The Besetting Sin of Bloggers

The Besetting Sin of Bloggers June 5, 2013

Yesterday, Mark Shea posted a mea culpa about the way he’s interacted with some of his ideological sparring partners.  And, for me, there was one part that really hit home:

[M]y attitude toward Public Figures is much the same.  I tend not to see them as human beings, but as sort of semi-fictional characters.  People who don’t fully exist but who are In the News and therefore symbols or representatives of ideas.

The upshot is this: Irony of ironies, a friend asked me today if I had contacted Lila Rose.  I said that I had contacted her organization–recently.  He said, “Why didn’t you contact her at the start of the contretemps?”   I had no answer.  It had never occurred to me… [A]s the conversation moved along, I was basically thinking on the fly and in public and as opposition to the change of mind increased, it never occurred to me to contact Lila Rose because, well, my argument was primarily with people talking about her and she was a public figure acting publicly like, say, a movie star or politician or philanthopist in the headlines.  And so, instead of doing what Matthew 18 says and going privately and speaking in love, I simply treated her as though she wasn’t so much a person as a thing–a Figure in the Headlines and therefore a means to an end wherein I made some points about things I wanted to say to third parties I wanted to convince.

I’ve had to junk some post drafts when I noticed that I was really stretching a pull-quote in order to have a concrete, high-profile example of the point of view I wanted to argue with.  They weren’t actually the avatar of a position, just a handy place to stick a crowbar.  I’ve surely got some posts that snuck past that filter, where I didn’t pause to make sure I was checking for the most charitable reading, not the one that was most useful to me.

It’s a bad habit I think I mostly picked up in college.  In weekly papers and at debates, I could use texts as a jumping off point for a slightly unrelated idea.  I can start with something everyone in the room is familiar with, and then use it as an entry point or contrast to the point I want to make, without saying much about the intentions of the author.  It’s the kind of thing I do when I’m discussing Sondhiem as a lens on marriage, without talking about Sondheim’s views of marriage.

But it’s a lot easier to make that separation when the author is dead (either physically or just in the postmodern sense).  I don’t need to worry about a dialogue; the text/actions are just a handy, concrete way for me to tussle with an interesting idea.  But when writing online, and publicly, it’s important to be clear if I’m imputing a view or motivation to the author or just talking about a connection that came to my mind.

I find it easiest to make this distinction clear when I’m writing about fiction or theatre.  I’d love to hear from commenters or fellow bloggers about good ways to make it clear that someone else’s writing sparked an idea that’s now several steps removed from the original thing you read.  And do call me out if you think I’ve left this too ambiguous in future posts.

In the meantime, I think Mark has a great insight about consciously looking for ways to connect with the author, instead of treating a text or action as though it was as parentless as Aphrodite.  Once I finished reading Mark’s post, I opened up my email, and sent William Irvine a message to ask if he was concerned about an endurance-treadmill replacing the hedonic one for Stoics, and whether he had any patches for the problem.


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  • tedseeber

    I’m afraid I’ve often done the same to you, Leah. I quite often use what you write as a jumping off for my own agenda, and not just in the comments to what you write, but even in my own blog:

  • If I ever do this, please call me out on it, as well.

    As for making it clear that you’re no longer critiquing a text but talking about what it reminded you of, what I would do (or have done) is explicitly admit in the original post that I’ve moved from the author’s text into a rant of my own. I’m not sure how much that works–readers are entirely capable of overlooking such admissions–but even if it does not work, I think it’s still due diligence. You succeed fairly well at this already, though. The only time I thought there was anything wrong was the Sondheim marriage sequence, which I addressed in my own contribution, and anyway that was mainly a case where your prompt encouraged ambiguity in the guest posts and not so much that your posts were ambiguous themselves.

    That being said, though, I would worry less about the author’s intention, into which you can gain no access, and only about the author’s actual words. Read charitably etc. and so forth, of course, but intentions aren’t you data. Claims are.

  • Ambaa

    This makes me think of an issue that I’ve been writing about for a book. I feel like when I get haters at my blog and people who get really angry with me, they aren’t seeing me as a person but as a symbolic representation of something they hate.

    Like a comment I recently deleted where someone said that people hate Americans because of their divorces. O.o I know that’s nothing to do with me because I’ve never been divorced!

  • Randy Gritter

    Actually wanting to interact with an idea is not bad. Now you want to show that the idea exists somewhere other than your own head. Other people really believe this. Does that matter? If you express the idea well it will often simply be interesting in its own right and you can get your crowbar out. We often attack simpler ideas than people really have. They do think that way and it is helpful to critique the act of thinking that way but they also know things are more complex. So are the quotes fair? Depends. I would say to just admit that this person’s position is more nuanced but I am going to interact just with this one line of thought for the sake of simplicity.

    Interacting with the author is important if the author is a Christian and you are accusing that person of sin. The bible says you must do that privately first. So you are not just risking an uncharitable understanding of the person. You are directly disobeying God.

    Lila Rose is actually a recent convert to Catholicism. Here is her testimony

    I think this is a video version

  • Y. A. Warren

    Thank you for your humility, and for mentioning Matthew 18. This a prescription for peace that is too often ignored.

  • I love that you use a picture of a magpie to illustrate this blog post. Earlier this week I used that metaphor to describe myself, how I tend to be so involved in chasing down a shiny idea that I lose track of the person I’m talking with. I often tend to use internet conversations as a means to follow a line of thought I want to tease out. I usually don’t even realize I’m using the person I’m chatting with as a means to an end until I think back on the conversation in retrospect. I don’t have any suggestions about how to change this pattern of behavior, but I am enjoyin ghte conversation and find some perverse comfort in knowing I’m not the only one who has this particular vice.

  • HermitTalker

    We hate that which we see in ourselves is an ancient truism .Mark puzzles me on FB.

  • Joseph D’Hippolito

    Shea has been ” using people as means to an end” (defaming them, using straw-man arguments and feigning victimization when caught) for more than a decade! It’s his MO. You think some smartly worded “apology” is going to change him?
    Quite frankly, he’s using his readers as a means to his end with this false “apology.”

    If Shea is sincere, he would publicly mention the people whom he has defamed, apologize on his blog, attempt to contact them personally and then get away from his blog for at least a month to “avoid the near occasion of sin.” But he won’t do that. In fact, he’ll go back to the very ways for which he has ostensibly apologized. He’s a pathetic phony and a very, very sick man.