Yesterday was a milestone in my blogging career: for the first time, I banned someone — two people, actually. To my other guests, who’d complained about the visitors’ bad behavior, I posted apologies, assuring them that I hated taking such drastic measures, that the burden of crimping the right of self-expression weighed heavily on my conscience. But that was nonsense. The grim and ugly truth is, it felt wonderful.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity,” Abraham Lincoln once said. “But if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” That’s cutting it a little close for me. In his essay on his school days, “Such, Such Were the Joys,” George Orwell writes that the lower echelon of the British governing class defined character as power — specifically, the ability to impose its will on people. By the standards of the sahib and the house prefect, I’ve got character coming out of my ears — at least as of yesterday.
I’m afraid I never did form a very clear picture of the people I banned. But in my imagination, their comments took on human form. Deleting them, I imagined them as shabby, carping little dissidents, their café harangues interrupted by hairy hands over their mouths and pistol barrels jabbing at their third vertebrae. They would not go in brave silence as the goons trundled them into the idling Escalade. It’s not me you want, they’d squeal, as wise pedestrians averted their eyes. It’s my cousin — he looks just like me. And that would be the last anyone would hear of them until some truth commission uncovered the mass grave.
Yes, when it comes to keeping order in the combox, I have all the instincts of a caudillo, a poglavnik, a Great Helmsman, Dear Leader or Last King of Scotland. Apparently, this is not good Christian blogcraft. This week in America Magazine, Fr. Jim Martin rolls out a kinder, gentler, reader-friendlier model of governance:
Back to the good news: The official church has hit its stride in the blogosphere. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York blogs religiously (pun intended). So does Cardinal Sean O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., of Boston, who supplements his blog with photos. The blogosphere is a natural place for articulate communicators, and there are many in the church. But blogs present significant challenges, like encouraging dialogue among readers and building a sort of virtual community. Take a look at a few diocesan blogs and note how many comments there are: often the number is zero.
Why zero? Too often it is because the blogger posts and then walks away. To paraphrase Truman Capote’s comment about Jack Kerouac, that’s not blogging, that’s publishing. Responding to commenters encourages more people to read, post and discuss. This practice is not without its own dangers; it is easy to get bogged down in arcane theological e-battles.
Accepting and publishing comments, even those not in line with church teaching, is another challenge that demands, besides patient catechesis, constant charity. Still more charity is required when the comments become ad hominem. “In omnibus caritas,” as Blessed John XXIII liked to say. Easy to say, but harder to do when someone says you are an idiot, a heretic (or both) or that one should be, as someone recently said of yours truly, summarily laicized.
In a certain sense, Fr. Jim is absolutely right. What distinguishes blogging from other forms of written communication is its interactivity. Not only can readers respond, they can, on a good day, expect a response back. At best, this back-and-forthing creates some semblance of intimacy between writer and reader. Rather than regarding bloggers as remote, untouchable eminences (as they might, say, syndicated newspaper columnists), readers adopt them as members of the family.
The expectation of an exchange could, it’s true, have the effect of making a blogger sing at exhausting length for what often turns out to be a very small supper; but this is a worst-case scenario. In my experience, most readers are sensible enough not to expect an ongoing debate. A simple shout-out from the stage suffices to convince the reader he’s spent his time well. This is especially true when the blogger has achieved some star power. Before I started blogging or writing for Patheos, my toes would curl whenever I saw a boldened affirmation, signed “Admin,” appear after one of the comments I left on the Anchoress. “Ohmigod!” I’d think. “Elizabeth likes me! She really, really likes me!”
But not every writer has Elizabeth’s — what shall I call it? — winsome swagger. Even fewer have Fr. Jim’s laudable commitment to responsible catechesis and charitable dialogue. Purists may quibble, but I maintain that blogging is a form of writing. Many people get into writing because they’re temperamentally unsuited to dialogue; their best selves come out much more readily in monologues. If success at blogging comes easiest to writers who also have the wherewithal to double as catechists, customer service reps or casino greeters, then we’re looking at the emergence of a brand-new aristocracy. That’s fine in itself, but it also means the degradation of an old aristocracy, which is kind of sad.
In the great world of letters, I’m no aristocrat of any kind, but my skill set, and my understanding of the writer’s role, are fairly traditional. Once I’ve posted 600, 700 or more words of original text (plus links to sources), I feel as though my work is done. If that work should happen to enliven a reader’s morning, wonderful. If it strikes a reader as wrongheaded or offensive, then the reader is welcome to say so. (I don’t even expect charity, just sanity.) But though I almost always consider criticism, I put myself under no obligation to defend myself from it. Novelists might have to do that once every couple of years, on book tours. Going through it several times a day is just too hard on the nerves.
Facing readers head-on as a matter of policy would tend to chill my writing. Before choosing a topic — shoot, before choosing a word — I’d start asking myself, “What will offend the smallest number of people?”; or “Is my knowledge so thorough that I will be able to demolish and humiliate even the most obsessive fact-hoarder?” (Here I tend to imagine John Turturro in Quiz Show.) It’s important that any writer be careful with facts as well as his readers’ feelings, but self-censorship with the expectation of a hostile interrogation takes things to a new level. To paraphrase Truman Capote once more, that’s not writing. That’s preparing to take the witness stand or defend a doctoral dissertation.
So, I’m afraid that, for the sake of my own productivity, I shall remain aloof, largely non-responsive, and when the situation calls for it, oppressive. Of the best leaders, Sun Tzu write that they barely make their people aware of their existence. Unless you count my actual blog posts, that’ll be me. Readers won’t even know I’m here — until some comment makes a sudden disappearance. Yes, readers, you are living in the days of the Misty Look terror; the widgets are all around. Have fun, but have a care.
Maybe one day I’ll ban an archbishop, and the Paulists’ll make a plodding but oddly watchable movie of it.