10 Comman…, er, Suggestions for a Better Catholic Blogosphere in 2011
I want to start by acknowledging the obvious. Like most of us, I am a blog sinner. That I put forward suggestions for better blogging and blog commenting by no means implies that I have never transgressed my own advice.
Nevertheless, I have occasionally been privileged to initiate and participate in charitable and productive blog discussions on controversial topics. A couple of months ago, a commenter here at Vox Nova suggested that I try to bottle such discussions and sell them to the rest of the blogosphere. That got me thinking: what practices do I follow when I am at my best as a blog commenter and facilitator?
I can, of course, make no claim to an exhaustive list. Readers are invited to add their own suggestions in the comment boxes. I might even be convinced that I need to produce an updated version once I’ve seen your best blogging practices.
1. Presume the goodwill of those with whom you disagree. Most people in the real world genuinely want the good. That may be even more true in the blogosphere. Why spend time debating the kind of arcana we debate at places like Vox Nova if one is not seriously interested in how the church can best follow its mission in the world? Try to identify the good your interlocutor seeks. It will make him or her a much more human conversation partner in this rather inhuman environment. If you genuinely suspect that someone is not operating out of goodwill, ignore them. Nothing you can say in the blogosphere is going to make a difference to such a person.
2. Qualify your own statements. There is no need to project a tone of absolute authority. Everyone reading your comments knows that you are just one more person with your own subjectivity. Speaking as if you are the fount of truth makes people less able to find the truth in your statements, not more. Try phrases like “I think…,” “it may be the case that…,” “my understanding is…,” “if I understand you correctly…,” etc. Resist the temptation to believe that acknowledging your own subjectivity amounts to compromising the truth. In fact, it does the opposite: it allows the truth to shine out from behind your ego and will to power.
3. Pray for those with whom you disagree. And don’t just pray that they come to agree with you. One of the best things about prayer is its capacity to give new perspective. Pray for the good of the other without presuming that you know what that good is. Leave that in God’s hands. If you are right, Jesus already knows so; you don’t need to tell Him. Our Lord taught us that prayer is the last place for self-aggrandizement. If you find yourself thanking God that you are not like the other sinners on the blogosphere, apologize and start over. Thank God for those who challenge you. Ask to be shown how much God loves them.
4. Pause before posting. Some of the worst blog sins occur when two opponents are online at the same time, responding to each other in real time. Without time for reflection, the desire to win the argument, even to humiliate the opponent, comes to cloud our better judgment. Start to suspect yourself when you feel the most righteous, the most eloquent, the most devastating. Very often things said in the throes of such emotion don’t stand up well to the test of time. You’ll never regret having taken an extra few hours to respond to an infuriating opponent. The intervening time might just be a good opportunity to try suggestion 3.
5. Apologize frequently and hastily. This is good advice in normal human relationships where one has all the advantages of being able to read tone of voice, body language and facial expressions, where we are usually speaking with someone whose context we understand and whose concerns we appreciate. When we engage strangers in text-only arguments misunderstandings are incredibly common. When someone seems hurt by something you’ve said, apologize. When someone doesn’t recognize themselves in your version of them, apologize. When you’ve lashed out in anger because of some perceived slight, apologize. Etc. etc.
6. Don’t use sarcasm. First of all, it’s impolite. Secondly, it can be very difficult to detect without the accompanying tone of voice and body language and can lead to confusion. There are healthier ways to express what sarcasm expresses. Try using something like “It is difficult for me to understand . . .” It also doesn’t hurt to preface remarks with anti-sarcasm: “This may seem like sarcasm, but I’m being totally serious,” “Please don’t take this the wrong way, but . . .,” “I hope no one will be offended if I say that . . .”
7. Admonish your allies. Admonishing sinners is probably the most thankless of the spiritual works of mercy. My feeling is that it takes a particularly high level of sanctity to be able to admonish one’s opponents in the blogosphere to any good end. Rather than telling those with whom you disagree how poorly they are conducting themselves, take the opportunity to caution your allies when they have crossed a line. This has at least three advantages: it is more likely to be effective than admonishing your opponents, it develops the virtues (patience and humility come to mind) that might eventually be useful in admonishing opponents, and it helps ensure that those who agree with you aren’t costing your side of the argument credibility by their bad behaviour.
8. Avoid occasions of blog sin. If you frequently find yourself losing your cool in discussions at certain blogs, stop commenting on them. If you try that and don’t succeed, stop going to certain blogs altogether. It is the sin of pride that convinces us that we must engage certain people in order to show them the truth. The fact is that people who can’t engage each other productively force one another away from the truth, not towards it. The Holy Spirit has more instruments than just you. Take a step back, make an act of trust in the Spirit, and resign yourself to other apostolates. There’s probably a homeless person near your house who hasn’t had a meaningful conversation in a long time.
9. Refer back to this list. If you have found anything useful in this post, or in the comments that follow it, bookmark it. If you’re really serious, print it out and post it by your computer. I am conscious here of pronouncing from on high, so I will qualify my statement a bit: feel free to change the list. If one of my suggestions is lame, replace it with a better one from the comments. Reflect for yourself on your own best blogging practices. The point isn’t to have Brett’s list next to your computer. The point is to be serious about keeping yourself accountable.
10. Share this on your own blog. If there is anything of value here, it will only have an impact if people read it. Furthermore, it is my hope that this post starts a healthy conversation (not unlike what happened here) about blogging practice. Vox Nova is not the only place that such a conversation needs to happen, so spread it around. I’m not concerned that the list stay exactly as I have written it; you can feel free to post a modified version on your blog. I’d love you to link back to us though, even if it’s just so I can follow developments elsewhere.
Remember, sometimes how we argue says more to the world about our relationship with Christ than what we argue.
Happy Blogging in 2011!
UPDATE: I am thankful that some other bloggers have picked up this piece. But I have noted that some responses on their sites seem to believe that what I am advocating here is some kind “let’s all just play nice and avoid the real issues” nonsense. Let me state clearly that I think that our primary goal here is the pursuit of truth. I do not sacrifice that goal on the altar of “being nice.” Rather, I am firmly convinced that many are led away from the truth because, in acting uncharitably, satisfying their egos becomes more important than satisfying their intellects.
As far as I can tell, anyone who thinks that “charity” and “truth” belong together as qualifiers rather than as amplifiers doesn’t have any sense of what the Christian tradition means by either term. Where there is a lack of charity, a lack of intellectual humility is sure to follow, and nothing impairs our grasp of the truth like pride.
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.