It’s time we say ‘Enough!’ to those mean-spirited emails

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 30, 2015

“That is simply untrue, it’s unfair, and it’s unkind.” —Prof. Kevin Peacock, on responding to mean-spirited emails

“The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that you can never know if they are genuine.” The quote was attributed to Abraham Lincoln and accompanied by a picture of Benjamin Franklin.

The spoof is posted on Cochrane coffee companion Dr. Kevin Peacock’s door at the Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary, where he’s professor of Old Testament and Hebrew.

Kevin was one of the panelists at the recent World Religions Conference convened at the Cochrane RancheHouse to address the topic: “Freedom of Expression and Respect for Religious Sanctities” (my April 23 column).

He sent me the spoof-quote as a follow-up to a question the panelists were asked about what to do with the mean-spirited email forwards so many of us receive.

“We live in an information age, but much of the information is useless, trivial or simply not true,” he wrote me. Although some, such as the “Lincoln” quote, are so obvious as to be quite humourous in an edifying way, “much of the information is not edifying at all.”

Often the point of such emails – frequently ending with the stern instruction for us to forward them to everyone in our address book – is to demean the “Other” on the basis of their political, ethnic or, yes, religious identities.

I’ve written previously about such abusive emails. In my column for Jan. 25, 2012, for instance, I began with a paraphrase of the ancient Hebrew proverb, “Some folks don’t care about the facts; all they want to do is yell, yell, yell” (Proverbs 18:2).

In that column, drawing on a metaphor in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1970 Nobel lecture, I’d said, “Xenophobia goes to bed with willful ignorance to conceive the twin tyrants of the Lie and Violence.”

Or in Solzhenitsyn’s own words: “Violence does not always, not necessarily, take people by the throat and strangle them. Usually it demands no more than an oath of allegiance from its subjects. They are required merely to become accomplices in the lie.”

And how tempting it is to become “accomplices in the lie.” Was the email we received just too cute not to pass on? Was it so shocking in its scandalous “revelations” that we simply must forward it to warn others?

Without even a thought about truthfulness, or of using online verification services such as, we lower ourselves into becoming no more than hi-tech digital gossips. And gossip by any other name, whether we call it email, a Tweet, or something else, is still gossip. And in sharing it, we may indeed be judged as hatemongering bigots, racists, libellers and slanderers.

So, returning to the question raised of the panelists about how to respond to someone who emails you such garbage, Kevin said:

“If I know the person who has forwarded the item, many times I will confront them with ‘That is simply untrue, it’s unfair, and it’s unkind.’”

And if the sender happens to be a fellow Christian, Kevin will add: “I doubt that Jesus would have any part in any of those.”

As for us who receive such hate mails, he said, we can “decide neither to read nor to forward such garbage.”

I really like Kevin’s response based on truth, fairness and kindness. It reminds me of a similar set of criteria made famous by Rotary International. Their Four-Way Test for responsible business behaviour asks: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

However we word it, Kevin’s and Rotary’s criteria could go a long way in promoting peace and goodwill among all peoples, regardless of culture, race, or religion.

Does this mean it’s okay to remain silent when confronted with falsehood?

Not at all, says Cochrane coffee companion Marlis McDouall. Respect may well mean we are obligated to confront. Truth? Always. Silence? Not always, she said to me when I shared Kevin’s criteria.

Why did so many in Germany, her country of birth, choose to stay silent in the face of Hitler’s atrocities? she asks. And what about silence in the face of today’s ideology-driven slaughter of innocents? What about denial of relational, educational and employment-related opportunities because of religious (and yes, anti-religious) biases of those in power?

When I’d asked another of the panelists why he hadn’t addressed some of the hard questions in his remarks, he said that he didn’t want to risk hurting anyone’s feelings.

But sometimes, Marlis countered, being true, fair and kind may mean we must take that risk. People truly of goodwill will appreciate the kindness of our honesty.

Confronting mean-spirited emails? Yes, if that’s what’s necessary for the sake of the common good. Silence is not always golden; there are times when we must say “Enough!”


© 2015 Warren Harbeck

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