“One can catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a hundred barrels of vinegar.” –St. Francis de Sales
With the advent of social media and the subsequent transition of much of our public discourse from in-person conversations or written essays to these digital and real-time platforms, the tendency to engage in rancorous conversations regarding societal issues became stronger. People posting on social media often are concerned with making their opinions and disagreements known to the exclusion of caring in any meaningful form for the words that they write. This lack of due care, combined with the more impersonal nature of online interactions, can quickly escalate a civil conversation on a debated topic into a rhetorical war where one is now interacting with an enemy rather than an argumentative opponent, with the goal of destroying them rather than persuading or understanding them.
While online interactions have made such a devolution much easier, the tendency itself is not new. Sixteenth-century Europe, with its many religious and social upheavals, was another time which often saw heated rhetoric over the issues of the day. In the midst of this context lived St. Francis de Sales, a Frenchman who became a Catholic priest and, eventually, the bishop of Geneva. As a priest and bishop, he both ministered to people of his own faith and interacted with many people who did not share his beliefs. Eventually, Francis became famous for his numerous writings, including books, sermons, and letters. He simultaneously became known for his patience and gentleness, both of which are evident in his works, and it was through these works that he caused his opponents to listen to him and persuaded many of the truth of his messages.
Like Francis, we have the opportunity in our time to interact with men and women who have different beliefs, perspectives, and opinions regarding the issues of our day. Many of these interactions will come through reading and writing on social media, and any efforts we make to persuade or understand others will rely heavily on our writing. What we write, especially over issues that matter, has the potential to provoke both significant thought and significant emotion. It is crucial, then, to heed Francis’s advice that a spoonful of honey is more effective than a hundred barrels of vinegar. Whether we are expressing our beliefs, disagreeing with someone else’s beliefs, or confronting someone over statements we believe to be unacceptable in civil discourse, choosing our words so that they—as much as possible—express an attitude of civility, compassion, and humility will help to craft our conversations such that the dignity of all is respected no matter how much those involved may disagree.