Good and bad conversation and heated comments

Good and bad conversation and heated comments

What Mark Shea says about the kind of email he gets and the kind of conversations that goes on in blog comment boxes is absolutely true. You should see the emails I get. At least my comboxes require a bit of work to register for posting so it weeds out the worst commenters. Still I think the following is true and even I fall into the trap of letting heated emotion drive out reasoned discourse on occasion. (You should also see the stuff Melanie tells me not to post.)

I’m simply saying that it really is the case, particularly on the Internet, that there is a kind of anti-Darwinian principle at work here in cyberspace. The more polite and normal you are (as most Evangelicals and Catholics are), the less likely you are to write a perfect stranger and rat-a-tat-tat him full of rapid-fire ignorant pronouncements about his religions beliefs, giving no pause for breath or reply. Normal people don’t act this way. Consequently, Shea’s Corollary to Gresham’s Law defines that “Bad conversation drives out good”. That is, over time, cyberspace tends to give widest leeway to shrill buffoons who dominate the conversation that normal people simply don’t have time or energy to argue with.

When bloggers attack

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Written by
Domenico Bettinelli
  • I don’t know that that’s the truth, Domenico.  If it weren’t for the internet, I’d live in near total isolation as a catholic.  There isn’t much out here.

    I’ve learned a lot from the internet.  Remember those days when you had to go to a big city library or write to a bookstore far away to obtain a copy of any papal document and most catholics had never read anything written in Rome??

  • I have learned a great deal from Catholic blogs and message boards since aol went to a flat rate in 1997.  There would have been no possibility for learning even a quarter of it without the web.  What you said about papal documents before the web, michigancatholic, is certainly true for my area.

    My blog comboxes seem to be more vitriolic than my email, though.

  • I really know quite a few catholics, but not many of them in these parts are able to talk about it in an informed way, to be honest.  It’s getting better, but not fast.  You can make enemies just by starting an adult conversation with some of the more infantile of them.

    Many people either don’t attend mass regularly, attend mass and leave it behind when they leave, or have the idea that it’s uncool to talk about their faith in public—because they’re ashamed of it, largely, I suspect.

    The clergy I know are very clerical about it, generally, and don’t seek or even care what laypeople think.  I suppose they have their ears filled up with the chattering of the generally ignorant pseudo-ministry folks, in which case, I don’t blame them.

    Nevertheless, I’m lonesome while being surrounded by people.  That’s been the human aspect of my life as a Catholic. 

    I have found just a few people who can talk about the faith like adults—on the Internet.  And I appreciate it.  It has helped to preserve my convert’s faith.

  • Nevertheless, I’m lonesome while being surrounded by people.  That’s been the human aspect of my life as a Catholic.

    I can so relate.  That’s been my experience too often as well.

    It seems that those at the parish level who are informed are also polarized and defensive.  If you don’t get a blank stare, you are likely to get an angry one.

  • Yes, and “informed” is a relative term here.  Most of the “lay ministry” folks—and I use that term lightly—are not so informed.  It reminds me of high school.  It’s a clique with sort of B- capability with respect to being really informed about the church. 

    One has to wonder where everyone else is.  Are the bright ones home minding their own business, or off being pagans, or what??  And what does that mean???

    And this means that there are some rather astonishing things taught, said, assumed etc. at times.  It’s altogether pretty moronic.  Especially the “music”—another term I use lightly. 

    If I wasn’t convinced the Catholic church was the true one, I’d be off somewhere else.  But I am, and I love the Church.  I just know that beauty isn’t only skin-deep, as they used to say.

  • It’s certainly true about commenters. 

    The flip-side is the temptation to pride of well-known bloggers.  After all, it’s not quite like speaking to a stranger, is it?  You’ve chosen to speak in a public forum in the hopes of influencing or interesting people.  You’re hoping, I assume, that people will come by and read.  Must they sit at the feet of bloggers as if they are Oracles of Wisdom?  People will have reactions and express them.  Not all of them will be sensible or nice, though I see a LOT of fawning commentary as well as angry or critical.  It’s a little like setting up a soapbox on a corner and then complaining when you get shouted comments. 

    And of course, if one doesn’t want to hear the shouted comments, one can do better than the soapbox orator.  One can close them off.  Otherwise, one takes what the sidewalks deliver.

  • Ok, Jeff K., fair point.  But don’t we expect Catholics to write by Christian standards? 

    I guess what I’d like to see is the same rules that are applied to high school debate teams being applied in Catholic blog discussions.  No. 1 being stick to the facts at issue, and refrain from discussing the personality of the blogger or commenter, which we probably don’t know a lot about in the first place.

    I’ve noticed that when the commenter gets to the point of no longer having valid points with which to counter, derrogatory comments about the opponent are almost a guarantee.  Sometimes the old saw, “If you don’t like the message, kill the messenger,” is far too predictable.

  • Sure, Carrie, I said, “It’s true about commenters.”  I’m just saying, if you stand on a soapbox, you’ve got to expect what the sidewalks will produce.  And we’ve just had a post from Dom saying that since this is a blog and not a magazine, he’s free to be unfair or mean-spirited himself and just let it go if he feels like it because that’s the medium (or that’s all I can make of the explanation.) 

    Read about Frank Sheed’s adventures in the Catholic Truth Society in “The Church and I” and other books and you’ll see what I mean about public oratory.

  • Jeff,

    That isn’t what I said. You’ve distilled my post down into the most prejudicial form possible, which is a neat illustration of my actual point, by the way.

    I’m not making excuses for anything. I’m explaining the truth of what happens. There is a difference.

  • “Nevertheless, I’m lonesome while being surrounded by people.  That’s been the human aspect of my life as a Catholic.”


    As a rule now, I don’t talk religion to Roman Catholics, especially if they attend Mass (which few do.)

    There are no grounds, anywhere, where people believe in the sanctity of marriage, of life, of the Bible, of the authority of the Magesterium in even a loose sense….as a starting point of any conversation.

    100% of my knowledge of my religion, my decisions on what to read, what to think came from the internet (original documents, etc)and a little known network started by a nun down in Alabama (I’ve never met a Catholic, in person, who has even heard of EWTN.)

    These days I’m 100% internet as the network has begun to slide off the charismatic deep end.

    Knowledge of things Christian only adds to more social isolation which is fine by me…I have a wife and kids and tons of books.

  • Well, I’m sorry, Dom if I mistook your intention.  But things on a blog don’t just “happen”, right?  Somebody’s responsible, commenters, bloggers, someone.  It sure sounded like you were saying, “Don’t expect me to apologize if I go too far when I sound off.  This is a blog.”  If that ISN’T your point, what is?

    And if that IS at least something like your point, I think it’s wrong.  As Carrie says, we Catholics should be trying to be fair with each other and make peace with one another, as annoying as that may be. 

    And I think your comment illustrates MY point very well, too.  I mean I’m offering VERY mild criticisms.  And they’re criticism of positions you’ve taken publicly.  I haven’t called you names or assaulted your character.  I’ve taken issue with you.  That doesn’t mean I don’t admire you very much or appreciate all the fabulous posts on a variety of subjects.  It just means that I figure you expect and allow for criticism if people disagree with you. 

    If you find my comments beyond the pale then you must be a hothouse plant indeed!  I was responding originally to your public post about another blogger.  Must I let that pass in silence if I think that you are being unfair and uncharitable?

  • The problem with most Internet writing is that you can’t hear the tone of voice or see the facial expression. Words alone can be interpreted many different ways, although the author intends them a specific way.

    I tend to write concisely in comments and that often comes across as brusque or angry or accusatory. It is not. Thus I was not taking offense in my previous comment. I was merely responding to what you had said.

    This is the problem. Combox debates often break down into flame wars because both sides interpret the other as elevating the heat level of the conversation when that isn’t what’s happening.

  • One absolute essential that every blogger and commenter must bring to the medium is six inch thick skin!  If we arrive with our inner core of being exposed, it is going to get ground up and fed to the world. 

    I follow that philosophy more closely on some days than I do on others, and I’m still working on learning when to back off and retreat into silence.

  • Now we agree completely on something, Dom!  This is an observation that I myself have made many’s the time.

  • Dom,

    I would agree with Mark (and you) that “Bad conversation drives out good”, yet just like there are plenty of those “hit and run anti-Catholics”, there seems to be no shortage of those who would do what Mark says “normal people simply don’t have the time and energy” to do.  It’s been my experience that, ironically, sites and blogs that have such “controversies” seem to be the most active.


  • The problem with most Internet writing is that you can’t hear the tone of voice or see the facial expression. Words alone can be interpreted many different ways, although the author intends them a specific way.

    So true, and even the smileys don’t always get the meaning across.

    shut eye