Monday, September 19, 2011

That "Catholic bloggers are mean" meme...

There's an interesting meme popping up in the Catholic blogosphere these days. You may have already noticed it; I've been seeing examples of it pop up for some time now, but a recent sample can be seen here. I don't mean to pick on the young man who wrote that one, though; his post is just a continuation of the meme I've been seeing here and there, and has some good points to it.

The meme, however, goes something like this:

1. The main problem with the Catholic blogosphere is that people are mean there.

2. Bloggers are snarky and dismissive, and commenters are vile and vicious.

3. We need to turn the Catholic blogosphere into a holy and blessed place by remembering that we are talking to real people and speaking only as we would if they were in the room.

I disagree with points one and two. As to point three...well, let me share a little story.

Yesterday some things happened at my parish that I disliked. I may, eventually, blog about the issues in guarded terms, because to get too specific about the incidents would be to risk committing the sin of detraction and also might needlessly embarrass some people involved in the liturgical abuses when they were only doing what they were told and were not at fault. However, when something was mentioned that touched on these issues at choir practice (which is held on Sunday afternoons), I could not keep quiet any more (not that I was actually trying all that hard) and I let my opinions on the matters be known. Someone in the choir who reads my blog (hi, there!) then started nodding and said something along the lines of "There's the blog..." or it might have been "There's the blogger..." Either way, the point was that in sharing my true, heartfelt opinions with some people who I knew quite well would be generally sympathetic to my point of view I was actually able to be as real and genuine and honest as I am here every single day.

Are the people who read this blog sympathetic to my points of view? Not every person and not on every issue--but that's what makes it interesting. Because blogging is a very unique form of conversation, where the exchange of ideas does not happen in real time, each person can think out his or her response to each idea, and disagreement is not necessarily a hostile thing. In real life, we all have a tendency to pull our punches a little bit, because we never really know if our honest, heartfelt opinions might cause needless pain to the sort of person who not only disagrees with us but has emotional baggage such that disagreement is somehow synonymous with hostility, or who thinks that he or she is being personally attacked every time we say, with fully civil politeness, "You know, I'm not sure I really agree with you on this," or some similar thing.

But the blog world is different, because blog readers can quickly and easily see if they are reading the sort of blog where the blogger expects to be affirmed in everything he or she says and where commenters provide a sort of chorus of positive reinforcement to each other, or if they are reading the sort of blog where the blogger doesn't mind vigorous and thoughtful disagreement and permits commenters to engage each others' ideas and thoughts in a manner that may be quite forceful, though it must, I think, remain civil. There are uncivil blogs; I've peeked in on occasion to one I won't mention whose purpose seems to be to attack the people the blogger doesn't like and whose commenters tend to fill the comment boxes with speculation about the blogger's victims' emotional and psychological well-being or lack thereof, but that sort of thing will never really have wide appeal in the Catholic blogging world, and at least these particular people have a nice safe place to vent without becoming Internet stalkers or some such thing.

I think there is plenty of room in the Catholic blogosphere for blogs in which the blogger's own honest (if sometimes forceful) opinions are aired and the vigorous exchange of ideas permitted, just as there is plenty of room in the Catholic blogosphere for blogs of personal affirmation and positive reinforcement. Different types of people or people in different stages of their lives will be drawn to these different blog types, and there is no need to label blogs where forceful ideas and vigorous disagreement occur "mean" or to insist that niceness is the same thing as charity.

To be fair, not all of those calling for civility and kindness in the Catholic blogosphere are saying that all, or even most, Catholic blogs are hotbeds of incivility and meanness. But I sometimes have a suspicion that the only reason this doesn't get overtly said is because the people saying it are themselves too nice to say so. It would be a shame if an idea that Catholic blogs could only exist if they steered clear of controversial topics, barred any contentious debate, and banned commenters for the crime of being annoying (as opposed to, say, being actually vile or vicious) were to take hold. I can't imagine this blog existing were it to be renamed "And Sometimes Tea, not that tea is better than coffee or the beverage of your choice, and no insult implied to those who drink neither, because of course we all have our own personal ideas as to what a good drink might be..." for example.

What worries me, then, is this notion that blogging and commenting (and Facebook posting etc.) are somehow inherently objectifying and tilted toward meanness simply because they are public. On occasion one might encounter a blogger or (more often) a commenter who does not realize the conversation occurring is a public one, but that is rare. In the example this young writer very humorously opens his comments with Jack and Jill are having a private conversation except that Jack (who initiates the conversation) treats the discussion like a blog comment session. The real problem, to me, is that sometimes Jill wishes to have a private conversation, mistakenly thinks a Catholic blog is a place to have one, and totally fails to realize that she has voluntarily entered a debate, complete with podiums and comments from MSNBC-wannabes, until Jack raises a rather mild hand and says, "Now, Jill, that's an interesting idea, but I believe you might be mistaken..." at which point Jill dissolves into public tears about how mean Catholic bloggers are in general and Jack is in particular.

I am sure that there are some people who think that debates are inherently objectifying affairs that are tilted toward meanness, too. But we don't usually expect debate participants or debate watchers to say so; they presumably know the rules before they participate or watch such things. The bottom line, then, is that if you are the sort of person who does not like vigorous debate in real life, you should probably steer clear of the sort of blogs where debate is the order of the day. There are plenty of blogs which avoid debate and keep conversations very mild, and although these are not the sort of blogs toward which I (for example) naturally gravitate I know there are plenty of people who prefer that sort of writing to the sort of writing I do here, and that is completely fine.

What is not particularly just is to complain that Catholic bloggers are mean when you simply dislike debate. It is just as objectifying to complain about people carrying on public and rather nitpicky conversations without considering whether there are people in the world who quite like public and rather nitpicky conversations and who are capable of keeping these things perfectly civil. Deo gratias, we are not all the same, nor should we have to be.


Patrick said...

"1. The main problem with the Catholic blogosphere is that people are mean there."

I would say the Catholic blogosphere tends toward the excessively puritanical. For every one post on, say, avarice, you get 10,000 on chastity, modesty, homosexual behavior and the like. In fact, the ratio is probably higher than that: when is the last time you read a post about the horrors usurious lending? Or about the "profit motive" being in *inherent conflict* with the Catholic teaching on economy? Or the horrors of modern banking?

You rarely read about these seemingly destructive and pervasive things on the Catholic blogosphere, while the pressing issue of short shorts in Church gets kicked around with regularity.

As far as "meaness" on the Catholic Internet, I think the writer has a point; not about "meaness" per se, but about the Internet's inherent shortcomings. First; there's no body language on the Internet, so it's difficult to say if someone is argumentative and even abrasive in a good way, a productive way, or argumentative in an "I hate you way". The first way is not only good but *highly valuable*. The second isn't really worth dealing with. In real life, you can tell by the person's body language, which you can't on the Internet.

The second is related, and more important. Unlike an *actual* conversation involving people you know, the Internet is an abstract conversation with people you don't know. It makes a huge difference for many reasons, but in this case people of your *actual* acquaintance won't mistake your combativeness for being "mean". For all we know, the person who wrote the "Catholic Internet = Mean" comment is used to dealing with people for whom argument is inherently hostile - but we're all strangers and can't vouch for anyone's life experience.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

If anyone has a basis to complain that the Catholic blogosphere is mean, it would be me. I am proud to be Protestant, and unashamedly pro-choice, both on the ground that the moral balance should not be established by The State, and, separately, the ground that there are many circumstances that in my seldom humble opinion would justify aborting a pregnancy.

But, if I want people to tell me how wonderful that is, I should not be commenting at sites like Red Cardigan or Acts of the Apostasy. Neither Erin nor Larry are the least bit shy about letting people know up front what THEIR principles are. For that matter, if I'm too thin-skinned to handle someone telling me I'm wrong, in sharp, incisive language, I shouldn't be posting anything at my OWN site. I should be hiding under the bed.

I think there is some truth to the analysis that on line, people become more sharp in their choice of words than they do face to face. That is a good argument for ALSO meeting people face to face. It is a reasonable stipulation that on line discussions should not threaten homicide, rape, battery, or arson, nor should we even take it upon ourselves to damn the soul of a debating opponent to the molten iron core of our planet. It is best not to indulge in personal insults unrelated to the matters of character actually under discussion.

Preaching to the choir is boring. I would much rather be crossing verbal swords with people who challenge me. If my current set of principles can't sustain the attack, perhaps I should rethink them. If the debate affirms them, well, iron sharpens iron. We all have to share the planet. That doesn't mean we have to tip-toe around each other in touchy-feely niceness. We have to be able to say exactly what we mean, and not kill each other over it.

LarryD said...

Hi Erin.

Red Cardigan said...

Hi, Larry. :)

Patrick, I think the reason you read posts about immodesty, unchastity, avoiding sexual sin etc. are twofold: one, these sins are prevalent in a way that causes lots of personal responsibility, and two, most of us know a thing or two about these sins or temptations to them and can thus discuss them with some knowledge of the subject matter.

Usurious lending, unjust economic structures, etc. are definitely a problem for our culture. But how many people are willfully sinning in these areas? I have not lent anyone money unjustly or committed usury (and I'm assured by several priests and apologists that the fact that most of us are impacted by this type of lending, e.g., that we have mortgages and car loans and so forth, is not a sin on our parts provided, of course, we're not borrowing money we can't ever hope to pay back and so on).

I can't even write much of a post about, say, my dislike of Wall Street and investment capitalism because I don't have any stock market investments and could justly be said not to understand the issues fully. And, of course, to comment intelligently on the economic structure of this nation and its present injustices one would need more than a nodding acquaintance with economics, whereas I pass economics in the street and have to try very hard to remember his name properly (and I suspect many Catholic bloggers are in the same boat, as it is hardly a lucrative occupation).

So: I would be ALL for an intelligent and knowledgeable Catholic economist writing a blog about the injustice of our present economic system; I'd probably link frequently to his posts and learn a lot from them, but I can't write about what I don't know.

But it's hard to meet a person who has never struggled with temptations against chastity; I think we all know that our culture is sex-mad in a way that is dangerous to chastity, and while we may disagree about whether the greater problem is how people dress or how they act or Facebook "adultery" or gay "marriage" laws or whatever, we Catholics know our world is totally messed up when it comes to our notion of sexual morality, and can comment merely as reasonably intelligent observers.

In other words, it might take special knowledge to discuss the ramifications of the capitalist system's profit motive in light of various papal encyclicals about economic justice, with reference to the writings of sound Catholic economists along the way; it takes little special knowledge to say, "You know, it would be nice to be able to grocery shop without having to shield little eyes from the how-to-be-a-slut-magazines in the front of the store and the condom displays over by the toothpaste."

Anonymous said...

I think there is a tendency to confuse "vigorous debate" with "I don't need to show humility and grace." It's like the person who utters "I don't mean to offend you, but . . " even though it's perfectly clear they intend to offend you.

The meme exists because there is a lack of charity, humility and grace in much of the Catholic blogosphere. The tone is often "I'm right, your wrong" and confusion over whether "something needs to be said" really, well, needs to be said.

Blogs have undoubtedly opened debate and empowered people to add their voices and opinions. But blogs can also be bullying, angry, and merely a source for venting instead of being productive. If every person in the Catholic blogosphere asked themselves whether what they were about to write showed humility, charity, and grace, things would be a lot less hostile.

Yes, there are people who are conflict averse and don't like vigorous debate. But a lot of people who say they like vigorous debate are really saying they are refusing to be responsible for what they say.

Elizabeth said...

There us spectacularly more unkind writing in the blogosphere about the big topics than here at RC, the only "Catholic" blog I read regularly.

Economics and politics, poorly understood by many, get reduced to "government is the problem" batted back by "you conservatives hate the poor" all too often.

Erin, at least, and Mark Shea when I link through to him through RC, drills away at a set of core beliefs that are not whimsical, not highly changeable, are principle-based and many of which have tremendous implications for our communal daily life in this country.

And reading her so long eventually nudged me off a political stance that was completely at odds with my heart. So I have to thank her for that, much as we disagree on so many things.


Elizabeth said...

Doh! "There IS..."

Patrick said...

@ Red Cardigan:

Oh, I agree with your reasons *why* the Catholic blogosphere tends toward discussing the ubiquitous and easily explainable/understandable sins of the flesh - great reply, by the way - I just thought, on the topic of criticizing the Catholic blogosphere generally, people who showed up with little knowledge of Catholicism would mistake it for more puritanical than it is. That, rather than "meanness", is the worse "threat" of the Catholic Internet: it often makes Catholicism look like merely a reactionary scream against the present age. In truth; the present age is a reactionary scream against Christ (and thus, His Church).

But you're right about the reasons, and those won't change. I'll even add another two reasons: sins of greed are so pervasive and old and *publicly acceptable* that they're barely noticeable, while sexual immorality as *publicly acceptable* is a relatively new phenomena. (Sexual immorality is old of course, but I'm talking *acceptance* of it as benign or even virtuous). In other words, amassing wealth on purpose is hardly "news" in America - but wearing short shorts to Church is. One is by far a worse sin and is deeply ingrained in the culture; and the other gets talked about more.

The other reason is that the Internet is conducive to reacting to the latest news or current event. While there's nothing wrong with opposing immorality in the current age (obviously), mere reaction distorts the seriousness of the latest problem at the expense of the bigger picture.

It doesn't matter, though. This isn't a fixable problem; and one can hardly expect these writers with so many kids to pore over securities fraud law on their, you know, 20 minutes of free time a week.

Anonymous said...

In fact, the ratio is probably higher than that: when is the last time you read a post about the horrors usurious lending?

All the time because the blog, What's Wrong with the World features a regular entry by Paul Cella called "The Usury Crisis".