Monday, November 2, 2009

A decision

I've been pondering a few things today, and I've reached a couple of conclusions.

First of all, I think I owe my regular readers an apology.

You don't come here to get embroiled in the teapot-tempests that usually show up exclusively on mommy blogs. This is decidedly not a mommy blog, even if I write about my children and our school days on occasion; and while what I offer may not have much value, in general I write opinions and commentary on the news of the day, on politics, religion, culture, morality, and topics like these. And there were plenty of those kinds of topics to write about Thursday and Friday of last week, but I made the mistake of leaping without looking into the kind of Catholic mommy blog controversy that it is always better to avoid.

And that brings me to my second conclusion--from here on out, you can rest assured that I'll leave the mommy bloggers alone. Even if their opinions are published somewhere other than their personal blogs, I won't make the mistake of treating their writings like I treat anyone else's writings from here on out. I have done this at least two or three times on this blog, and every single time I've ended up regretting it, because every single time I have been told that I misunderstood the original piece, that I deliberately went out to put the worst possible interpretation on the writer's words, that I have hurt the writer's feelings, that I have attacked the writer in a mean and personal way, that I falsely or rashly judged the writer, or that somehow I have personally harmed the writer by...criticizing what she wrote.

It's my contention that in the world of ideas, criticisms and discussions are a part of the tapestry. I've enjoyed engaging in vigorous debate with people who don't think the way I do, and who challenge me to reexamine my ideas. Sometimes I end up realizing that I'm wrong, and the other person is right (as when I really started paying attention to what Mark Shea was saying about torture) and other times I still hold my same opinions, but perhaps end up with a better way to express my ideas. On still other occasions, as often happens in the comment boxes at Crunchy Con, the person I'm conversing with and I will just have to agree to disagree--but, ideally, civilly, with no hard feelings on either side. I've also found out, usually after substitute hosting at Crunchy Con, that some harsher, more colorful criticism of my writing crops up in some interesting places. To be honest, most of it makes me laugh.

But that's because when I think of my role as a writer, I tend to see myself as a writer of opinions--and you can't have a thin skin if you're going to do that. You can't invest your personal feelings into every opinion you have on every subject, because some of the time you're going to be wrong. You have to be able to handle that, to admit it and move on, rather than waste your energies defending weak or erroneous opinions--and all the writers I most admire are masters of the graceful apology.

Catholic mommy bloggers, though, tend to deal in issues and subjects where there isn't always--or even usually--one right answer. Should Catholics have trick-or-treating or All Saints' parties? Should Catholic mothers allow a little television after age two or forbid television altogether? Is homeschooling the best way, or can a Catholic or public school be a perfectly valid option? Are skirts the preferred clothing choice for a modest Catholic woman, or can a modest Catholic woman wear pants, sleeveless tops, strapless gowns, etc.? Can various Disney offerings be enjoyed by serious Catholics, or is Disney a danger to the children? Is it possible to nurse at Mass, or ought one never to do so?

There are many similar questions that are brought up in Catholic mommy blogging circles, and sometimes some controversy will erupt around one person's take or opinion. My mistake has been to jump in to such controversies without remembering the cardinal rule of mommy blogging discussions: there is no one right answer, except to do what works best for your family. Rarely, if ever, will a controversy crop up in Catholic mommy blogging circles of the sort where there actually is one right answer, or even one (generally) best one. Most of the times the controversies start out simply a restating of what works best for each person's family--and then somehow a fight gets started.

But the reason I make the mistake of jumping in is that so often the language employed by the Catholic mommy blogging writer is not so obviously compromising. Rather, the very language she employs often says, "This is the right way to do things," not "This is what works for my family," even if she honestly thinks she is saying the latter. The truth is, though, she is always saying, "This is what works for my family." And that is why even an honest attempt at objective criticism is seen as a personal attack: because in the writer's mind, it is: an attack on her person, on her family, on her way of doing things and on her way of thinking about it all.

So although I don't mean to attack a Catholic mommy blogger when I criticize her opinion on something, to many if not most Catholic mommy bloggers, there is no difference between criticizing her opinion and criticizing her, personally. There is no such thing, really, as objective criticism of her ideas which doesn't carry with it a personal attack; saying "I don't agree with you," is no different from saying "You are wrong, and the way you do things is wrong."

Unpacking this is difficult for me. I have had few really close female friends in my life, and consequently have developed an unfortunate habit of thinking of a lot of relatively normal ways that many women think and react as moves in an elaborate and exhausting game to which I never received a copy of the rules. I understand, of course, that there are contexts in which the phrase, "I don't agree with you," might really be a personal attack--but I tend to think that those contexts are also personal, that they would involve a direct and unwarranted criticism of someone's personal or parenting behavior by someone who has a personal relationship with him or her. But here, apparently, is where I have been wrong--it appears to be true that at least some of the time, saying "I don't agree with what you wrote here," is the same sort of personal attack, or, to be more accurate, is taken that way by the original author.

Because of my own background, because of the type of writer I am and strive to be, and because I can't trust my ability to tell the difference between a Catholic mommy blogger whose writing is open for criticism and a Catholic mommy blogger whose writing is not, the safest, wisest, best course of action for me is to, as I said above, consider all Catholic mommy bloggers' writings off limits for discussion at And Sometimes Tea. While this blog's early days included a lot more of that sort of thing, there's no denying that my natural inclinations are to discuss things where strong opinions and strong words aren't out of place, and don't cause hurt feelings, such as politics, religion, and culture. I don't think we'll be lacking for material anytime soon, and I also don't think most of my regular readers will notice or care if the occasional post about whether women can ever wear slacks to Mass disappears altogether. In a sense, I'm only writing about this as a way to remind myself that I've promised from here on out to stay out of the Catholic mommy blogging controversies, and to focus my energies on what is to me a more engaging and more rewarding kind of pursuit.

I'm keeping comments closed on this one; we'll move on to more interesting matters right away.