Casting Out The Unclean Spirit of Vain Contention

Casting Out The Unclean Spirit of Vain Contention July 9, 2015


Okay, so I’ve been deliberating a lot over the past couple of days about how to handle the problem of being a Catholic blogger with a com-box. At my old blog my policy was fairly simple: if you posted something that was a recognizable attempt at English, did not contain any blatant slander, and you weren’t trying to sell black-magic revenge against ex-boyfriends (no, I’m not making that up) then I let it slide. My com-box was generally pretty civil, so I didn’t see a reason to censor people.

Since moving to Patheos I’ve realized that I need a more nuanced policy. The audience here is a lot larger and a lot more varied, and some of the topics that I’m covering are really sensitive and volatile. My approach to “hot-button” issues tends to be more personal/pastoral than political/polemic, and that makes a lot of people feel that they can be open and vulnerable in a way that they might not be in other venues. I want people to feel that this is a safe space to share about their struggles, to receive support, encouragement and perhaps helpful advice from other Catholics. I also want people from others faiths and other backgrounds to feel that they come here and be treated with the sort of kindness and respect that befits a Catholic space.

To that end, I’m going to establish some moral and spiritual guidelines for how people in the com-box ought to behave. I want to be clear upfront that I will be enforcing this a lot more stringently with my fellow Catholics than with visitors from outside of the faith: we are ambassadors of Christ, even when we are on the internet, and to be perfectly frank the state of Christian com-box behaviour is often a serious source of scandal. I’m not really interested in encouraging and enabling that, particularly when it comes at the cost of welcoming people who may be hurt or afraid. If you want to dump vituperation on someone’s head in the name of truth, do it elsewhere: my com-box is not hate-speech positive space.

I’m not going to make hard and fast rules because different levels of sensitivity are going to be appropriate in different situations. One of the problems that I see most often in com-box discussion is that people are talking on different levels: one person is speaking about a very vulnerable personal issue, and other people are piling on with theological arguments. Those same arguments might be perfectly acceptable and appropriate as part of an abstract discussion or a bout of good-natured theological fisticuffs, but in delicate pastoral situations they represent a severe lapse in charity – a complete failure to see the person as a person, not as an ideological or moral error. Having good, solid, swinging intellectual debates is fine provided everyone involved has consented to the fight, in much the same way that tackling the man standing opposite you is fine provided everyone has agreed to play rugby. But in the same way that you can’t just go tackling people in the stands because they are wearing the same colour shirt as the opposing team, you can’t intellectually tackle people in com-boxes just because they agree with your political opponents.

I understand that this may be difficult for some people. I’m raising a kid on the autism spectrum, so I know that social disabilities are a real thing. If you really can’t tell the difference between someone who is sporting for an intellectual fight and someone who is speaking about deeply personal stuff, that’s okay. It’s not your fault. But you need to be aware of it and either ask someone else for advice before posting, or confine your com-boxing to venues where you are sure the discussion is always purely academic. Or even if you’re just quick and ready with an apology if you accidentally hurt someone’s feelings, that’s also fine.

So, enough preamble. My guidelines are as follows, offered in the form of an Examination of Conscience for com-box warriors:

Before posting, please take a minute and consider…

– Have I listened to the person who is speaking with me in order to attempt to understand where they are coming from, or am I just trying to find errors in their statement so I can refute them?

– Have I made an effort to be polite?

– Am I angry? (If you are, please calm down before posting)

– Do I have an uncharitable attitude towards the person I’m talking to? Do I think of them as stupid, ignorant or evil?

– Am I throwing quotations from Scripture, the Catechism or St. Thomas Aquinas at people who are looking for pastoral advice or support in complex personal situations?

– Am I willing to be as vulnerable and honest as the person I’m engaging with?

– If I am hiding behind a pseudonym or posting anonymously, am I allowing my anonymity to let me get away with things I would never say if they could be traced to me?

– Is this something that I would ever say if I was having this conversation with a friend?

– Do I see this person as an individual, or just as an example of a type of person or ideology that I don’t like?

– Do people find my comments helpful or edifying? Do the people I engage with say “thank you” for my contributions to the discussion? (being upvoted is not the same thing – that just means that people who already agree with you are cheering you on.)

– Do I regularly make people angry or cause them offense? If so, do I take responsibility for this, or justify my behaviour by telling myself that they are angry because I am “telling the truth”?

– If I hurt someone in the com-box, do I apologize or retract what I said?

– Do I use the com-box as a place to show off, especially to show off intellectually, spiritually or morally?

– Do I morally, spiritually or intellectually bully those whom I perceive to be inferior to me?

– Am I triumphalistic? Am I doing this to glorify Christ, or am I doing it for the vainglorious pleasure of besting my enemies in public?

– Do I express humility, back down, or admit when I am wrong? (If you are never wrong, this one is definitely a problem for you.)

– Do I have the humility to recognize the difference between my own political or ideological opinions and the teaching of the Church or the message of the gospels?

– Before I post, do I stop and think about whether my post is likely to be helpful, whether it will do anyone any good? (This one only applies if you’re posting advice or arguing with someone – if you’re posting to ask for help or share something personal it’s not relevant.)

Obviously I’ve got the bar set pretty high, and equally obviously I am not a com-box saint – nor do I expect everyone who posts here to be one. We’re all human, and we all have more or less constant lapses in charity and judgement. However, if I see a comment in the com-box that really egregiously offends against one of these principles, especially to the point where I think it could be gravely scandalous, I will remove it. If I see someone who is consistently behaving unkindly, upsetting other people, or constantly picking fights (especially regular com-boxers who only ever post to tell other people that they’re wrong without ever offering encouragement or building people up) then I will ask them to read this post and take it on board before continuing to engage in the com-box.

My hope is that this will help to bring up the level of engagement and create an environment where people can discuss, and even disagree, with charity, kindness and compassion.

I’ve closed the comments here because I really don’t want to get into an argument with that person who’s going to tell me that I’ve misunderstood what vain contention is. Let that person be informed that yes, I did read the section on contention in the Summa like right before writing.

There are a couple of legitimate questions that I would like to answer, however:

Q. Surely you can’t monitor your entire com-box. Can I report someone who is not following the rules?

A. Yes, but only if it’s a really flagrant/repetitive violation. Be patient. Extend charity. Sometimes apparently ugly discussions work out well in the end. If it’s really bad, use the “Contact” button.

Q. What if the moderator is breaking her own rules?

A. Please feel free to use the “Contact” button to privately rebuke me. There is one exception: If I’ve just referred you here because you’re being a nuisance in the com-box, I will recognize your complaint as a blatant tu quoque and I will ignore it accordingly.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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