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.