Finding the right amount of unpleasantness

It’s ok, it’s for the theatre

There’s some very helpful feedback on the recent commenting/housekeeping/debate tactics post.  I’m going to highlight and briefly respond to a few people, and then hopefully we can get back to content-y posts to practice constructively commenting on!

Emily wrote:

I’m really wrestling with at what point I need to walk away from even reading comments here. The tone and mix of commenters has really changed a lot recently, and frankly, I think Adam’s right. I’m glad you’re writing in a measured and thoughtful way toward your new audience but trying to take part is turning me into a jerk a little bit – instead of being able to engage in reasoned debate for very long, I find myself bubbling up with what feels like “righteous” rage all the time, trying not to express much of that counterproductive emotion in writing, and then just ranting to my husband about it. Basically, I’m spending way too much time and energy in “someone’s wrong on the internet!” mode.

This isn’t a “you should fix this” complaint. It’s your blog and this whole post was about why you’re running it as you are! It’s just ironic that as one of your somewhat long term Christian readers, I’m finding your site far more morally challenging now that you’re a convert than when it was an “atheist” blog. I thought Catholics and Protestants had more in common than not but we seem to be able to set each other off pretty well.

I sympathise, and I appreciate Emily speaking up. I don’t want the roughness of the blog to make every discussion feel like a war (even if we manage to make it a really polite war).  I don’t want engaging with the people I most disagree with to drive off the people I sometimes disagree with.

When people feel like Emily does, speak up, and let me know if there have been some comment threads that felt particularly useful and some that were particularly wretched.  Was there anything you noticed that helped save a discussion or derailed a debate?  I don’t want a quiet majority to become quietly absent.  There’s room for experimentation.

I’d actually quite like to try out weirder comment rules for specific threads at some point on the future:

  • Paired threads where you argue your true belief with an opponent in one chain and both of you switch sides for the other.  Do the second one first, so you can see what your opponent thinks you think.
  • An ‘only polite’ thread where any comment about how stupid or hateful someone is gets whited out by me (or flagged and people show possible ways to rewrite).
  • A ‘rewrite’ thread (inspired by an improv game) where we take a couple assertions and try to rewrite them on a 1-10 scale from least aggressive to most aggressive

But, in the day to day blog, my normal approach is not to stay on a very crazy topic for too long.  I came back to gay marriage because I thought the “How would you react to someone trying to break up your marriage” reframe was new and helpful.  I assume I’ll leave the topic lie for a while unless I think I might say something you haven’t heard before or just see a really helpful case study in how to change your mind in a discussion.

The next big thing I’ve got coming up is the Sondheim discussion (still time to watch Company on Netflix), and I imagine that will lend itself to better discussion, since people aren’t trained to see every conversation on this topic as an intensely political fight.  (Though, remember, my example of being personally unable to walk away from a fight is from an argument about Sondheim’s Assassins).

Of course, my last, favorite resort is just blogging about how much I love math and science until the trolls are muted slightly.  Pulchra vincit omnia.

So let me know when you think a topic change is in order, if you have suggestions to improve discussion, or just better ways to avoid falling into the Someone is wrong on the internet trap.  Personally, I’ve started taking aikido.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Tom

    Righteous rage is pretty relative. In your last post you you said something about people getting angry is DATA and that is important for expressing tone. Dan Cathy said something about being “guilty” of believing in traditional families/marriage and he caused quite a lot of “righteous rage”. Oh and he was answering a question for a Baptist Publication. Leah, how would you have consulted him to answer the question in a way that wouldn’t create nationwide righteous rage hysteria? I guess what I’m saying is, maybe people need to lighten up. You are posing some challenging thought experiments, which is the reason I am here. Sure, I can sit in the choir and get preached too or get go over the other side and get the “righteous rage” flowin’ – but I’m here, because some of this isn’t easy and I appreciate the honest dialogue and “good faith” while so many others are only interested in bullying into submission.

  • math_geek

    One thing that frustrates me about the complaints about hatefulness is that they do not seem to cite anything. If a statement is being identified as “hateful” I’d like to know what that statement is.

    I think conservative Christians get tired of being called hateful for holding a political position, especially a political position still within the mainstream of public opinion. Gay Marriage was first legalized in the Netherlands in 2001, suggesting it is a new idea. The Stonewall Riots were in 1969, not in my lifetime, but certainly my parents’. Conservatives are naturally suspicious of new ideas and Christians have to negotiate how our relatively new understanding of Homosexuality interacts with our sexual ethic as well as our call to love people. I can only really discuss this from a Catholic perspective, as I am not a Protestant.

    Church teaching against homosexual acts are part of a sweeping sexual ethic that includes proscriptions against extra-marital sex, birth control, coitus interruptus, etc. While I have some issues with the sexual ethic my Church proposes, I am wary of being rid of it and replacing it with nothing. Part of Catholicism is the awareness that the call to holiness is universal with regards to every aspect of your life, and that includes the bedroom. It is this fact that Sister Margaret Farley was trying to address in her controversial book “Just Love,” which I must remind myself to read. An Atheist trying to persuade a Catholic to a pro-gay marriage point of view often overlooks the importance that having a sexual ethic holds to a Catholic. To convince me, a less conservative Catholic and a reluctant supporter of SSM, that same sex sexual relationships could be “moral”, I would need to have a sexual ethic that incorporated the possibility of such relationships. I don’t have one yet, and because of that, I can sympathize with my more conservative brothers and sisters.

    Calling conservative Catholics isn’t helpful. It’s hurtful and often not true. As I understand Catholic morality, it is generally about me. I have upon myself the responsibility to make moral decisions. If someone honestly believes that supporting SSM is sinful they have a basic obligation not to support it, even if that opposition is rewarded with hostility and scorn.

    I also take issue with the overuse of “hate” to ascribe to people who take political positions you disagree with. It’s not like gay people are the only people facing hardship in part due to government policy. Do politicians who oppose the DREAM act “hate” immigrants? Do pro-choice supporters “hate” babies while pro-life supporters “hate” women? Do supporters of the HHS mandate “hate” the Catholic Church for “hating” women? Do conservatives “hate” the poor while liberals “hate” the rich? This language is honestly exactly the type of divisive uncharitable language Leah is trying to persuade people to drop. What’s worse is the fact that the abuse of the word “hate” is used precisely to dehumanize your opposition. “Look at those hateful people. How awful they are!” In this way we all too often give ourselves “permission” to be cruel or dismissive. In the Catholic worldview, the desire to be cruel to others is a sad part of human nature. It’s not going to go away by legalizing gay marriage. The use of “hate” to label conservative Christians suggests that many people have found their next acceptable target. I often hear it stated that opposers of SSM will be treated much like racists in the future. Consider in your mind how you perceive racism as it is treated/deserves to be treated? Given that, can you really blame conservative Christians for the strength of their opposition? You’ve flat out told them that if they lose, they will be hated and reviled.

    I think it’s important to make moral assessments of people, but not nearly as important as it is to treat everyone with kindness and respect, even when they do things you oppose. I also believe that we should avoid zero-cost signals of morality. It does not appear to cost me anything to say that I support SSM, so in what way does that indicate that I am a good person? I could be lying in order to gain approval. The best measure of whether another person is good or bad is what they are like when being good really costs them something. Only there do we have any incentive not to be good in the first place.

    • Ted Seeber

      I’m already hated and defiled. It’s been 10 years and a few months since 3 women and one man in Multnomah County took it upon themselves to turn me from being a progressive liberal on this issue to a defensive Catholic anti-gay Bigot- and I haven’t changed one iota of my viewpoint in the past 20 years on this subject.

      I am still for AIDS research. I am still against gay bashing. I am still for moving ahead with the American Experiment in this area and reserving marriage to the churches and creating civil unions to replace it- not just for gays, but for everybody. If anything, I’ve come across TO the gay agenda in a way they hate- because I can no longer justify discriminating against the Humong Cambodians just because their belief system includes kidnapping and rape as a part of their marriage rights, or Polygamous Mormons just because I believe heterosexual MONOGAMY is better. EVERY household deserves to be supported by a breadwinner, and have civil union rights based on that breadwinner, be he man, woman, animal, or machine.

    • Matthew

      “I also take issue with the overuse of “hate” to ascribe to people who take political positions you disagree with. It’s not like gay people are the only people facing hardship in part due to government policy. Do politicians who oppose the DREAM act “hate” immigrants? Do pro-choice supporters “hate” babies while pro-life supporters “hate” women? Do supporters of the HHS mandate “hate” the Catholic Church for “hating” women? Do conservatives “hate” the poor while liberals “hate” the rich? This language is honestly exactly the type of divisive uncharitable language Leah is trying to persuade people to drop. What’s worse is the fact that the abuse of the word “hate” is used precisely to dehumanize your opposition. “Look at those hateful people. How awful they are!” In this way we all too often give ourselves “permission” to be cruel or dismissive. In the Catholic worldview, the desire to be cruel to others is a sad part of human nature. It’s not going to go away by legalizing gay marriage. The use of “hate” to label conservative Christians suggests that many people have found their next acceptable target. I often hear it stated that opposers of SSM will be treated much like racists in the future. Consider in your mind how you perceive racism as it is treated/deserves to be treated? Given that, can you really blame conservative Christians for the strength of their opposition? You’ve flat out told them that if they lose, they will be hated and reviled.”

      Two thumbs up. As someone who was initially mildly supportive of gay marriage and who has, since moving towards Catholicism, become mildly opposed it (though convinced that the debate is not very coherent); and as someone who’s the product an interracial marriage that might have been illegal a mere two decades before my birth, I’m more than a little sensitive to both sides of this debate. Tip to SSM supporters: you may ultimately “win” by stigmatizing opposition to SSM but you’re liable to, in the meanwhile, turn some sympathetic people away. I can accede to a world where civil marriage is a recognition of all temporary love-unions (silly and inefficient as that is); but not one in which, in private life, natural law is driven into the dark corners of society.

    • Steve

      Math_geek… While there are pockets of genuine hate and disgust directed towards homosexuals from some Christians, they are a very very small minority and it is unfair to use ‘hate-speech’ as a broad & sweeping categorization of all who disagree with SSM.

      You say “… I often hear it stated that opposers of SSM will be treated much like racists in the future. Consider in your mind how you perceive racism as it is treated/deserves to be treated? Given that, can you really blame conservative Christians for the strength of their opposition? You’ve flat out told them that if they lose, they will be hated and reviled.”

      Not too long ago mixed race marriages were opposed on grounds and by people citing nearly identical reasons as those who currently oppose homosexual marriages. Now, at least where I live, it’s not uncommon to see any sort of mixed race couple and it’s essentially at the point of being indifferent to it. I believe most modern Americans don’t pass moral judgements on mixed race couples (or at least oppose laws against such couples), even if they prefer to marry within their own race. It’s not unreasonable considering the trend in popular opinion, especially amongst younger people, to think that 50-75 years down the road that opposition to homosexual marriage will be viewed in the same way as those who opposed mixed marriages. If Christians find themselves in a position to be lumped together with racists a half century from now, and their solution to this is the double down on their opposition, they have no one to blame but themselves. To be honest I have doubts that the ferocity of the Christian opposition is due to a fear of being labels a ‘a homophobe’, which is a silly term as I don’t see fear of gays as a driving force here. I believe it’s a much more basic & fundamental fear, which is that their worldviews might not be the dominant driving views of the world. It’s difficult to reconcile a worldview of being the 1-true divinely back religion (a common viewpoint amongst many religions) with the reality that this might not in fact be the case. Were beliefs that were so foundational to my worldview challenged in such a manner, I might behave in a similar matter, though I’d be hard pressed to argue the wisdom in doing so.

      People are entitled to their own beliefs, as every individual makes judgements within their own moral framework. If you feel that homosexuality is wrong, for whatever reason, you’re free to feel that way, live your life accordingly and abide by whatever sexual ethics you feel appropriate for yourself.

      People are also entitled to voice their opinions. In doing so however, they invite questioning & criticism of those positions. To knowingly voice a provocative opinion on any subject and then feign surprise when there is opposition is simply disingenuous. In addition, should you feel the need to further defend your position by suggesting that something is morally wrong due to a specific religious tenet, do not be surprised when the attacks on your views then branch off to attacks on your religious views. I’m often puzzled why Christians so willingly use their beliefs as their singular justification for a certain course of action, and then take great offense when their views are challenged. For those who insist on using bible-verse to justify their position, if your slam dunk argument for or against a certain issue comes from a very old book that in addition to a passing mention of homosexuality being sinful, also dictates what food you should eat, what clothes you should wear, and punishment by death for insolent children (values that even the vast majority of Christians thankfully ignore), it might be worthwhile to re-examine your position, rather that simply dig in your heels. I do understand the difficulty of such a suggestion. Tempers rise further when people attempt to legislate narrow moral views or actively support efforts to do so.

      There are valuable reasons for society to set up basic laws to support family units. One reason is that the survival of a society is dependent on the next generation and raising a child (or children) is a difficult, exhausting and financially draining task. While not necessarily required (as some posters suggested), having 2 parents makes the job exponentially easier and provides a bit of a safety net should 1 of the parents die or take off. Encouraging this foundational security through a legally recognized partnership (and discouraging it’s dissolution on a whim) is beneficial to the society. Another reason is that while this doesn’t apply to all people, I think it’s fair to say that many if not most people want the closeness of a marital relationship. The widespread commonality of this emotional connection results in real world issues that are best addressed through a practical legal recognition (joint bank accounts, health decisions, matters of inheritance, etc.). Neither of these reasons (nor any that I can think of or have read) justify the societal awarding of marital rights and privileges based on an otherwise arbitrary distinction of sexual orientation.

      • math_geek

        Thank you for distinguishing between opposition to SSM and “anti-gay hate speech.” It’s important both to respect the Christians who oppose SSM on philosophical grounds as well as to avoid stripping “hate” from it’s meaning. There are real people in this country and others who hate homosexuals. It’s horrible and it needs to be identified and stopped.

        The Catholic Church, the denomination to which myself and many Christians here belong, was generally in support of interracial marriage. We take this “universal” stuff seriously. It has always been opposed to homosexual acts under the same natural law theory it used to support interracial marriage. The Catholic Church, while it uses the Bible for moral inspiration, believes that morality can be determined from natural law and human reason, and it’s arguments against SSM do not rely on the Bible as it’s sole source of evidence. The Church does hold homosexual acts differently than many of the proscribed acts in the Old Testament. Christians do not hold each line item of the Old Testament as binding because we view Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, who replaced that Covenant with a New Covenant to which we belong. He negated specifically the laws about capital punishment (“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”) and divorce (“It is because your hearts were hard that I gave you this law”). After Christ’s ascension, the apostles did away with many of the proscriptions of the Old Testament, including dietary laws, clothing laws, and circumcision. The apostles were generally of the opinion that the proscription against homosexual acts were not part of this “Covenant” but instead were determined as morally wrong. Since we derive our belief in morality from Christ and the early Church, we have (so far) kept this distinction.

        I have some issues with the sexual ethic proposed by the Catholic Church, but I nevertheless vastly prefer it to sexual libertinism. If there is another ethic that is superior, I haven’t found it, but that does not mean that it doesn’t exist.

        My reluctant support for SSM comes from the fact that I think the state should not stop people from doing what they want without a compelling interest. I don’t care so much why two men want to get “married” but rather whether we as a society have an interest in stopping them. I don’t think SSM opponents have made a very strong case here. Their strongest argument lies in the anti-discrimination statues and laws that will be used with harshness against anyone that doesn’t want to make a wedding cake with two women on top or a Christian counselor that refuses to provide counseling to a same sex couple. Freedom in this country (and all countries) includes the ability to do things that you find repulsive, unfair, or immoral.

  • Mark

    The one thing, missing in this whole Catholic blog is Jesus Christ. I do however see alot of philosophical mastubation. It’s easy to get caught up in conversations about sexual morality, what does or doesn’t constitute morality and what should or shouldn’t be changed, but the reality that we forget, probably all too often (myself included) is that sin separates us so much from God’s love, that he hymbled himself, came to earth, became a criminal and allowed his creation to crucify him as an offering for all… because of sin. That is what we must try to remember.

    I think Leah converted as a result of the fact that she couldn’t reconcile Truth with her atheistic beliefs. At what point does truth begin to become real and fixed and not something which needs to be rationalized with debate from our own POV?

  • Doragoon

    I feel the best way to keep the discussion civil is to extend Godwin’s law (don’t mention Nazis) to all talk of politics or civil law. These are the most heated discussions and the ones most likely to draw accusations of hate and the attention of trolls. It doesn’t matter if you think government should be constrained by natural law or by the will of the governed, the question is still about what you think is right, not what government can or should do (the holocaust was legal). People are free to vote based on whatever motivation they want. If you want to change that vote, change their mind on the issue, not on the nature of government.

    If there’s a second rule it would be to stop anyone from criticising the bible, especially to a catholic. It’s not just mean, it shows that you don’t understand your opponent’s position. Catholics don’t believe in Sola scriptura, or biblical literalism. I’m tired of having to explain that to atheists.

    • Passerby

      Sorry, but don’t you consider the bible a source of truth? I understand that Catholics don’t take most of the bible literally, even the Pope ignores Genesis and accepts a god-directed form of evolution, but it’s still one of the foundations of your worldview, isn’t it?

      • Doragoon

        I don’t know how much to trust the orthodoxy of my Jesuit education, but yes, the bible is a source, but the bible doesn’t mean anything on it’s own, it must be read with the context of Tradition (big T).

        A quick internet search turned up Dei Verbum, which came out of Vatican 2. You should try reading it if you’re genuinely interested in learning more about Catholic reasoning on the bible. If not, the Wikipedia page for it seems to answer your questions.

  • Ted Seeber

    The most interesting thing to come out of the last two discussions and thought experiments for me was the realization that I could finally divorce my homophobia (a subset of my anthrophobia) from my beliefs as a Catholic- and articulate those beliefs as an either/or proposition that made no reference to the Bible and only a passing reference to religion.

    I also astounded myself by coming out *strongly* pro-civil-unions-for-all; exactly the same position I’ve held for the past 20 years as the debate changed me from a liberal to a conservative on this topic.

  • Passerby

    The subject of gay marriage is a deeply divisive and emotive one; there’s always going to be some bad feeling created, no matter how carefully you approach it.

    Gay people who want to marry feel that they are being discriminated against because they are being denied rights that heterosexuals have. Naturally that makes them feel angry.

    Opponents of gay marriage seem to feel something fundamental to their worldview is being attacked.

    So, I think the discussion was a civil as can be expected. This is an issue that’s been talked about a lot, the battle lines are deeply drawn. You’d be hard pressed to change anyone’s mind, I think.

    • Erick

      Sometimes it’s not about the changing of one’s mind. I think a great benefit to these interactions is the ability of people on both sides to actually think through and verbalize their positions and to find common grounds with which to talk to each other — two very difficult things to do when one deals with religious belief on one hand vs secular rights on the other.

  • deiseach

    I’m going to blame this blog for giving me nightmares, because due to the most recent discussions, last night I dreamed I was getting married.

    Luckily, at the last moment, I came to my senses in the dream and called the whole thing off. However, who do I blame for the mental anguish and distress I underwent? :-

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  • Kristen inDallas

    A few suggestions: Have you ever thought about giving commenters a character limit? Perhaps per reply or perhaps across the post as a whole. If you know your key strokes are limited, you’re more likely to use them as effectively and judiciously as possible. I’m not ssuggesting anything really short that would cut people off mid-thought, but most of the percieved agression (for me anyway) isn’t the result of a random troll with an inflamatory but stupid comment, it’s the flame wars back and forth between two people who seem to have no interest in reaching any kind of consensus whatsoever. Maybe a policy that forces you to go comment on some other user’s thought string (if even to just say “that’s a good point”) before returning to the flame war. Also, I know of another site, when you submit a comment, it pops up in it’s own editable window prompting the commenter to read it over again and the final submit button is titled “My momma would be proud of what I wrote.” Nobodies hands are tied, but the subtle encouragement is helpful. No idea how much of this is possible through the patheos platfom, but you strike me as the type that could find a way to make anything work if you wanted to.

  • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com Delphi Psmith

    I like the idea of a “rewrite” thread. Great practice in (a) figuring out where your own comments fall in the scale and (b) developing a sense of how to craft a comment that falls right where you want it to. (Then again, I do freelance editing in my spare time, so of course I’d be in favor of it!)


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