The discussion and debate of issues is problematic today for many reasons, among them the use of flawed logic, the tendency to engage in identity politics, and the widespread rejection of natural law. I would like to highlight three issues in particular that commonly interfere with discourse on the Internet, including the “Comments” section of blogs such as this one.
I. The internet is “tone-deaf.” Any discussion that occurs in writing misses such personal elements as tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. A light-hearted delivery or a smile can change how words are understood. For example, the words, “You’re crazy!” can seem accusatory and harsh in writing, but accompanied by a smile or a joking tone, the words can be understood as playful. Sometimes the person’s tone can demonstrate irony: You’re crazy all right, but in a good way. You’re with God, but to the world you’re crazy.” Maybe calling someone crazy is a challenge, but the tone is gentle, asking for clarification more than making an accusation.
The point is that a written text seldom conveys the subtleties of human conversation. Many people take offense when none was intended or when the other party was merely trying to pose a question in a friendly rather than accusatory manner.
II. Reading things as absolutes – There is a tendency to interpret a point that is made in writing in an absolute way, thinking that the author means what he says without exception or that nothing else should be considered as a factor.
For example, earlier this week, in my blog on recent parish closings I wrote, “Bishops don’t close parishes, people do.” My purpose was to be artful and memorable, to provoke thought with a smidge of hyperbole.
I clarified that it was true in a juridical sense that bishops close parishes (by withdrawing their canonical status as a parish with an assigned pastor), but that bishops don’t routinely look around for parishes to close. Other things being equal, they want parishes to thrive and stay open. When a parish closes, the bishop is usually responding to what amounts to a lack of people. Generally, the parishes that are closed or merged are financially challenged. Perhaps they have old buildings that cannot be maintained cost effectively, or critical staff (including the pastor) can no longer be afforded. The lack of financial resources is usually tied to a lack of human resources: parishioners. In relatively rare cases, a financially sound parish is merged with others for the common good and to share resources effectively.
The primary driving force behind parish closings, however, comes down to a lack of people. It is not just that the mean old bishop is closing down parishes for no good reason. So, intending to make a short but memorable comment, I wrote, “Bishops don’t close parishes, people do.”
I do not mean this absolutely. I am not saying that the closing of every single parish is the direct fault of the people and the poor bishop is only doing what he must. Yet it is clear from the comments that many thought I did mean it absolutely, that I was saying that all parish closings are entirely the fault of God’s people and that bishops and clergy are completely innocent. Never mind that I went on to point out a number of other factors in church closings as well; surely I did not intend to imply that I’d made an exhaustive treatment of every possible cause.
Many also expanded my reflection by drifting from my restricted notion of cause to a wider notion of blame. That low attendance is a numerical cause for many parish closings is demonstrably true. Blame, by which I mean moral responsibility, for low attendance is a deeper and more complex issue.
I think there is plenty of blame for the clergy in this. We have not consistently preached the need to attend Mass. There has been poor catechesis and even outright error from members of the clergy. But there is also rebellion in the ranks that the clergy are no more responsible for than are parents for every poor decision of their adult children. The fact is, there is shared blame for the falling away from the faith. Clerical leaders are an important—but not the only—source of the problems today.
My point here is not to write another article on Church closings; it is to assert that interpreting everything in an absolute sense, a form of all-or-nothing thinking, can lead to strident reactions that produce much heat but little light. Interpreting a point that the writer (in this case me) makes in an absolute way, when it was not intended in that way, usually incites anger. The responder creates a straw man and then angrily denounces it. It is a straw man because it isn’t even the point that was made but rather an exaggerated version of it. The whole exchange goes south from there and doesn’t even end up being about the point that was actually made. This is bad argumentation.
III. Taking things personally – Many today take argumentation very personally; identity politics is a likely explanation. “Identity politics” is a reductionist mode in which people link their opinions with their very person. “This is who I am, and if you don’t agree with what I assert, you are offending me personally.” People also do this with group identities (e.g., sex, race, sexual orientation).
In such a climate, it is difficult to have productive debate because people take the disagreement personally and “shut down” rather than considering the counterpoints thoughtfully. They feel personally attacked rather than sensing that they are being challenged to reconsider or to better explain their view. Interestingly, they then tend to respond with a personal attack!
This was also evident in some of the comments on the post earlier this week. The “logic” of some respondents seems to have been this: Laity are being critiqued; I am a lay person; Therefore, I am being critiqued.” Well, maybe, but not all lay people are alike. More than likely, if someone is even reading this blog, he still goes to Mass and supports the mission of the Church. The laity includes a smaller number of Catholics (15-30%) who attend Mass faithfully and largely accept Catholic teaching, but a much a larger number (70-85%) who do not.
One can use a term such as “laity” and mean it generally, not as a personal attack on every single member of the large, diverse group. By interpreting the comments about the laity as applying to you personally, and rejecting them as not applicable, you may miss consideration of many of the points.
Anyway, this is my take on why discourse, especially in cyberspace is often so strident. Remember, I do not mean all of these points absolutely, and I might not actually have you in mind, even if you are a member of some of the groups I mention! For example, not all people who read and comment on my blog possess every trait that I mention here. A few people might even be an exception to everything I’ve said! You never know, especially if you presume good will on the part of the author. 😊