Say What You Mean, Mean What Say, But Don’t Say it Mean. On The Tone of Recent (mostly deleted) Comments.
I remember my first experience of being the topic of discussion on the Internet. It was about a year before I was asked by the Archdiocese to be a blogger for this Blog of the Archdiocese. I had been on the cover of US News and World Report. The photo was taken of me celebrating the Traditional Latin Mass. (See photo at right). The photo circulated on some of the Blogs at that time and while the reaction was, overall, positive, I was quite surprised by some of the highly critical and personal nature of the negative remarks:
- Look he’s not using canonical fingers (I was).
- He’s leaning back too far (maybe)
- He’s holding the chalice too high and looks far too dramatic (maybe, but I was praying, not counting inches of altitude).
- Why’s that deacon touching the altar – he no right to do that! (because he’s older and needed to steady himself).
- Why are those vestments so modern? (What ever)
- The Burse should have been on the gradine, not the mensa (oh what a wretch am I!)
- Why does that Monsignor have a red (actually it was fuchsia) pom on his biretta? (seen in another photo). Who does he think he is, some prelate? (Actually I didn’t know any better, and was given the biretta by an older Msgr to wear who had it from the days before 1970 when the norms for vesture changed. I have discontinued the pom).
- US News should have sought out the Fraternity or the Institute for a better picture (sigh….yes!)
One kind lady finally intervened and said, “Stop! You’ll make it so no priest ever wants to celebrate the old rite.” She was right and I have been told by a lot of younger guys who love the Traditional Mass that they are “scared” to celebrate it. There are various reasons but one of them is the lack of breathing room for honest mistakes and the need to learn by experience. Some of them have experienced that this that doesn’t seem offered by some of the very few (but sadly vocal) rubricists in congregations, and more on the Internet who seem to want to demonstrate their knowledge of some of the most arcane details, at the expense of others.
The experience for me was a kind of wake up call to the nastiness that sometimes sets in on blogs where people interact with people they don’t really know. There is, thus, little appreciation for the feelings or the personal dignity of the ones with whom they disagree or critique.
As I have I now been blogging for over two years, I have become accustomed to difficulties the Internet can sometimes present to civil discussion. The vast majority of commentators here are kind, and willing to engage in mutually respectful conversation in the comment threads. I am able to post most of the comments that come in without any concern.
I DO appreciate vigorous and honest discourse and am undisturbed that disagreements are frankly aired. But there comes a line that, when crossed, makes me hit delete, or post the comment, but with a blow of the referee’s whistle.
Recently however, I am getting more comments that are just plain rude, mean or unnecessarily personal. I have had to press the delete button more than I’d like. It is not just the use of profanity that is alarming (and that too is becoming more common), but it is the excoriation of one’s opponents with dismissive labels and terms which either question their orthodoxy, or their love of the poor, label them as rigid or as communists, etc.
There is also the unnecessary ridicule of positions. And most of these comments come in the context of a discussion outside dogmatically defined issues, where reasonable people, reasonable Catholics, can differ and terminology may have more than one meaning, where the presumption of good faith and the celebration of the Catholic faith ought to be presumed. Gentle corrections are appreciated, but making a person look foolish is usually unnecessary.
The most nasty remarks often center around liturgy and the social doctrine of the Church.
As for liturgy, while there are norms to which we must submit, there is also legitimate diversity permitted by the Church. It is alright to have and state preferences, and even advocate for them. But too often various “camps” hurl stones back and forth and look down on others who are merely exercising legitimate options. The lovers of the Traditional Latin Mass have spent years in exile and been treated very poorly. Others who prefer more charismatic forms of the Mass are also ridiculed by some. And both these communities can also dish it out. But to be clear, as long as we stay inside the guard rails of the norms, there are various and legitimate lanes, whatever your preference. A little mutual respect please.
As for the social doctrine of the Church, here too there is a wide variety of understanding as to the application of those teachings. Catholics of different political backgrounds will differ on how best to apply some of the norms in caring for the poor. Further there has been the division of the Church along certain lines, the life and moral issues on one side, and the social issues on the other. To be sure, we need a division of labor. Everyone can’t do everything. Those who advocate for the poor ought to be glad that others are working to end abortion. And those in the pro-life community ought to be glad, and see as partners, those in the Church who advocate for, and serve the poor. We should value one another as the basis for any discussion. There may still be differences on details and emphasis, but the over all demeanor should be one of grateful appreciation for the work of the other. That should set the tone for the discussion.
Even in the necessary corrections where a commentator, or the blog author, has strayed from doctrinal accuracy, it is healthy to presume good will on their part, and that they did not wish or intend to stray from Catholic teaching. Further it is helpful to assume that terminology can and does often have technical uses, and more colloquial uses as well. This is not a blog for highly trained theologians, it is for the ordinary faithful who often speak in manners that are more relaxed and less technical. Rushing to accuse others of “error” or “heterodoxy” or humiliating them for the terminology of their comment may win the argument, but discourage a member of the faithful from ever evangelizing again, or being “out there” with their faith. Here too, gentle correction and distinction can be helpful, but with love. We are all brothers and sisters.
As for those outside our faith some of whom may initiate with a hostile tone, I will often call them on it and encourage them to stick to the issue. But here too, we who respond ought to try and stick to the issue.
Some helpful advice was recently posted at The New Liturgical Movement regarding comments and, while the subject at hand was artistic criticism, I have the adpated the advice for our context. Please consider what David Clayton says:
It seems to be an aspect of human nature that criticism flows more easily than praise, and this is never more apparent in the comments at the bottom of blogs! However, some subjects particularly seem to attract the ire of readers…I always hold my breath. I know it will attract a hail of criticism from people who worry that it does not conform to what they believe to be the standard…Criticism and differing opinions are not bad things in themselves. After all, we are trying to re-establish a culture of beauty in the West and beauty by its very nature it is difficult to pin down precisely. One should expect differing reactions and ideas of what is good. So please, let’s have them. However, I would like to make some points about the nature and tone of some of the criticisms made.
First, a request: if you are stating opinions, please do so in the spirit that concedes that others may have other perfectly valid opinions. Like email, blog comments seem to be a forum in which it is difficult not to express things abruptly and so appear rude. It’s not always easy I know, to make sure that what we write has a gentle manner. I would ask us all to try. [People] must expect critique of their position, but they should not have to put up with rudeness. ….
If you can explain why you think as you do, that would be helpful, especially if you don’t like something. If you do not, then what you are giving us [seems] just a subjective opinion….[And] if they are opinions, let’s make it clear that this is all they are rather than presenting them as indisputable truths….
Archeologism: the comments of some seem to stem from an assumption that culture existed in a perfect form at some point in the past and that the work of man over time has caused it to degenerate. The main concern for those who believe this, therefore, is a strict conformity to the past glorious (sometimes arbitrarily assigned) age. Working from tradition, in contrast, is more nuanced. It respects the past and does not seek change without good reason, but always seeks to understand why something was done in a particular way. It accepts that sometimes we must develop and reapply the core principles in response to contemporary challenges or if there is a need to communicate something new. Sometimes this development will be so great that a new tradition is established…..
Dealing with imperfection: even if something is partially wrong or in error or even just disliked, it doesn’t mean that we can’t learn something from it……
As a general principle, given that we are in a process of re-establishing a culture of beauty, I would generally advocate a conservative approach to what goes in our churches at the moment. However,…. flexibility and adaptability underpinned by good discernment is the source of richness and vigor in Christian culture. …No doubt along the way there were innovations … that were rejected as a whole, but nonetheless contributed something to what eventually became … acceptable.
These are adapted excerpts the full article is here: Some Thoughts About Criticism
A final disclaimer. I do not claim I get the balance and the tone perfectly. This post is not written from on high, from one who is perfect, to those who are not. Rather this is for “us” who interact on this relatively new medium of the Internet where the face and person on the other side of the screen are not seen. Yet those with whom we interact ARE human persons. In recent months I have been increasingly bothered at the tone of some incoming comments, most of which I had to delete, and you never saw. Some of them were just plain unkind, others hypercritical, still others rude and riddled with personal attack. Some others were clearly only an attack, and not a request for real discussion. Some were directed personally at me, others at some of the commentators here. Still others were mean-spirited attacks at the bishops, those who prefer other permitted liturgical forms, or those who come from a different theological tradition within the Church than they.
I will say that some of these comments cause me great personal grief, whether for myself or those who are unfairly or excessively attacked. So for us all, whom Christ loves, and for whom he died, let’s consider that the one on the other side of the screen is a human person, worthy of respect. And to be clear, most of us don’t need this post in an absolute sense, but just as a gentle reminder. God bless you.