Growing Movement of “Internet Reform” & the Realization of the Worthlessness of Much of Online “Discourse”
As I recently noted (Steve Skojec: “Traditionalism” = “Sewer”, “Toxic”, “Tribalism”), Steve Skojec of the One Peter Five site has recently publicly expressed his disdain for the oft-observed abominable and sub-Christian behavior of what he calls “traditionalists” (and what I call radical Catholic reactionaries: though in fact there is much overlap, as in most large sociological groups). The fact that he has considered himself a part of this group for some thirty years (as well as the significant influence of One Peter Five), is what is so notable about his “speaking out.”
Another development has now occurred in Steve’s continuing odyssey: the idea of the overwhelmingly worthless nature of so much of online dialogue: whether in the traditional / reactionary environments, or (I would say) virtually everywhere else: including very much so (to our shame) Christian sites. Hence, he has just decided to shut down the comboxes at One Peter Five. This is momentous, and in my opinion, a very welcome and bold, principled move. I commend him. Here is how he expressed the reasons for his decision:
I do believe that the very-online version of traditionalism produces more of the kind of nasty judgmentalism and petty tribalism than any other community of folks I’ve run into on the internet, . . . traditionalism, inasmuch as it only exists on the margins of the Church, tends to attract the marginalized. It’s an actually oppressed group of people, and it carries with it both victim status and stigma — and the chip on the shoulder that goes with it. And because traditionalism is, generally speaking, very concerned with the re-institution of rules, doctrines, and rubrics that have been left on the cutting room floor, it easily lends itself to an over-emphasis on checking the right boxes and saying the right things. If you misspeak, if you intentionally say something that’s too cozy with the post-conciliar way of looking at things, you WILL be called out for it.
Unsurprisingly, this makes traddy forums, social media, and commboxes into places that often look like war zones. Admonitions and purity spirals are common features. And it takes a very thick-skinned moderator with a lot of time and patience to wade through hundreds of comments per article — many of them five or more paragraphs in length — to keep things on the level. . . .
It is my personal experience that a lot of folks use comment boxes at their favorite sites to get up on a soapbox and grandstand. It’s easier than building their own platform. They get to hold court and critique whatever they like without ever having to offer anything constructive. . . .
We all need to spend less time arguing online, and more time figuring out how to live right in an age dead set against that. Think about it for a while, and I’m sure most of you will agree. (“Very Online Toxicity & Catholic Commboxes”, One Peter Five, 6-14-21).
He cites at length a similar piece from Eric Sammons, editor of Crisis Magazine (which I would classify as a traditionalist / reactionary-leaning outfit), entitled “The Scourge of Toxic Online Catholicism” (6-11-21). This appeared to strongly influence his decision. I cite selections from Steve’s excerpts from this article:
Any Catholic who’s been online for even a small amount of time quickly encounters the darker side of the Catholic internet. The Catholic subgroup with the biggest reputation for toxicity is the “trads” (traditional Catholics), and while that reputation isn’t wholly undeserved, it’s not any more unique to them than it is to [Mark] Shea and his ilk. Unfortunately, every subgroup within Catholicism has its toxic supporters, ready to attack anyone who doesn’t pass the chosen purity test. . . .
Before I continue I should note that while I do believe toxicity exists in online Catholic circles, I also believe many people today are too thin-skinned. Even a reasoned, balanced criticism is labeled an “attack” these days. It’s a textbook liberal move to play the victim whenever someone dares to disagree, and sadly conservatives have embraced this move as well in recent years. A healthy Church includes vigorous debate; charitable, yes, but not wimpish. Disagreeing is not toxic.
But even granting that people can be too thin-skinned, it’s still true that too often online Catholic debate crosses the line. Why is it that Catholics love to attack Catholics online? . . .
Crisis Magazine is shutting down our own website comment section, effective immediately. This decision is driven by a number of factors, including some related to combatting the problems I noted above. While our comment section has many valuable and charitable contributors, it’s also true that at times Crisis commenters do not reflect the better parts of human nature, and we spend an inordinate amount of our resources moderating the combox.
Bravo to both men! I have comboxes open on virtually all of my 3,300+ blog articles, but I very strictly moderate them: with a strict, “zero toleration” policy regarding insults and nonsense. That’s what is necessary, and both Skojec and Sammons refer to the inordinate amounts of time to monitor their own venues (which have far more traffic than I do).
I’ve been writing about and scathingly criticizing the poor nature of online discourse since at least 2003: the year I decided to largely stop participating in any online discussion forums: which were hugely popular in those days, at the point in time where personal blogs and Facebook were starting to take off. I wrote in my announcement of that departure, “Good Internet Discussion & Dialogue Are Virtually Dead (10-10-03):
As a very broad, general rule of thumb (with many exceptions), I don’t think Internet discussion boards and rooms and lists foster good discussion. I believe that the medium is severely flawed (as many people have noted).
The absence of facial expression, tone of voice, humor, smiles, body language, pauses and vigor of argumentation; the lack of personal contact and getting to know people before launching into discussions of great importance, and so forth, breed many misunderstandings which would otherwise be avoided. To put it another way: people act much differently in these places than in person or even on the phone.
I also think that many people on these boards play to the crowd, and the atmosphere lends itself quite often to a sort of macho enterprise of showing off and sophistry, illegitimate rhetoric and propaganda and polemics, putting others down, “kicking people’s butts” and so on. Boards are places where huge egos thrive, and where they feed themselves at other peoples’ expense.
These factors bring out the lowest instincts and faults of man (particularly spiritual and intellectual pride), feed on human insecurities and petty jealousies, and kill good discussion whenever they are present (which is very often). This state of affairs doesn’t inevitably have to be, but human nature being what it is, that’s how it far too often is.
I want to make it very clear that I don’t deny that there are many, many exceptions to this, and don’t wish to denigrate anyone who enjoys Internet boards. . . .
I have found boards far more frustrating than edifying. Boards operate on an excessively male-oriented approach to human relationships. It’s not balanced. Women understand this very well and do far better, I think. Men can get together and completely skip over the personal, “how are you doing?”, “what’s going on in your life?”, “what has bothered or hurt you lately?”, “how is it going with x, y, or z problem?” They go right to the intellectual and the problem-solving theological, apologetic types of discussions (especially on the Internet).
The problem with such a “disembodied” ideas-only approach is that, oftentimes, once disagreements set in, there was no necessary prior build-up of trust and good will, within which constructive discussion and discourse can only occur (at least for any decent length of time).
So when the disagreements come, usually on these boards, personal insults immediately enter into the previously-constructive and amiable discussion, because the people don’t really know each other. They assume the worst and the accusations fly, because they don’t know the other person well enough to know that they are not closed-minded, obstinate, or some other charge that so often comes out in these discussions. . . .
Why do people still want to engage in discussions, anyway, when there is ill will and bad feeling and little respect between two parties? Well, because it is a macho, competitive, “get the heretic”, “show how ignorant and stupid so-and-so is” mentality (at least that’s my best guess). Why in the world should one try to do a discussion with someone, with all that baggage, coming into it? What’s the point? This is not good-natured dialogue or charitable, gentlemanly discussion. It is a mud-wrestling match. . . .
Dialogue and discussion ought not be about “winning” and “putting people in their place.” It should be about seeking the truth; sharing it when we think we have a bit of it (by God’s grace alone), learning more of it whenever we can, in dialogue with people who care about the issues and truth as much as (or preferably more than) we do. But personal attacks and cynical second-guessing about motives kill discussion, and this sort of nonsense is largely the reason I am through with discussion boards. . . .
Fighting and wrangling (rather than dialoguing) on these boards is a waste of time and energy, is a bad witness to the world, and divides Christians — all of which are the devil’s victories. May God help us to see this. I urge all Christians to deeply examine what occurs in Internet discussions, and if they are contributing to the poisonous, spiritually destructive environment that often is the status quo.
That was written 17 1/2 years ago, and things haven’t gotten any better, have they? They have become much worse, especially with the postmodernist / judgmental / relativist / subjective mentality seemingly reigning supreme everywhere. When I revised this article in October 2016 I added as an introduction:
This paper was originally directed towards “Internet Discussion Boards” and was written before I had a blog (2004) — I had had a website since 1997 — and before Facebook became almost universal (I joined in January 2011), but virtually all of what is observed here fully applies to blogs and Facebook as well. The widespread personal dynamics and faults are the same in all these media: human nature being what it is.
Ironically, I was a paid staff moderator of the online discussion forum for the Coming Home Network from 2007-2010. We had a strict policy of no insults and no-nonsense, and so a great environment for constructive discussion was achieved. I think it’s entirely possible to do this, but the problem is that people so rarely strictly enforce any guidelines that they claim apply to their venue. People want to be liked and loved, and so enforcing rules is difficult for them to do, because some people will become angry. It takes a certain “judicial temperament.” But it’s well worth it. If the “bad apples” are removed, the good apples in the basket can thrive.
This issue has always been a very important one to me: as an apologist who constantly engages in interaction and dialogues and debates online, and as one who majored in sociology in college (thus is interested in group behavior). I think the solution is simple, though very difficult to put into practice: either 1) shut down comboxes, as One Peter Five and Crisis Magazine have done, or 2) very strictly moderate according to elementary Christian ethics.
There is a price to pay for trying to be serious about Christian behavior and the command from Our Lord Jesus to love one another. In shutting down comboxes, one might very well lose a lot of readers and followers: those who like to comment and give feedback (including the relative few who can do it constructively and charitably).
And one might also get falsely accused (as I am all the time) of deleting comments (supposedly) simply because folks disagree, as opposed to the real reason: violation of simple ethical precepts and guidelines. But it’s well worth it. Doing the right thing always is in the long run. We need to seek to be God-pleasers and not people-pleasers (in the worst sense of that term).
War- & Garbage-Free Facebook Zone (Your Search is Over) [between March 2014 and May 2015]
I Actually Enforce My Discussion Policy [10-31-15]
Summary: Two major self-described “traditionalist” venues (One Peter Five & Crisis Magazine) have decided to shut down their comments sections, & eliminate what I call “combox farces.” Bravo!