Keeping Custody of the Tongue on the Internet

Talk Radio (1988) is a firecracker of a film about the shock-jock star of a popular late-night call-in radio show in Dallas, Texas. He’s a verbal spritzer in love with his ability to handle the loneliness, anger, and exhibitionism of those who talk to him over the airwaves. The callers are filled with rage about their pain, their powerlessness, and their disappointments in life.

Such shows are still on the radio today, and now you can find the same kind of negative and toxic discussion of public issues on television. Just tune in to Fox News to hear some of the same kind of nasty personal attacks used by shock jocks in the early years of the culture wars. Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, is convinced that Twitter brings out the worst in people. “You’re straining after eyeballs, not big thoughts. So you go for the shallow, funny, contrarian or cynical.”

The Internet is set up to encourage people expressing opinions, and one thing we are seeing is a lot of mean-spirited and negative people. There are active in blog comments, Facebook updates, and tweets. As a result, more online sites and bloggers have banned comments. We post links to our film reviews on and were astounded by the language, tone, and sheer grossness of the comments we got on some reviews; we were not unhappy when Rotten Tomatoes decided to disable comments on reviewers’ links. In social media, people are using the option of unfriending someone or blocking posts.

What else can be done about this scourge? In the Benedictine monastic tradition, there is a practice called keeping custody of the tongue. The idea is to consciously pay attention to what you say at all times. It is okay to speak your mind and even to express outrage, but you must do it with an awareness that harsh words can be very harmful.

After doing this practice for a while, it becomes increasingly clear how difficult it is to not say negative things about others. Be patient with yourself and then let the practice of custody of the tongue open your heart to the toxic purveyors of negativity and personal attack. Recognize how difficult it is for them to curb their tongues. Empathize with them and include them in your prayers.

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