Three Reasons That Argumentation Is So Difficult Today

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. 😊

9 Replies to “Three Reasons That Argumentation Is So Difficult Today”

  1. I have always, agreed with the point you make about the human person being lost in “comment” sections of FB post and blogs. I’m always putting a great effort in speaking stuff words softly, but if you don’t know me or hear me speak to you, all hell can break out.

    I have to keep going back to my original thought of “friendship” and authentic relationship. Blogs and FB post don’t get you there.

    Most people who respond to blogs don’t know the author personally.
    That’s the rub or the tension.

    Even when we think we know someone, we can screw up, because our familiarity can breed contempt and we size people up wrongly.

    I suggest to myself and others that we slow down a bit a form relation ship before we speak.

  2. Taking things personally, too seriously, or literally is a sign of growth. Two-year-olds take things personally, so they cry when they don’t get their way and they laugh when parents laugh; teenagers take things literally or too seriously, and less often, personally, and so they worry about rumors, believe unfounded claims, and can act self-righteous; also they worry about their friends, love to hear and tell stories, and pursue social justice.

    Taking things personally, literally, or too seriously can also be a sign of mental disorder. One does not alleviate disorder by enabling it, but helping the person – not via mercy-killing but care and love.

    Lastly, taking things personally, literally or too seriously can be a sign of the sin and vice of pride, because pride wishes to be right and not be offended no matter what, even deeming other opinions evil.

    But more often than not, it’s a sign of growth. And there are ways to overcome it:

    Other ways to overcome taking things personally, literally, or too seriously is to exercise the virtues of humility and chastity: the former debases pride and the latter frees us from the control of our feelings (and so, of pride).

  3. The article referenced was a particular contentious one. It dealt with what appears to some if not many as a collapsing of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. So, being that the column dealt with such an important issue to the readers it’s understandable that you found some of the replies to be strong on emotion and weak with regards to logic.

    1. Very “philosophical” of you, but what do you think of the three reasons presented. Contentious topics are the very ones that need such reminders. Thus simply saying that contentious topics bring such replies is missing the point.

    2. I must say, I don’t understand why the issue of parish closings is so “Contentious”. I think it more sad than anything else. I, like the Msgr, commented on an article (possibly the same one)in a similar fashion as his column (without having seen it mind you).

      That a simple churchgoer can independently see the same thing as a learned and wise priest actually speaks to the legitimacy of his argument.

      Part of the article I read, dealt with the lack of priests at churches, that vocations are down, leaving few priests to actually minster to the churches. I have seen many “thriving” parishes with few to no vocations coming out of them. I asked the question, what is actually thriving there if there are no vocations? It seems to me, if the parish is fully in communion with the Lord, vocations would be a natural fruit of that. So where have they all gone?

      Should we be alarmed at the closings? And How! But should we argue over it or should we look at our own spiritual health and think…I can do better. I must do better!?

      The time for argument has passed. It is time to open our minds and our hearts to God again.

  4. Much of what you experience – and you’re not alone – can be explained by 2 Tim 3:3.
    The good news: 3:1 says these are “some difficult times”; difficult but not impossible. (NJB)

  5. Dear Msgr,

    As usual, I really enjoyed reading this article. There’s quite the irony that occurred today when the article was posted on another website (which is where I originally became familiar with your columns). Who would’ve thought that an article on ‘why arguing today can be so difficult’ would lead to arguments from Protestants against the whole Church? Over 215 ‘comments’ at last count! I believe it was around comment #198 where one poster (biggirl) flat out stated that she no longer engages in debate with Protestants because it always seems to fall upon deaf ears. Unfortunately, I tend to agree with her statement.

    I love your writings and they have been very educational for me as I make the return journey back to the Church I was baptized into as an infant. I also like to read your daily column on that particular website specifically because the article is then usually open for debate (arguments). Reading the comments from well educated Catholics in support of your topic, countering whatever talking point some Protestant has posted, serves to only increase my knowledge and faith in the Catholic Church.

    I had hoped to find your email address so that I could’ve emailed you directly with my comment here, but I wasn’t able to find such. I would strongly encourage you to check out the ensuing debate/argument your article today prompted. It’s actually quite typical of the ‘discussions’ that follow there, especially if your chosen topic is concerning Our Lady, asking for intercession from the Saints, Real Presence, or any one of the basic Truths Protestants disagree with.

    The same very devoted woman (screen name Salvation) dutifully posts your articles there every day, and then sends out a notification to all those interested that your column is now up. I am grateful for her efforts. What would be absolutely amazing, is if you were to occasionally (time permitting) involve yourself in the arguments/discussions that follow your work there. It is not at all infrequent for other well known columnists, radio talk show hosts, politicians, and even presidential advisors, to engage in the discussions there when the topic concerns them, or in the politicians case, is about them. However, depending on the integrity of the individual, or other factors, they’ll often chose a screen name so as to not reveal their identity. In your case, such would be advantageous for others to know who you are. I honestly believe such would be a wonderful opportunity for you to personally reach out to others on yet another forum with many many thousands of daily readers. I know that for one, I personally would learn even more if you were to occasionally comment on some of the inevitable arguments against what your latest daily essay is saying.

    One last word of encouragement; I have mentioned to the Priest I receive weekly instruction from that I read your column daily, and his response was very much in your favor as he suggested that I continue to do such! So please, keep up the good work!

    Here’s a link to the thread of 215+ comments on your essay regarding ‘arguing’ in modern times:


  6. Dear Father,

    Thank you for your vocation. I love your reflective articles; and especially the videos.

    Not much on FB, but in a similar vein, during or since the election I have had to drop Catholic friends on Twitter since they seem unhinged with their vile anti-Trumpism. I am afraid free speech is dying in the US, and the education establishment is the cause of it.


  7. “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.”

    I think you may confuse some readers here. It would be easy to confuse an exaggerated version for reduction to absurdity which IS good argumentation when done properly. Augustine of Hippo was past master of it.

Comments are closed.