Is it too late? Are we “past” civility? – UPDATED

I meant to link to this piece by Lisa Hendey yesterday, but the day got away from me. In it, she is asking if it is possible to eliminate political vitriol online?

Isn’t it our right as Americans to employ our rights to freedom of speech to say what we feel? Yes, certainly. And yet, I’m also cognizant that my presence — and yours — in venues like Facebook and Twitter is a component of the New Evangelization. When my non-Catholic friends (for whom I am perhaps the only Catholic they will ever know) see me launch into a diatribe about Candidate X, they form a perception not only about me and my political beliefs, but about my Church as well. In my passion for my position, I may unwittingly act in a fashion that lacks the charity and diligence to which I am called.

It’s a serious problem for Christians, and one I struggle with, myself, mostly because I just get so damned frustrated with the double standards employed by the mainstream media that I begin “writing while Irish”, and that’s never a good thing.

Lisa offers a useful prayer to use before going into social media. I can tell you that when I am praying the way I’m supposed to be, I have less stomach for flinging vitriol and more patience with it when it’s flung in my direction.

We are in the midst of something new, in America. And yes, it’s unsettling. Some are saying it’s more than unsettling.

The issue of civility and the idea that “decent people can disagree and still be decent people” is one this blog has both promoted and wrestled with for 7 years, and this has been true for at least 6 years:

There is a terrible toxicity to our political and social exchanges – there is little real thought and lots of shrieking going on, lots of noise, little real discourse and precious little honesty. There is no way to debate because – no matter which side tries to get serious – a well-thought-out discourse is immediately shot down by the other side with a one-line-sneer, usually a specious one, that distorts or misdirects and never allows a thought to go forward.

Engaging, these days involves a delicate balancing act, and one that becomes more challenging every day. When I look back at some of my posts from 2005 or so, I scald at how uncharitable I was — I can see, when looking through the archives, how prayer (and especially, I am convinced, the Liturgy of the Hours) has slowly, slowly turned me from a far-left perspective to an over-corrected far-right perspective to one that is determined to be no-party-only-Catholic, and yet — especially when I watch double-standards fly by, my sense of justice is flicked and I still manage to light a fuse.

We all must do better with civility, and remember that God can see us, all the time, but it is a matter of balance. In the urge toward civility, we must not allow ourselves to be stricken dumb by the soft-tyranny of “be nice”. Because of Justice, some things must be said. But it is how they are said that, in the end, matters to our society and our souls.

The truth is, the chances of convincing anyone online of changing their minds about anything are slim-to-nil, so all we can do is guard our own souls and try not to dishonor Christ with our behavior.

Balancing is no easy thing. And when what has been great appears to be tumbling around us, it is always, always, time to remember that God takes a much longer view of things than we do.

Once upon a time 6 million Jews were burned in German ovens.

Once upon a time, a Gallic government was tumbled and churches turned into secular temples and psalm-chanting nuns were guillotined for the offense of being psalm-chanting nuns.

Once upon a time Rome entertained itself with lions and Christians.

Once upon a time, the Incarnate Word submitted to torture and death at the hands of his own creation.

And at that time, “the world” was forever conquered.

We too easily forget that, and allow ourselves to be sucked into an illusion that our time is the most important time ever in the history of the world, that our lights are the brightest, our philosophies are the wisest. Until it all gets swept away, and another generation falls for the same lie.

Terrible things happen; nations and civilizations fall and are restructured, and no peoples ever believe it is meant to happen on their watch. But “who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to counsel him?” But we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). Or we are supposed to try to put that on, anyway.

It is not easy. I was recently part of an online dust-up that occurred even though those of us participating were trying desperately to be “civil” and charitable to each other. All hell finally broke lose, because we have reached a point, now, where our formerly “shared realities” have been throat-slit to the “Dictatorship of Relativism” our good pope called-out in 2005. Reality is now a mere concept, and ever-changing.

And that is the way of the worldly word, not of heaven. And Christians are not supposed to belong to the worldly world, because we know it is not all there is.

I have lately taken to committing Psalm 90 to memory, especially its beginning; it is a reminder to go on, that nothing is static, and that God’s hands are in all things. I need to say it every day, and then move forward:

O Lord, you have been our refuge
from one generation to the next.
Before the mountains were born
or the earth or the world brought forth,
you are God, without beginning or end.

You turn men back to dust
and say: “Go back, sons of men.”
To your eyes a thousand years
are like yesterday, come and gone,
no more than a watch in the night.

You sweep men away like a dream,
like the grass which springs up in the morning.
In the morning it springs up and flowers:
by evening it withers and fades.

“A thousand ages in your sight are as an evening past…” My great hope is that they will be the last words from my dying lips; the acknowledgement that my life has been nothing but a passing moment in God’s sight, but a moment aligned with his mercy.

UPDATE: Thomas L. McDonald has a piece on the Knights of Columbus and their move for civility

Related: Staring into the Empty Tomb

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • http://www.catholicmom.com Lisa Hendey

    Amen to Psalm 90. We sing a version of that at our parish quite frequently at it is one of my favorites. The fact that you wrote this:

    “But it is how they are said that, in the end, matters to our society and our souls.”

    makes me smile. I’m not trying to say don’t stand for what is right, just and true. I’m simply asking myself if the language I use to express my convictions does more good than harm. You totally get it, and stated it far more eloquently than I could hope to do…
    Thanks!

  • Fiestamom

    Holy mackerel, I’m hearing Twilight Zone musician my head. This morning, I was meeting with some young moms from my parish, talking about Humanae Vitae, Papal Infallibility,faiths and morals, and I brought up my fave BXVI quote about the “dictatorship of relativism”. (yes, I am so fortunate in the parish I belong to)

    AND, just yesterday, I was called a racist by a cousin. He objected to a group email sent by his own father. It was one of those patriotic, run of the mill email forwards that older ppl tend to send out. He replied “all” insulting his own father! I replied “all” and thanked my uncle for sending it. (an action I regret, because I should have not said anything), my cousin then replied all, and wanted to know the reason I supported it, and ‘try not to sound racist’. Ay yi yi. I feel terrible for his parents, they sent me an apology email, and said they can’t talk politics or religion with him, because he has left the Catholic Church. Such sad times. Yesterday at Daily Mass, our priest asked for prayer and fasting for our fellow Catholics who are being led astray by Catholics in public office. He even mentioned the Nuns on the Bus. I think he’s right, prayers and fasting.

    I’m praying about sending my cousin a private email. I know he’s a big Obama supporter, but I wonder if I should “admonish the sinner”? I truly don’t know what to say w/out sounding sanctimonious. I want to do this in charity. I would never ask him to vote FOR Romney, just not Obama. I don’t know. But looks like Psalm 90 is a good place to start.

  • Ted Seeber

    ” I can see, when looking through the archives, how prayer (and especially, I am convinced, the Liturgy of the Hours) has slowly, slowly turned me from a far-left perspective to an over-corrected far-right perspective to one that is determined to be no-party-only-Catholic, and yet — especially when I watch double-standards fly by, my sense of justice is flicked and I still manage to light a fuse.”

    I resemble this remark. Except more unfortunately for me, it was capitalism, not prayer- that caused all three changes. Due to that I’m now such a cynic that my sense of justice is overloaded just walking down the street every day.

  • Mike

    The annonominity of comment boxes even when you use your full name I think has led to much of the non-civil discourse. It’s so easy to write nasty stuff when you are typing on a screen and actually don’t see the other person. When I read comment threads, sometimes the discussion goes so far astray that it becomes an insult contest for the sake of insult. I love to debate and discuss issues, but at least for me when it becomes too hot and contentious, I just chek out. It’s not worth raising your BP and certainly not worth the potential sins. I often need to take sabbaticals from these sites – for me it’s avoiding the near occasion of sin. Peace

  • Ted Seeber

    And Fiestamom- Mark Shea just yesterday posted a link to a blog on entirely the opposite side- a liberal humanist (definitely NON Catholic) who had several reasons to vote against Obama (many of which should resonate with liberal Catholics as well- topping his list was killing women, children, and guests at Pakistani weddings while targeting terrorists with drones).

  • Victor

    (((“A thousand ages in your sight are as an evening past…”)))

    I quietly wondered what that statement could possibly mean for/in our Twenty-First Century!

    Long story short, a voice, I mean, a thought was heard saying, ‘Be very careful Victor cause what goes around comes around!’

    That’s not possible! Right? That can’t be possible! Right? Anyway, longer story short, thoughts that every one of my reality spiritual cells will go round and around until we get “IT” all Right.

    Hey, I replied qietly! Does that mean that sinner vic has to relinquish his 92% hold of my reality spiritual flesh cells and give some more of “IT” to “Jesus” who owns 7% of me, myself and i and some say “IT” is because He’s The Omega?

    Folks! I never got a convincing thoughtly answer but “I’M” willing to bet the alpha gods that my soul has received at least “ONE” percent cause “IT” adds UP to 100% if ya know what “I” mean?

    Go Figure!

    I hear ya! Victor! Have you skipped your meds today? :)

    Peace

  • FW Ken

    I quit reading blogs for Lent this past year and have found it easier to skip over the toxic comments without adding to the toxicity. “Easier” only and I have slipped from time to time, but a break helped.

    But I think its realistic to remember that politics on the U.S. have always been… shall we say…intense. Adams and Jefferson went at it (some of the polemics are available online). Jackson’s wife was driven to the early grave. Think about this: “Ma,ma where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha”. American politics have always been hardball. I’m not saying its ok, just that its not a sign of impending doom.

  • Pingback: Bookworm Room » Have we moved past the possibility of civility?

  • Tom

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYymnxoQnf8

    This happened on prime-time television in the “golden age of civility”. As far as I’m concerned, civility can never actually be perfect or dead.

    John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson also savaged each other, to add to the list ferom Ken, to the point where Adams was accused of being a pimp for the Czar of Russia. You have to give them creativity points, at least.

  • Brian English

    It is no longer 2008. We have seen this guy in action for four years. Yet we have polls coming out showing that 45% of CHURCH-GOING Catholics are saying they are going to vote for him. Catholics who are going to vote for Obama have to be called on it, and the time for soothing tones is over.

  • Will

    I read some blogs and comments, but comment infrequently. Some people do not act or write in a Christian manner.

  • http://www.patheos.com Amy

    St. Bernard (1090-1153) is credited with saying, “ It is hard to say what is worse, to injure others by words or to listen to one who does.”

    I, too have tuned the shrill off and continue to focus on praying.

  • http://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com/ Todd Flowerday

    “Yet we have polls coming out showing that 45% of CHURCH-GOING Catholics are saying they are going to vote for him. Catholics who are going to vote for Obama have to be called on it, and the time for soothing tones is over.”

    And some of us who might be voting for neither candidate might want to call others out on voting for Gov. Romney. Wasn’t this thread about civility?

    My first inclination is to blame the anonymous internet. But in reality, I suspect it is the laziness, particularly of the Right, to decline to engage as friends with the people with whom they disagree. Pseudonymous people are easy to demonize. Much harder when you see a person of a different ideology raising good kids, being kind to animals, active at church, and working like a dog to make ends meet.

    I can’t say I see much of that effort on many Catholic blogs or in conglomerates like Patheos.

    Not always, but often when I read conservatives suggesting, “In the urge toward civility, we must not allow ourselves to be stricken dumb by the soft-tyranny of “be nice”,” what they really seem to be saying is that they want to bash the other side while being freed from troubling confrontations. I respect our host as a good writer, but she’s not the best spokesperson for civility. On the other hand, Nixon did go to China …

    I don’t have any easy answers. I think the truth+civility is darned difficult in families, let alone among friends. I have suggested for ten years to various bloggers with whom I disagree that it might be worth putting our heads together in real time and work some things out. Very rarely does that get taken seriously. I see our host adding a lot of like-minded people to her operation here–I don’t think Patheos is a very convincing voice for civility. But there’s always room for change. Or conversion.

  • http://www.patheos.com Amy

    Here is a site you might be interested in, Todd. RespectfulConversation.net. A place for civility.

  • ahem

    The incivility, at least, as far as language is concerned, goes back to leftist university students of the late 60s. Their main goal was to bring the American edifice down, and they fought on multiple fronts to tear our culture apart: anti-social behavior was a weapon. The word ‘suck’ , for example, was coined then, and I remember how utterly shocked I was when I first heard it. People never before said such things to each other. Lots of f-bombs became common in private conversation at that time, too, depending on your social group, even though it was not accepted in polite society, public discourse, or the media.

    You’ll notice that political discourse gradually started to decline when the Boomer generation got to be about 40 and started attaining important political postions, about 20 years ago. (Also, the appearance of politicans who had experimented with drugs.) In parallel, the language featured on television also declined. Swearing, even though bleeped out, is now rampant even in so-called ‘family hour’ programming. So it’s not only a question of political discourse: There’s been a cheapening of our society under the guise of leftist revolution for the last 30 + years.

    Base discourse is now reaching its apogee–or nadir, depending on how you look at it—in the perpetually-angry child ego state and accompanying swearing you hear on the political Left. Now that these fully propagandized and uncontrollable descendants of the SDS and Weathermen have completed their long march through the Democrat party, it’s almost all you hear. Thus, the only thing Whoopi could say to Ann Coulter yesterday was “Bullshit.” That’s an exclamation, that’s not an argument. But it passes for politcal discourse on the Left. Orwell was right: every years, fewer and fewer words… The ideas of the Left have been boiled down to their pavlovian essences: it sucks, it’s bullshit, f*ck you, sexist, and —the ultimate—racist.

    Leftism is greatly invested in cheapening the language and level of discourse as it abets its efforts to render a democratic populace too stupid to contest its designs. I suspect, too, that the philosophical movement in the 20th century to “deconstruct” language is a marxist gambit to leech all meaning from language and thus make it impossible for free people to to argue against marxism’s lies and illusions to preserve their freedom.

    And it works. Almost half the population is going to vote for Obama.

  • http://Janehartman.com Jane Hartman

    I’ve read many of the Catholic blogs and the lack of civility on them makes me wonder whether I did the right thing in converting to the Catholic church. The worldly, carnal blogs have an excuse for unkindness. But some Catholics bloggers wear their meanness as a badge of honor. We have to speak the truth but in love because that will be the only thing that sets us aside. Otherwise we’re just as shrill and as heathen sounding as the non-Christians and who knows? Some bloggers may be masquerading as Christians. But you’re right- “in the end, it’s that things are said and how they are said that matters to our souls and society.”

  • SDN

    Once upon a time, the United States faced the question of whether one man could demand that another man give up his entire life to serving the first man’s desires. If one looked at that question’s answer only through the prism of the examples you cite, there would have been no fight to overturn slavery, because it wouldn’t have been “civil”.

    Now, we are at the same point, facing the question of whether slavery has become more acceptable because it is imposed by government regulation.

    At some point, and we are reaching it, civility must take a back seat to freedom.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    I believe the current lack of civility is due to the 60′s. Remember when we were all supposed to “Speak truth to power”, “Stick it to the man!”, with no respect for feelings, or courtesy, because courtesy was just a middle-class concept, and telling the truth (actually, pushing a certain ideology) was supposedly more important than respecting somebody else’s point of view. Naturally, this has had an effect on society as a whole. Also, the coarsening, and degradation of our language, where the F-bomb is now common in everyday conversation. It hasn’t made us more honest—just more mean.

    Also, the influence of Alinsky, and the Left; remember Alinksy saying that ridicule is the most important weapon you can use against an opponent? The Left, especially, is quite good at using thjis technique. When all else fails, they start shouting insults. Their opponents, being only human, frequently respond in kind.

    And, I also think that, since 9/11, there’s a general feeling, among those who don’t like the way our country’s headed, that we must speak up, and speak up now, or we may lose our country forever! Meanwhile, the Left fears losing its hold on the schools, and the media, and would really like their opponents to just shut-up. (The internet certainly provides people with a way to speak up!) Add to this, the Left’s cult-like devotion to Obama, and their unwillingness to let him be criticized, ever. . . well, it’s an Irresistible-force-meets-immovable-object moment.

    We live in all too interesting times at the moment, and, depending on what happens in the future we may soon have far more serious things to worry about than rudeness on the internet.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    SDN, at some point, I think civility must take a back seat to speaking up against the imposition of Sharia law in America, and our current administration’s efforts to push the same, and get rid of the First Amendment.

  • Brian English

    “And some of us who might be voting for neither candidate might want to call others out on voting for Gov. Romney. ”

    Have at it. I can’t wait to read your justifications for putting Obama back in office for four more years, which is exactly what you will be doing by voting for an absurd third-party candidate.

    “Wasn’t this thread about civility?”

    Yes, and my point is the time for that has passed. People can no longer claim that they don’t know exactly what Obama is. That is why I applaud Archbishop Chaput and Bishop Paprocki for their reality checks.

    “Much harder when you see a person of a different ideology raising good kids, being kind to animals, active at church, and working like a dog to make ends meet.”

    People can do all those things and still support positions that are dangerous to the Church and the country.

  • http://catholicsensibility.wordpress.com/ Todd Flowerday

    Brian, one problem I see in your last post is that essentially you espouse the principle that the ends justify the means. A person can be rude, vicious, and deceptive if a good end, namely the election of her or his favorite political candidate, is achieved.

    Archbishop Chaput, to cite your example, lives in a state where Catholics polled are swinging five points toward the president compared to 2008. That same president, by the way, has a better chance today of picking up Arizona or Montana than he has of losing the Keystone state. That bishop shut down his diocesan print organ a few months ago, too, right? It sure seems to me that lay Catholics are pushing back against their shrill bishops. They seem to disagree with you about the danger.

    On November 7th, you and a lot of other Catholics will almost surely be living with four more years of an Obama administration. I might say that we all survived eight years of his predecessor. But if you want keep spewing the anger, feel free. But don’t be surprised when your more sensible neighbors keep their distance.

  • Brian English

    “A person can be rude, vicious, and deceptive if a good end, namely the election of her or his favorite political candidate, is achieved.”

    Where do I engage in any of that? What I object to is “civility” being defined in a way intended to silence Catholics who are pointing out that other Catholics are disregarding the first principles of the Church (usually for their own economic interests).

    “It sure seems to me that lay Catholics are pushing back against their shrill bishops.”

    You consider Archbishop Chaput to be shrill? I take it you define shrill as meaning “someone who says things I don’t want to hear and makes me feel bad about myself for doing the wrong thing.”

    “They seem to disagree with you about the danger.”

    Well, if you look at history, people have very often not recognized dangers until it was too late. And I am still waiting for your explanation of how Catholics who vote for Romney are no better than Catholics who vote for Obama.

    “I might say that we all survived eight years of his predecessor.”

    Now you reveal yourself. Identify for us the ways Gerge Bush attacked the Church. Say what you want about Bush, but he didn’t try to drive the Church out of the public square the way Obama has.

    “But don’t be surprised when your more sensible neighbors keep their distance.”

    You mean “sensible” neighbors who think like you? Promise?