Talking behind closed doors – Genevan Commons and Aimee Byrd

Part three of this engagement is less about the specific theology and practice up for debate in Byrd’s book. Here instead I want to tackle one of the spin off issues.

The other week, Aimee Byrd posted a link to a new website on her blog. The website provides screenshots from a Facebook group called Genevan Commons which is a discussion group prilarily aimed at conservative evangelicals. 

The screenshots showed a lot of comments from group members and to be honest did not portray the commentators in a favourable light. Indeed, much of the content pushes hard into the territory of sexism. Some of it was generalised “banter” but some of it seemed to be targeted at specific prominent females, Byrd being one of them.

A few members and former members also have now been on social media acknowledging that the content of the group was at times unwholesome and it seems that this was a primary reason for some to leave the group.

Others however, have challenged the evidence suggesting that it amounted to deep-fake with comments being taken out of context.  One such article defending the group members and criticising Byrd can be found here.

I wanted to take a bit of time in this article to respond to some of the issues involved

Deep-faking

If someone is intentionally “deep-faking”, in other words, falsifying evidence then that is a serious sin, and indeed there are legal implications too. However, it is worth noting two things, first of all that as yet, as far as I am aware, nobody has produced the actual evidence to support the claim that they are being misrepresented. It is not enough simply to claim that the evidence has been ordered in a manner that distorts it. You need to provide the evidence of what was actually said in context.

A private group

The main defence however does not appear to be that the claims were untrue but rather that the conversation has been misunderstood. The main bit of context we are apparently lacking is that this was a private group for invited members only.  Therefore, those posting have a right to share their views without fear of confidentiality being breached. As the defence article I mentioned argues

“Keep in mind that the occasional jokes told within Genevan Commons were for a private audience. They were not intended to embarrass Byrd publicly. Byrd only became aware of the comments and memes because of “spies” who went in under false pretenses to get screenshots. Outside of Genevan Commons, her critics in the group have kept things professional in discussing Byrd’s work. But inside the Commons, members interact with each other as one would at a pub. It’s a different forum with different parameters on speech.”[1]

Earlier in the article she acknowledges that there were some off colour jokes but says:

“Some comments are regrettably juvenile and petty, but others are inside jokes and references that can easily be misconstrued by outsiders.”[2]

Let’s just step back a bit. The Bible calls us to focus on what is right, pure and good. It does not say “but if it’s an inside joke” it is okay.  In fact, this highlights one of the fundamental concerns raised by numerous people about the kind of culture that has been cultivated in some quarters where insider cliques are created, where members of Christ’s family are treated as outsiders. This is in direct and deliberate disobedience to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians. Ironically, the author seeking to defend behaviour in the group unwittingly makes an argument which if true would in my opinion on its own disqualify the participants from church leadership.

Furthermore, does the argument that things were said in private really work? Here we are looking at the issue of confidentiality. If you raise a serious issue with me, then you may legitimately expect confidentiality. You would not expect me to gossip around. However, confidentiality would not amount to secrecy and I would explain that there might be people I need to inform. If you are a member of an organisation, you would expect confidentiality around specific meetings. Again, for example, you would not expect people to gossip about what was said in an elders’ meeting or church members meeting. You would not expect a political party’s campaign plans to be liberally leaked (although they often are). 

However, here we are talking about something different. Many years ago, I remember being at a friends house and some of the conversation amongst us wasn’t great at all. One person went to our pastor at the time and expressed concern. Quite rightly he spoke to us and challenged us. Would we have been within our rights to say “look it was a private event for invited guests, the banter was just in jokes and you didn’t get all the context”? No, he had us bang to rights. We were out of order and the correct response was repentance.

Furthermore, I think we are playing games with the public/private distinction here.  I don’t know how many members were/are in the group but I know that some people seem to have been added unwittingly and it doesn’t sound like a group of 3 or 4 friends chatting away.  This is not even a case of a few friends round my house, it’s not a family conversation. The doors may be closed and access controlled but this isn’t simply a private conversation.  Rather, it is more like the comedian booking out the Town Hall, selling or giving away tickets and admitting people in for the show. If he then chose to slander somebody, and they took legal action, he would not be able to argue that this was simply a private event and a case of “in jokes.” If belittling of people like Aimee Byrd happened, this was not just private letting off steam. Rather, it was exactly the public shaming that the article author argues did not happen.

Present but not involved

Some former members have argued that they were not actually involved in the unpleasant behaviour and as mentioned above, some may have already left the group because of it.  The producers of the screenshots originally posted a list of members but have now withdrawn it and acknowledged that this was the wrong thing to do.

I recognise that it is possible to be linked to something and have little engagement with it (I still have my Gym membership and for years was also subscribing to a fan group for the singer Martyn Joseph even though I had long stopped receiving their mailings.  It is possible as well to be signed up to things by others. 

However, I think that there are times when even that excuse does not work. If you have stayed in the group and seen bad behaviour but neither confronted nor reported it, at some point your silence makes you culpable. I would also suggest that in that context, simply slipping out and saying nothing will hardly do. We have a responsibility to hold one another accountable and to challenge sinful behaviour.

Anonymity

Finally, I want to respond to Wendy Wilson’s issue with anonymity in her article. She suggests that Aimee Byrd is a hypocrite for complaining about receiving questions and challenges from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals about her book where the questioners were anonymous whilst supporting a website that itself is hosted by unnamed people.

Again, that misses the point considerably. There is a legitimate expectation that those who sit as judge and jury and who cross question should not hide their identity. However, there are sometimes good reasons why witnesses might expect a level of identity protection.  If they feel potentially threatened and intimidated, that would be a good reason not to reveal their names. Similarly, if someone is in effect undercover and investigating, they would not want that cover to be blown if they are still investigating. It is possible that those running the screenshot site are still in the group and still gathering evidence.  Personally, I think that the site should give the identities of some involved. It should not hide behind complete anonymity. However I can understand  a carefulness about revealing all their sources.

Conclusion

As a conservative evangelical, I have to say this sad and sorry tale leaves me deeply disappointed and ashamed. We should be better than this.  Where do we see evidence in all of this of Christ being glorified and his church loved?

We need to stop compartmentalising off the internet and thinking that it is acceptable to behave in ways there that would be more quickly called out in church. 


[1] https://medium.com/@wendywilson12/aimee-byrd-goes-unchallenged-in-interview-with-julie-roys-385c966ea824

[2] https://medium.com/@wendywilson12/aimee-byrd-goes-unchallenged-in-interview-with-julie-roys-385c966ea824

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