“Note to Pope Francis: gays adopting kids isn’t child abuse but molesting children probably is.” I made this comment my Facebook status at about 5 o’clock on Saturday afternoon while flipping tabs on my computer screen between the Huffington Post and Facebook as an excuse to put off studying.
Within seconds, a comment appeared: a Catholic friend of mine lambasted me with accusations of slander. Within minutes, a boy I knew from high school but had never spoken to in person fired back a provocative retort championing my joking remark. As the debate grew, I could barely keep up reading the newest reply (which became dense with citations and subsequent accusations of illegitimacy on those citations) before the red notification tab of another comment lit up the upper corner of my screen. Two more students entered the digital fray, which had become a responsive and near-instantaneous debate; teams became apparent as the boys retroactively “liked” the earlier comments of their new compatriots. They began arguing about the selling of indulgences before the reformation. Someone brought up the Holocaust
Perhaps it was the naivety of growing up in a fairly secular, liberal community, or too many hours reading the much harsher rhetoric of r/atheism of Reddit, but I made my initial comment thinking it was innocuous. I was taken aback by the impassioned and rapid responses of those who saw my status as an assault on the Church and sought to defend the institution, to prove that the sex scandal was exaggerated by the media, or being fixed, or no longer relevant, or all of the above. It was as if just being at Brown University – land of political correctness and the liberal agenda – had made conservatives theists perpetually guarded, ready to defend the perceived onslaught of attacks at any moment.
Though I normally love almost every aspect of a good political debate, something about being accused of religious insensitivity made me pause. By making a jab at religion, the status became an assault on students who already felt threatened by the atheistic bombast of academia. I did not mean to begin a debate at all – I operated under the vague notion that my Facebook friends more or less shared my perspective and would reward me with a few “likes” of validation for being snarky and topical. I saw the Pope’s position as a topical excuse to post a picture of Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka’s adorable family.
My small status that started it all really only espoused two beliefs of mine (beliefs that I would defend wholeheartedly any day): individuals of all sexual orientations are capable of raising a family, and molesting children is wrong. Both statements straightforward and would probably be met with resounding agreement from the majority of the Brown community. Instead, a 40-plus-comment dialogue that spanned over two hours reminded me that the Brown community is far more diverse in its opinions that its stereotype implies.
Initially, I had prickled at the accusations that came at me, trying to diffuse the tension with an apology for offending anyone (that got quickly buried amidst more heated essay-long remarks). But as two others supported my position with vigor, I regained confident in my position, recognizing the legitimacy of defending my viewpoint even if the topic was sensitive.
Without being rude or attacking individuals, ideas need to be continually challenged, and fear of raising a debate because it’s on a sensitive subject like religion only heightens tension between the demographics. What I saw as mild satire, others saw as indictment and this Facebook status reminded me not only that my community was less homogenous than I otherwise imagined, but also that I should relish the clash.