The Thomas Aquinas Rules of Online Etiquette

It started with a picnic in a park.

I got involved in a brief discussion with a few acquaintances about the well-known vice of internet trolling.  What surprised me most was hearing about some sort of anti-sexism campaign that had reportedly geo-located certain people making offensive Facebook comments, then purchased billboard ads quoting those people directly in the areas where they lived.  This was reported favorably and, I thought, somewhat condescendingly as a form of shaming that works in those “homogeneous” small-town communities where everybody knows each other.

Maybe it does.  And maybe we would all do well to ask ourselves whether we would want to see our words on a billboard in our hometown before clicking that “post” button.  And that’s arguably not far from what we’re doing anyway when we post online comments, at least when they are under our real names.  But still, I wondered whether the satisfaction derived from that sort of comeuppance isn’t just part of the same problem, another spiraling-out of the self-feeding cycle of vitriol.  When I raised some (less articulate) question to that effect, the person who had told that story responded that when such bigotry that gets put out there is voiced, “you gotta shut that down.”  Which still leaves me with the same question: isn’t that the same kind of thought process that leads to trolling behavior in the first place?  This person is so wrong.  This cannot be let go.  I must SHUT THEM DOWN!

It’s a thought process I’m all too familiar with, I must confess.  Although the above discussion was brief and not at all heated, the same instinct may even be ironically at work in my recounting of it.  Being temperamentally contrarian since long before I had any help from the quasi-anonymity of the internet, I am the chief of sinners on this point.  I have long wrestled with the question of how best to respond to things that demand a response, or seem to in a given moment – including how to tell the difference.

An unexpected insight came, though, when the conversation turned to a lawn game that involves throwing wooden batons at wooden blocks.  As someone explained, at a certain point in the game, “You have to knock down your own before you knock down your opponent’s.”  Systematician that I am, a light came on: that would make a great first rule of online comments.  Furthermore, it would be taking a page from none other than the Angelic Doctor, whose whole methodology famously began by countering his own argument, and in a genuinely compelling rather than merely straw-man way.  Hence, the concept of the Thomas Aquinas Rules of Online Etiquette.

I haven’t thought out what any other such rules might sound like, and I’m really talking more about a kind of thought experiment than anything enforceable.  Still, it wouldn’t hurt for Catholics, and other Christians who appreciate the Thomistic tradition, to start setting an example.  Granted, it would be a bit too much to ask that everyone read the Summa as a prerequisite to online commenting, but “knock down your own point before you knock down your opponent’s” might not be a bad place to start.

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  • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com dismasdolben

    It’s also a very good debating tactic; I ALWAYS tell my “opposition” team to CONCEDE part of the “affirmative proposition” and then go after only what’s left. It’s a tactic that surprises the other side, and knocks them off their guard. And, obviously, when I say that, Julia, you can see that I think it’s an exemplification of the FALSE humility that Nietzsche speaks of in his criticism of the so-called “slave morality” of Christianity–it may be “good manners,” but that’s about all it is, morally and spiritually.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

    A thoughtful suggestion, though I am not sure how it will work in practice. Another one I am learning, slowly, is: sometimes it is better to just walk away. Not every post, not every comment needs to be responded to.

  • Agellius

    I think the principle behind St. Thomas’s procedure is to portray your opponent’s argument in its strongest light before refuting it. Basically, the opposite of the straw man fallacy. You won’t persuade people by refuting a caricature of an argument. But if you give the argument the best possible construction, indeed even help them to make the argument more strongly, then when you refute it, it’s all the more convincing.

    The demands of charity in any case require us to put the best possible construction on our opponent’s remarks. It so happens that it’s also the best thing rhetorically.