal disintegration may affect our attitudes towards the world, and how that might translate to our own use and presence on the web. However, despite this recognition, the teachings of their Faith still call Baha’is to the high ground – to remain unaffected by the negative aspects of the web, while alternatively striving to continue working with the integrative forces, spreading the word of God, and uplifting others. 


In The Most Holy Book, Baha’u’llah emphasized the importance of moderation in all things – including language. Moderation in our speech encompasses the words we choose to use when interacting with others on various internet platforms such as blogs, gaming or social media. 


When we sit behind a keyboard late at night, thousands if not millions of people have the potential to be affected by the words we choose to use and how we express them. We tend to exercise a lot of our free will online, and when we don’t use that free will in moderation, or with a moral framework in mind, we begin to see the disintegrative forces take over:


Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence. Consider for instance such things as liberty, civilization and the like. However much men of understanding may favourably regard them, they will, if carried to excess, exercise a pernicious influence upon men. –  Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 169. 


Baha’u’llah also counseled everyone to use caution, wisdom and prudence when choosing their words, and asked us to avoid inflicting any harm or even hurt feelings – which applies to everyone we come across, in person and online:  


… through the power of good words, the righteous have always succeeded in winning command over the meads of the hearts of men. Say, O ye loved ones! Do not forsake prudence. Incline your hearts to the counsels given by the Most Exalted Pen and beware lest your hands or tongues cause harm unto anyone among mankind. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 84


The Baha’i teachings say that sharing our truth, a personal perspective, or information which may be new or different to others should be done with utmost kindliness and good-will. This can apply to expressing our views of a current news story in the media, our position on certain issues which can polarize a community, or how we feel in response to someone else’s actions, opinions or behavior:


Consort with all men, O people of Baha, in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship. If ye be aware of a certain truth, if ye possess a jewel, of which others are deprived, share it with them in a language of utmost kindliness and good-will. If it be accepted, if it fulfil its purpose, your object is attained. If any one should refuse it, leave him unto himself, and beseech God to guide him. Beware lest ye deal unkindly with him. A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding …. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 288.


Sadly, it has become common for us to witness people being put down, misrepresented, attacked or slandered online – and equally common to take things out of context or offend others. We’ve all seen this kind of vicious, vituperative online speech, and know that it can generate hurt feelings, violent reactions or even suicides.


These negative forces that have become so prevalent on social media tend to victimize young people most – yet we will inevitably continue engaging with these platforms as a way to connect with the wider world. The freedom we have to use this new world-embracing technology is such an immense privilege, that according to the Baha’i teachings, we need to be guided by divine attributes and spiritual principles to exercise our best judgment when we choose our words:


He must never seek to exalt himself above any one, must wash away from the tablet of his heart every trace of pride and vain-glory, must cling unto patience and resignation, observe silence and refrain from idle talk. For the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century. – Ibid., pp. 264-265.


The next part of this series will explore what it means to live a life of coherence in our presence on the web. 

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