A comment about no comments: “The blogosphere shouldn’t be Calvary”

I read with interest, but hardly surprise, NCR’s decision to shut down comments on its website. I know exactly why they did it.  Back in May of 2012, I did the same thing, announcing: 

This has been coming for a while.  I’ve shut down comments for a week or two in the past, to have a breather, but the resultant serenity doesn’t last for long. On some days, keeping track of the torrent of comments has become a full-time job, and I’ve found repeatedly that the combined badgering, sniping and vitriol too often create an environment that can only be called toxic.  I just don’t have the time or mental energy to deal with it.  (Neither, it seems, do some longtime readers, who have written to tell me they can’t even go into the comboxes anymore; invariably, when they leave, they feel like they need to take a bath.)

So, henceforth, a vacation from vitriol.  I need it for my own spiritual health.  I think, maybe, we all do.

I hope the atmosphere around here will be a lot less combative.  And my life, I think, will be a little bit saner.

So farewell, for now, to histrionics and the hurling of spitballs.  Ta-ta to trolls, to accusations of heresy, to the tsk-tskers who love to sigh and gasp and sputter and kvetch. Adios to ad hominems.  Enough.  Goodbye to all that.

At the time, I said I would revisit the policy at summer’s end. I did. And I decided to shut down comments for good.

I thought it might affect my number of readers.  It didn’t. In fact, readership grew. People even wrote to thank me. They didn’t feel anymore like they were walking into a war zone.

I’ve learned a few things over the last six-and-a-half years of blogging. And one important lesson is this: if you’re creating an environment in which stones are being hurled, nails are being pounded and swords are being continually unsheathed, you are setting up a situation that will inflict wounds on the Body of Christ. The blogosphere shouldn’t be Calvary.  And to foster an online community that is divisive, hateful, disrespectful, and cruel is to create a platform that is by nature anti-Christian, anti-God and anti-life.  I just couldn’t do that anymore. Some people can. I can’t.

In the Spring of 2012, before I closed comments, a lot of readers were reminding me of my vocation—and telling me that I was failing at it.  The toxic atmosphere in the blog, they told me, was not appropriate for a deacon. It took a while for it to sink in, but I had to admit: they were right. What I had created wasn’t a place for evangelization or reflection; it was a showcase for spite. And this was coming from all sides—left, right, liberal, traditional. It had to stop.

Last month, the pope himself called on the faithful to use the Internet as a place to “offer real reasons for hope.”   Often, what passes for conversation on blogs offers, instead, despair. Clergy are as culpable as anyone.

I’ve come to believe this even more deeply: no member of clergy (or any Christian, for that matter) should be facilitating hate. I’m not talking about theological disagreements or philosophical quarrels. I’m talking brutal name-calling, sneering, and derision.  I’m talking robbing fellow Christians of dignity by mocking them, belittling them, marginalizing them—and encouraging others to do the same.  It’s that kind of behavior that prompted me to write the Examination of Conscience for the Internet last month.  And I think it’s also part of what led the editors at NCR to read some of the comments on their site and say, as I did, “Enough.”

I think they did the right thing.

The Body of Christ needs healing. It doesn’t need more nails pounded into its flesh.

UPDATE: I remembered this morning some astute remarks made by Bishop Christopher Coyne a couple years ago:

Always take the high road.  By this I mean, always be polite, never respond in kind, do not making any more enemies than one already has in these matters, and most importantly don’t send an angry email written completely in capital letters until you’ve slept on it overnight.  Always taking the high road places us in a higher place.  I really think this is the way of Christ.  I’m reminded of yesterday’s gospel in which Jesus said, “when someone strikes you, give them your other cheek.”  There is already too much invective and anger out there.  Let’s not add to it.  In addition, by taking the high road one avoids allowing those opposed to one’s position from going on the “ad hominum.”  For example, when an American bishop responded with a somewhat sarcastic column of his own to an editorial in America magazine that criticized the USCCB for its position on the HHS mandate, the response was immediate but not in the way he hoped.  Instead of responding to the very valid points he raised, critics almost unanimously chastised him for the tone of his response with comments like, “Isn’t it terrible that a bishop would respond with sarcasm.”

When you are in the midst of any task, ask yourself, “Is what I am doing building up or tearing down?”  In asking this question I think of St. Paul’s admonition in Ephesians to “say only the good things men need to hear, things that will really help them.” Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t speak the truth to evil or sin.  Jesus himself was quite outspoken in his attacks on hypocrisy and sin.  In that sense we are building up by tearing down, when we tear down evil and replace it with the good.  But my admonition is more to avoid at all times the “attack ad” mentality that sadly permeates much of our public discourse today.  One way in which this plays out positively is trying to communicate as much as we can what it is we are “for” rather than what we are “against.”

I need to be reminded of that advice every day.  Read the whole thing. 


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