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Random Thoughts on Poor Internet Discourse

Random Thoughts on Poor Internet Discourse June 19, 2021

[compiled from seven Facebook posts: dated 2016-2019]

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Thought Police and Shutting-Up of All Legitimate Dissent is Now Standard Practice Online (Even for Christians) (6-4-16)

Now it’s very common to demonize and savage someone, simply because they dared to express a different opinion. We talk about the thought police and PC and censorship.
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But on so many (most?) Christian (including Catholic) sites online, where any significant discussion takes place, the game seems to be to make any person who disagrees with the “in crowd” the worst possible scumbag and slime ball in the history of the world. That’s assumed (minus any compelling evidence), and then everyone joins in, to slander and defame. Safety in numbers . . .
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Sadly, this is a trend online that has been going on for years. I’ve always spoken out against it, and do now. My concern is free speech and ethical Christian discourse.
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If no one can ever disagree about anything (even in a tentative, partial way) without being publicly slandered and attacked, then free speech is nonexistent. I would say that rational thought itself is in question. It’s a ganging-up, bullying mentality. I’ve seen it 500 times all over the Internet, for 20 years (but it’s worse than ever now).
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In Orwellian groupthink, anyone who makes a legitimate dissenting observation that may be a “minority” view in any given environment, is immediately tarred as a scumbag; the worst kind of human being. This is pathetic; ridiculous beyond all description. There is virtually no rational discourse anymore online, as soon as there is the slightest disagreement expressed.
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The Christian online community is now almost indistinguishable from the thought police that have characterized the new left for 50 years: trying to shut down any intelligent discussion and demanding that everyone be in clonelike conformity: and if they aren’t, then they are wicked, evil people. It’s the triumph of postmodern relativism and subjectivism. One again, we Christians are observed to act exactly like our secular counterparts.
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It’s also the same exact tactics that we see in Democratic political campaigning for President every four years. All Republicans are racists and homophobes and chauvinists simply by virtue of not being a Democrat.
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Now, if anyone dares to disagree with the Big Cheese on any given page, with their (too often) sycophants and fan club followers that take their every word as GOSPEL TRVTH, and fight tooth and nail for everything they utter, then it is off to the dog races, and everyone jumps into the feeding frenzy to annihilate the Wicked Evil Dissenter and make sure no one ever extends to him or her the slightest bit of charity and benefit of the doubt ever, for the duration of their pitiful life!
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I exaggerate and generalize, of course, to make a point (it’s the nature of a “jeremiad” of this sort), but sadly, this is not far off the mark at all, in countless incidents of this sort that take place daily online. I just witnessed an absolutely outrageous example of it, which is what stimulated this post.
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I’m convinced that it’s the fruit of relativistic, subjectivist postmodern culture, fueled by the impersonal nature of the Internet, which multiplies the bad traits already in place by 100. This is the new normal. Those of us who resist and criticize it will be attacked and thought to be hopelessly “old-fashioned.”

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Bring it on. I aim to keep acting as a Christian should, as opposed to a loudmouthed, slanderous PC, self-righteous, self-deluded sort of secularist who can’t stand the slightest criticism. Now many CHRISTIANS act like that.
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I’ve had supposed “friends” who turned on me like I was Satan, at the first big disagreement. All of a sudden this person (me) whom they thought was nice enough to be friends with became the devil incarnate, simply because of disagreement with them.
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Friends (like spouses) are able to endure disagreements, even major ones, if there is the necessary foundations of respect and charity. I think it’s the difference between saying, “if you believe THAT, you’re a scumbag!” and “well, if even YOU [my dear friend] believe that, there must be something to it that I need to seriously consider.”
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The first is selfish and arrogant and ultra-judgmental. The second is respectful, grants the benefit of the doubt, and is consistent with past friendly behavior.

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I wrote this over a year ago [2015]  (see how well it fits with YOUR experiences):
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My Three “Laws” Concerning Online Discourse (actual or mere facsimiles thereof):
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Armstrong’s Law #1: It is virtually 100% certain that when anyone (including, sadly, Catholics) starts to vigorously disagree online, some sort of ad hominem insults will start flying, and misrepresentations of opposing views will inevitably occur.
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Armstrong’s Law #2: If someone personally attacks and lies about another person and/or his opinions, and the recipient merely defends himself against false charges and objects to the calumnies, he will inevitably be accused by some or many observers of engaging in exactly the same behavior as his attacker, as if the two were “immoral equivalents.”

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Armstrong’s Law #3: When there is strong disagreement, inevitably virtually all online discussions about it will immediately be diverted to anything OTHER than what the dispute is actually about: personalities, or “psychoanalysis” of the guy who disagrees, or wholesale mockery and silliness (generally, postmodernist subjective mush over against objectively determined facts). Anything and everything that can be thrown (very much like dog poop on a wall) in order to avoid actually dealing with the topic at hand will be brought into play. The ancients called this sophistry. We may also call it “obfuscation” or “obscurantism.”

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I’m very proud that my websites and Facebook pages have been nice environments for respectful discussion for 19 years now. They are because if a person isn’t civil and starts attacking anyone else, they won’t be allowed here long. You gotta zap the cancer and the poison right away or it’ll spread every time. That is how I can have this (I think) pleasant atmosphere. But one must consistently enforce that for it to work.
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I do the “three strikes and you’re out” approach. First, I delete. On the second occasion, I delete with (usually) warning. On the third occasion, I delete and ban the person as a troll and violator of my rules and expressed intentions. I expect anyone who knows anything about me to abide by the norms for discussion that I have established for now 20 years online.
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Essentially, it is a “zero tolerance” policy regarding insults and trolling, but with two warnings or two chances to reform behavior. That allows for “forgiveness” of temper tantrums, bad hair days, temporary insanity, etc. But if a person does the stupid stuff three times, and against my express wishes for my site, that’s more than enough evidence to ban.

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Most people really don’t like dialogue and debate at all (6-9-17)
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Every once in a while I realize anew that this is the case. I’ll be going along, in some combox, commenting in friendly disagreement, out of my love for ideas, the back-and-forth, and being challenged (so I can grow and learn, myself). Then it occurs to me that the other person is likely regarding my challenge as a personal affront or putting him or her on the spot. And they don’t like that, and so (often) will start insulting or disappear (or just quickly change the topic).
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Sometimes I figure this out with regard to friends, with whom I usually agree. But as soon as a disagreement comes about, one sometimes observes a very different side of someone. Some of that may be personal insecurity, some of it pride (if we’re embarrassed to ever be wrong, it’s usually that). I don’t make those judgments in specific cases, but I know for sure when there is discomfort and unease. The person manifests that very quickly if it is gonna come out.

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I LOVE it when people challenge ME in this way. It’s an opportunity to either 1) clarify (if I conclude that the challenge fails or misunderstands my argument), or 2) modify or retract my opinions in order to be more in accord with truth and facts (if the challenge succeeds). Either way is a net gain. And the gain is towards the TRUTH, not for me to always be right. Truth and facts are what they are. Our responsibility is to determine what they are, and follow them.
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It’s one of my crosses to bear: to love dialogue and intellectual challenge in a world that generally despises both. Oh well. I’d rather be this way than not this way.
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Two Ways That the Devil Works Against Rational Argumentation and Dialogue (11-4-17)
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Today, many people literally EQUATE [rational, amiable] “argument” with “quarrel” so that it is inherently a bad word for them, just as many seem to think that “tradition” is inherently and always a bad word. Say someone grew up in a household where the parents were constantly quarreling when they disagreed (ugly acrimony), and/or in a house where no disagreement was ever allowed to be aired. They will tend to think this because of background conditioning.
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In other words, today we’re not merely grappling with (as we always have) arguing gently and with love, but with the idea that we ought not argue at all about anything, no matter how loving we are. People think that either because of what I noted above, or because they are in such a subjective mush that they no longer think it is worth anyone’s time or effort to debate propositions as more or less true or false or good and bad: which is a different problem: that of pure subjectivism.
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Both of these things are the devil’s victory.
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“Dialogue is Dead” #2 (1-26-18)
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In a true, constructive dialogue, the critic actually deals with opposing arguments and directly shows how and why they are insufficient. They don’t simply give their own alternate opinions, with no reference to the opposing ones. But we are in an age where true dialogue is virtually nonexistent. It drives me nuts, but if people are never taught how to properly dialogue, this is what we are left with: Person A says X and Person B says Y or “Person A believes X because of nefarious Reason Z” (i.e., a fallacious ad hominem attack), and never the twain shall meet.
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If all a commenter is interested in is saying Y to my X, but never showing how and why my X is wrong and shouldn’t be believed, that doesn’t advance the discussion or achieve dialogue, so I ain’t interested.
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It shows no respect or courtesy to a writer who has taken the trouble to carefully construct an article, to completely ignore HIS or HER specific argumentation and to simply give one’s own different opinion. There is no interaction with the author’s arguments when that takes place.
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But this is standard procedure online in our postmodern times, because everything is subjective. Like I said, merely giving Opinion B over against the writer’s stated Opinion A is not dialogue. That is mutual monologue or “ships passing in the night.”
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It’s hard to go against the overwhelming practice and methodology, but being different or unpopular has never stopped me, if I believe what I am writing is true (as I always do). My goal is reason, facts, and truth: not popularity and being rapturously loved by one and all.
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Online Feeding Frenzies vs. Christian Compassion Towards Hurting, Agonized Souls (3-27-18)
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1 Corinthians 13:2 (RSV) And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
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I wrote the following observations in a case where there was a friend of mine clearly suffering and hurting and going through a personal crisis (and I knew for sure that this was the case). I was trying to convince an entire thread / “feeding frenzy” to stop blasting her, for some not-perfectly-expressed remarks she made. The particulars of the debate and who was right or wrong about what are unrelated to my present point, which is about basic Christian compassion and charity.
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She obviously is going through a hard time, and I don’t think a public thread and everyone piling on (regardless of the debate in this instance, which is a separate issue) is helpful in the situation. I think Catholics ought to have a bit more discernment than piling on someone who is clearly struggling emotionally or spiritually. If we spent more time praying for such people and being more understanding instead of writing about them in public, I submit that it would be far preferable and with better results.
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We all say things we shouldn’t say if we are upset.
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I oppose all online insulting, period, and I don’t and won’t countenance it on any of my sites. I’m not saying [Name] said nothing wrong.
But she’s HURTING. H-U-R-T-I-N-G. That’s time for the political and logical analysis to stop and the human concern and compassion to kick in. If someone says they’re about to leave the Church, we reach out to them, just as we would if they said they were gonna kill themselves or some lesser thing, but still very serious.
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I think the nature of the dispute and the fact that she is hurting a lot right now (I don’t know the particulars), requires, I think, a cessation of a public pile-on and switching into very different gears and modes. The situation calls for compassion and charity, and a temporary ratcheting down of the reasoned argument, because other completely different factors are in play, and it becomes a question of timing and sensitivity.
I know from mutual friends that she is going through a very hard time right now. I’m not saying she is perfect; only that she is a hurting individual and that it’s not gonna help that to have dozens of people in public saying she is a terrible person. She’s not. I know her fairly well online.
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If she’s actually walking out of the Church, the proper Christian reaction isn’t to kick her as she leaves, and decry all her faults, but to say that we care, and to come and talk about the deeper issues that led her to such a despairing place. She’s our sister in Christ. It’s not rocket science to figure out that a hurting person would say that she was leaving the Church. And it’s very likely things going on in her life that are separate from this current mess.
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Anyone ought to figure out that she is hurting, by the extremity of her language: just like if a married couple is having a spat and all of a sudden one of them says, “I’ve had enough of this marriage! I give up!” That’s a time to calm down, get to root causes and switch gears: not to ratchet it up all the more.

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Some people are more sensitive than others. People have all kinds of problems. My wife’s best friend’s mother just died yesterday, and my wife drove her friend (who is blind) down to West Virginia. People could be going through any number of things we don’t know about. Someone crying out that they will leave the Church shows that this is the case (assuming the person isn’t some wild fanatic, which [Name] isn’t).
[it was stated that the remark about leaving the Church was interpreted simply as venting]
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I think you just made part of my argument for me. It’s just blowing off steam: not to be taken literally? Okay, let’s assume that is the case. Why create a new thread over THAT: where 90% of the participants bash her as some moron: just for blowing off steam, as we all do? It’s what I call an online “feeding frenzy”. I’ve been the subject of these myself, countless times. It’s extremely unpleasant.
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That makes no sense (the “blowing off steam” scenario). If you thought that, then it’s a pretty lame excuse for making a thread like this about a fellow Catholic: with many mocking her because she blew off steam. Now we all get together and yuck it up about what an irrational idiot she is. Like that is edifying and charitable? It’s now up to 101 likes and many comments.
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I’ve been writing critically about these sorts of phenomena online for 20 years. It’s not just this thread. It’s the fact that this sort of thing goes on all the time and few seem to want to stop and think how bad it is to do this to another person. It’s very disturbing: groups of people getting together and agreeing that Person X is undesirable in some way that requires he or she having to face the criticism of a bunch of people at once.
The more strongly folks believe things (whether they can rationally defend them or not), the more they tend to get polemical and start to caricature and demonize opponents, which is not good or helpful.

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We’ve all done it at one time or another and we all have to be vigilant to avoid it. This is not at bottom a political problem, but a lack of charity, which often afflicts all of us, of whatever political persuasion. I condemn lack of charity WHEREVER it is found. I couldn’t care less about the political affiliation of the one doing it.
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We’ve ALL engaged in this predatory “feeding frenzy” behavior online: every one of us, at one time or another. We need to repent and try to avoid such behavior in the future like the plague.
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I don’t think we can sum this sort of thing up or explain it primarily using a political analysis. The key dynamic is the “us vs. them” / polarized / echo chamber mentality, which usually comes down to *or is immediately precipitated by) political or theological differences, but works both ways. Various political and theological sides trash others. It’s not confined at all to one group only.
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Thus, it is a charity problem that precedes all political and theological analysis. These existing, prior differences simply spark the frenzy and subsequent caricatured stereotyping and demonization of the despised, detested Other Guy.
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G. K. Chesterton on True Dialogue (Which is Virtually Extinct Today) (6-5-19)
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This is the essential idea, that all good argument consists in beginning with the indisputable thing and then disputing everything else in the light of it. (Illustrated London News, “Taking Reason by the Right End,” 11-7-08)
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Only, as is commonly the case today, hardly anybody makes any attempt at defining the thing he is always denouncing, finding it much easier to denounce than to define. (Illustrated London News, “On Sentimentalism,” 8-20-27)
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Nothing is so bright and cheering as a hostile statement that is really to the point; an opponent who does really see the point, even if he points at it in derision. (Illustrated London News, “England and Dogmatic Christianity,” 2-9-29)
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People generally quarrel because they cannot argue. People do not seem to understand even the first principle of all argument: that people must agree in order to disagree. (Illustrated London News, “The New Generations and Morality,” 3-9-29)
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But they were quite incapable of seeing where their own line of argument was leading them; and I have found that this particular sort of blindness is very much more prevalent than I had myself supposed; perhaps, much more prevalent than the alternative of sight. (Illustrated London News, “On Arguing in a Straight Line,” 6-21-30)

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What I object to is one of the debaters coolly announcing at the start that everybody in the world thinks as he does, or that anybody in the world who thinks differently does not think at all. Only certain opinions were called enlightened opinions; only certain policies were called enlightened policies; as if it were not a question of convictions being held, but merely of concrete facts being seen; and that, if they were once seen; there were no two opinions about them. (Illustrated London News, “On Assuming Too Much in Debate,” 8-22-31)
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On Online vs. “Real Life” Behavior (Both Atheists and Christians) (8-6-19)
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I wouldn’t tar a whole group [atheists] with the one brush. That would be the same sort of prejudice we are objecting to. I think it is at least equal parts of the negative and toxic atmosphere of online discussion forums. Christians act almost exactly the same way. I’ve been called far worse things by fellow Christians than atheists ever called me.
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But there is no question that atheist forums online are almost universally of this boorish, condescending, asinine nature. I’ve never seen one that wasn’t, and I am very well-experienced in debate with atheists.
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Various groups behave far worse online, and the Internet experience does not by any means represent the whole. I know this to be the case, from my own long experience (over 40 years) in person with folks of every conceivable belief-system, including atheists. When I once did a little talk (more Q & A) with a group of 16 atheists — me being the only Christian in the room –, only one person was rude and boorish, and he was rebuked by at least two other atheists. Apart from him, I was treated with the utmost courtesy and kindness: with which I was most impressed. It was the most enjoyable evening of apologetics discussion that I ever had in my life.
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So no one can tell me that “all” or “most” atheists are of the type that we almost always see online. The dynamic is almost exactly the same with Christians, too, as I noted.
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Photo credit: AlLes (11-18-17) [PixabayPixabay License]
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Summary: I collected several Facebook posts having to do with Internet discourse & how badly we routinely treat each other online. How can it ever be reformed? Each of us must look at ourselves.
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