Friday, 10 February 2012

How These Catholics Love Each Other So (especially in the Blogosphere)

I find the to-and-fro on the Catholic blogosphere unedifying at times, and have been wondering two things.  One is why it is so prone to descend into an acrimonious tone, and the second is whether there is anything I can do (or write really) to decrease the likelihood of that.

On the first I have a few ideas.  My only idea on the second is that by raising awareness, and possibly understanding, with my Catholic co-bloggers and co-twitterers, I may be helping a bit.

That second idea I propose with something less than confidence, for reasons which my explication of the first may shed some light on.  But I am by temperament and faith more pre-disposed to hope than despair, so I will try anyway.   Just for the record, this post is not aimed at anyone in particular: if you think it is about you personally, you may wish to consider why you have reached that conclusion (and see below)...

So why does it descend to acrimony?

I think there are several reasons:
  • the nature of the media
  • the different analyses of the situation in which we find ourselves
  • substantial differences of view, 
  • differences of weight attached to issues by different people
  • friendships and loyalties
  • differing rhetorical styles
  • original sin

...and doubtless there are more.

I am going to unpick those in a little more detail.

The nature of the media is itself problematic.  Both Blogging and Tweeting have particular limitations, and each some peculiar to itself.  Neither is a particularly good tool for subtle or difficult communications between people who feel strongly about an issue.  One reason for that is that when using the written word alone we are lacking some basic things which help make communications effective when we are chatting in the pub, or even lecturing.  Tone of voice is one of the most important of these, and another is facial expression. These things moderate both how we are heard and inform us in live time about how others are responding, allowing us quickly and sensitively to moderate our communication. 

In their absence, people will tend to fill in the gaps with their imagination.  Thus my gentle joke may be read as a provocative insult, because you do not hear the lightness of tone, nor see the twinkle in my eye.  Your warning shot back, that I have over-stepped the mark, may be read by me as your joining in the banter, and I respond in kind.  You are rightly outraged and yell at me or withdraw; I am rightly outraged: it was all such fun and then you had a hissy fit.

Add to that the potential for anonymity, the fact that we may well never have met, and, in the case of Twitter, the whole thing being played out in live time in front of an audience (we know not who until they jump into the conversation) and limited to 140 characters at a time, and the risks are clear.

Sitting behind that, and providing a context within which misunderstanding is more likely, is the fact that we may start from a very different understanding of the situation in which Catholics in this country find themselves.

I, for example, may believe the Church in this country to be in grave crisis.  Having been around a while; having written to, and met, bishops and got short shrift, to say the least; having witnessed scandal after scandal unfold and be met by silence or worse from the bishops responsible for the relevant areas of activity; I may believe that we are nearing, or actually in, de facto schism with the Holy See, and that given such a crisis my loyalty is with the Holy Father and the Faith of my fathers; and my clear duty is to warn others of the crisis, and try to pre-empt new manifestations of it by galvanising the remaining faithful.  Having been kicked, and seen others be kicked, so many times, I tend to constant vigilance.

You, on the other hand, know that the Church is the Ark of Salvation, the bishops are the spiritual descendants of the apostles, and worthy not just of the benefit of the doubt, but of positive respect, love and support.  Sure, things go wrong occasionally, because we are none of us perfect, but to see conspiracies in those things is, frankly, a bit nutty, and to look for conspiracies is actually uncharitable.  You, reasonably enough, see my constant vigilance as paranoia and spiritually harmful to myself and others.

Then of course, there may be substantial, and legitimate, differences of view. I may believe that incrementalism in the approach to the sin of abortion is the wrong strategy.  There are strong moral and practical considerations that support that view.

You may believe that incremental reductions are the only realistic way of reducing the carnage. There are strong moral and practical considerations that support that view.

Such differences are compounded if we also attach different amounts of weight to that difference of views.  I may think this is fundamental: until you have grasped that incrementalism is the wrong approach, your efforts are not only misguided but dangerous: it carries numerous risks, which you seem to ignore, deny, or trivialise.

You may believe this is a relatively trivial difference: we are both clearly on the same side on this, and should be pulling together, not arguing over minutiae.  You are therefore astounded at how much of a meal I make over this, and how the pro-life effort is riven by in-fighting: with my adding fuel to that fire instead of finding common ground in the fight against the greatest evil of our day.

And then friendships and loyalties come into play.  I know that, however nutty X is, his heart is in the right place; or that Y has spent forty years fighting the good fight, and yes, she can be an irritating old whatsit, but we are none of us perfect.  So when X or Y is attacked, I leap to their defense.

You likewise have loyalties and friendships: when I defend X or Y against what I perceive as unjust criticism from your friends A or B, naturally you leap to A or B’s defence: how could I be so uncharitable...?

Add to this rich mix differing rhetorical styles: I quite like bombast, stirring language, of the St Thomas More and Hilaire Belloc variety.  I would rather overstate a case for clarity and dramatic effect than sound too clinical and dispassionate as though I were a BBC reporter pretending a disinterest that would be wholly bogus. I move in a social milieu in which calling people by lighthearted soubriquets is a common and accepted part of the discourse, and ‘political correctness' is abhored and ridiculed.

You may prefer the civilised discourse of rational debate, and find the heightened language over the top, and the name calling patronising and, frankly, offensive.  I, of course, find your dispassionate tone either bland, or supercilious and patronising...

So for all these reasons, I think that it is not surprising that communications mis-carry when we are discussing important things.

But when things do go awry, it opens the door for Satan, and the playing out of Original Sin.

So pride, anger, and all those other sins to which we are prey can slip in.  We find ourselves shifting from judging actions to judging people, attacking or condemning people rather than ideas, using language more suitable for the bully or the coward than the apostle, and so on.

Right back in the Garden, when God asked Adam what had gone wrong, he said: it wasn’t me, it was the wife!, and she said don’t blame me, it was that serpent....

Just so on the blogosphere, pride cuts in again: we judge ourself by our good intentions rather than our bad behaviour, and others by their bad behaviour, to which we attribute bad intentions.  We take offense where none was intended, and we see no need to apologise ourselves.  Time and again we hear: you/they were attacking me,  and well you/he/she started it, instead of Sorry.  And such is our pride that even when someone does say sorry (and I have witnessed that more than once), it is often not heard.

And yet... I still think it is worth doing: I have learned a lot through the Catholic blogosphere, and I like to think I have made some virtual friends.  I may even have helped one or two people, and caused one or two things to happen or not happen...

So may God grant us the grace to continue these conversations in truth and love, and in particular the grace of humility, both to be able to apologise when we have offended whether deliberately or unwittingly, and to accept apologies when they are offered; and, if it’s not asking too much, the grace to learn a little from the whole experience.


A Catholic Comes Home said...

The voice of reason!Thanks for this post.

Ben Trovato said...

Thanks for your comment, ACCH...