Friday, April 11, 2008

What's With the State of the Catholic Blogosphere?



I noticed over at Crystal's today that Mark Mossa SJ has decided to stop posting to his blog And I let Myself be Duped. That's a damned shame. Yet another reasonable voice in Catholic blogdom feels compelled to check out. Mossa wrote:
I began blogging after finding myself victim to a certain amount of slander for writing a not wholly complimentary review of a book by George Weigel. In my subsequent dialogue with the author of the post—who publicly apologized for making uncharitable presumptions about me merely based on that review—I thought I saw an opportunity, an opportunity to bridge a gap between people of different perspectives in the Church. So, I threw my hat into the fray and it was fun, for a while. It even appeared that I might make some progress in this endeavor and perhaps even accomplish some goals that I had set for myself in becoming aware of the various dimensions of the Catholic blogosphere—trying to encourage some positive discourse, and hoping to offer a counterweight to the negative and unfair caricature of the Society of Jesus which obtains in many a corner of that blogosphere. And, at first, there seemed to be some hope of success at this, and there are still a coterie of bloggers (you know who you are) that give me hope in this regard. Yet, I’ve grown tired of swimming against the tide. The most negative of Catholic blogs still continue to be the most popular and, like myself, the more positive bloggers seem to be posting with far less frequency.
Now, I hate to sound like sour grapes, but I have to say that in regard to that last sentence I admit I've made note of the fact that the tenor and tone of the Catholicism I see in the day-in-and-day-out life of the Church in your average Catholic parish, among those who attend Mass weekly, in no way resembles what I see reflected among some of the perennial favorites in the annual Catholic Blog Awards. In some cases, fixations upon apologetics, or liturgical rubrics, or demonization and ridicule of the "other side" become a fetish to the point of idolatry. The disputations and poison-pen diatribes become substitutes for the Faith itself.

I suppose everyone who runs a blog is entitled to a rant now and then, but what is it with blogging that tends to lead us towards an utter breakdown in civility over time? I'm seeing more and more blogging weariness all around me. Do we all feel so safe behind a keyboard that we feel free to write things that we would never say face-to-face without coming to blows? I remember a high school teacher in our driver's ed class telling us something similar about the effect of sitting behind the wheel of a car. Cutting people off and flipping them the bird is a lot easier to do in a car than in a checkout-counter line, no doubt. Is the internet really a forum where the free exchange of ideas leads to mutual appreciation and understanding and lets the best ideas flow to the top, or is anger and resentment always going to be an easier sell? Does the internet bring people together, or does it divide them into smaller and smaller specialized segments where the tolerance of dissent from the mores of the particular group in question becomes a sliver of light that grows ever narrower?

Don't think that I'm saying there isn't plenty of this to go around. This happens regardless of ideology. I had to put banning software on this blog because of the outrageous incivility of one of the most (professed) liberal bloggers I've ever encountered. I noticed on Vox Nova a short while ago that some of the contributors were taking Gerald Augustinus of The Cafeteria is Closed to the woodshed (and rightfully so, IMO) for an egregious remark that had been left on his blog, and among other things Gerald responded:
Please get in line with the insults. There’s already a pitchfork-wielding mob outside because I am too ‘gay-friendly’ and advocated equal rights for gay folks. 325 comments. Some of which are far more troublesome than the one you quoted...

On the bright side, Michael, I’m getting really, really tired of blogging. Now excuse me while I keep an eye out for the Spanish Inquisition...

I took the Cafeteria tag out of my logo, btw, so spare me the umpteenth dig re: that. When I put it up, I a) meant it as a bon mot and b) had no idea that bishops would, eg, actively campaign against civil unions for homosexuals. Since I came out in favor of that and defended gay adoption (based on my wife’s prior work in the field and from the example of friends), too, my position as a ‘Cafeteria Catholic’ is firmly established and need not be brought up at every turn, as if it were a new insight. I freely admit it. The far-right and whatever you could be described as are correct in saying so.
So, there you go. Even there we see it. He's as conservative as they generally come, and he's taking heat. I have to point out, too, that even in the atmosphere of heady intellectualism on Vox Nova, the progressive contributors Michael Iafrate and Morning's Minion get hit with plenty of personal digs on a regular basis.

Is it possible that some of us do this too long? Can we be in combat-mode for too long a period? Does that explain how a Stephen Hand, author of TCRNews Musings, one of the best Catholic blogs I ever saw on the web, chucked it and traded it in for The Bride and the Dragon, a launching-pad for attacks on Vatican II, Modernists, Jews, and Freemasons, because Pope Benedict happened to have a meeting with Hans Kung?

As much as I might be tempted to despair about the state of Catholic blogdom, I noticed it isn't much better with the Protestants. The Arminians and the Emerging Church have no truck with Calvinists, and Calvinists have nothing but contempt for everyone who isn't, well, a Calvinist... Including "Hyper-Calvinists". Makes me think I'm onto something with paragraph 3.

28 comments:

M.Z. Forrest said...

It's not even just the religious blogs. It reminds of the Yahoo chat rooms 10 years ago. As for Vox NOva, we are talking about it presently. We talk about it quite often. I presently heavily moderate my posts there. Life's too short to put up with people who don't want to behave.

crystal said...

I'm glad you're back - how is the house thing going?

I never get any negative comments though I do post gay-supportive stuff, women's ordination stuff, and lefty stuff .... I guess there is one good thing about having almost no visitors :-)

Jeff said...

Hi MZ,

Welcome and thank you for visiting. I can well imagine why you've been having those discussions. I hope no one is considering dropping out as a result. The old chat rooms... I know what you mean. I wonder sometimes if the web is a sort of laboratory where we can see the entropy of systems in an accelerated form.

Hi Crys,

Oh, I've seen you take the stinging remark every now and then. The house thing is going OK. The traffic has been very brisk, but no offers quite yet. We've been incredibly busy with all of this. Not sure how "back" I am yet. :-)

Garpu the Fork said...

I think Gabe and Tycho over at Penny Arcade summed up what happens on blogs quite nicely. (Warning, non-worksafe language.)

I wish I knew what was up with bloggers who identify as writing mostly Catholic blogs, and as we all know, it's not just those who identify as "orthodox" who cause the problems, either. I've been trying to get more "normal" Catholics blogging, but with the likes of the ClosedCafeteria crowd, they tend to disappear.

Christopher said...

So, there you go. Even there we see it. He's as conservative as they generally come, and he's taking heat. I have to point out, too, that even in the atmosphere of heady intellectualism on Vox Nova, the progressive contributors Michael Iafrate and Morning's Minion get hit with plenty of personal digs on a regular basis.

On the matter of Gerald, I'd wager that most blog-owners have at one time or another found themselves obliged to ban those who are unruly, who have crossed the lines of decency and who by their vitriol do nothing to contribute to a reasonable, civilized discussion.

If you find yourself complaining on other blogs about the trolls who are invading your own, it's probably time to consider the institution of a comments policy (something fairly common in the blogging world), and removing those who don't abide.

When it comes to such "inflammatory" issues, I find that some of Gerald's critics "generate more heat then light" -- however, if the power lies in one's hands to remove said offenders for the purpose of continuing this conversation in a more civil and respectful atmosphere, you honestly aren't in much of a position to complain.

Unless, of course, characterizing your critics en masse as "pitchfork-wielding mobs" who wish to burn you at the stake is a convenient excuse to dodge rational (and yes, civil) arguments that have been advanced. (See the post in question).

Liam said...

Great post, Jeff. I think it's true for blogs that aren't specifically religious as well. The political blogs are really nasty. It seems that a lot of people are not really interested in exchanging views, rather they are operating from a tribal need to confirm their own opinions and attack those who disagree.

I think a lot of it has to do with anonymity and lack of consequences for one's actions -- it can bring out the worst in people. A lot of what you're talking about is nothing more than childish bullying.

Good luck with the house.

Mike McG... said...

Jeff:

Thanks for your insightful comments. From time to time I've read Mark Massa's blog and found it very centrist...just like yours. I also wander over to Vox Nova from time to time and marvel at the willingness of Morning's Minion to keep on coming back for the punishment his centrist comments evoke. The paradox, of course, is that the people attacked are very committed to the Catholic core.

I can appreciate the estrangement conservative Catholics apparently feel in the American Church. Certainly they are the object of derision among some church insiders, both clerical and lay. I have far less capacity to understand the venom, whether it comes from right or left.

What strikes me about blog intolerance, both religious and otherwise, is how it screams how desperately people feel the need to be heard. Apparently people are more compelled to spread their views that listen to those of others. The absense of face-to-face opportunities for conversation about intensely held beliefs creates a pent-up demand that begins to fester and finally issues forth in a really ugly way.

Is this intolerace unavoidable in this medium? For thousands of years, restraint in interpersonal communications has been facilitated by non-verbal messages we send to each other. We've had to work out the capacity to balance off of discomfort in one domain, say ideology, with shared experiences in another, say sports. But the persona we project on-line is often unidimensional and difficult to change once assumed.

I can't give up on the medium, though. Too many good things happen here at Aún Estmos Vivos, connections and exchanges I could never replace in my locale. I think this blog holds up the possibility of provocative observation generating in-depth conversation. (It would be cool if Mark knew to stop by here from time to time.) In any case, I'm convinced that at lease smaller blogs *can* break through endemic challenges if a sense of community can be evoked.

An aside: On dotCommonweal about a month ago I read mention of a book entitled "Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)" by Tavris and Aronson. I mention this for two reasons. First of all, I wouldn't have been tipped off to this life-changing book if it were not for a blog. Secondly, this book addresses squarely the issue of intense resistance to competing points of view.

Authoried by a couple of eminent social psychologists, this book deals with the propensity of 100% of us to construct and protect elaborate justifications for our behavior and beliefs. We're inclined to ward off cognitive dissonance by coming down like a ton of bricks on those who diverge from 'our' party line, whether we are traditionalist Catholics or MoveOn.Org aficionados. The only solution I can come up with is to 'own' this tendency in ourselves, acknowledging that we share with our adversaries the same process tendencies just as remarkable as the distinctions in our world views.

cowboyangel said...

Jeff,

I think you've hit on the most prevalent reasons for things getting nasty on blogs, particularly the anonymity.

The internet brings people together AND it creates little niches of like-minded folks. I imagine, though, that this will eventually morph a bit - that there will be sites and blogs that reach varied audiences.

Religion and politics have always caused people to be extremely divisive. How many extended family dinners have you been to where these topics had to be lightly treaded?

It's interesting - and a bit sad - to watch the vicious fighting on some Democratic/Liberal blogs right now. It doesn't take much in cyberspace to set us off. We blog because we believe we have something to say. People are going to disagree. We're going to disagree back. No mystery. It takes a lot of effort to keep a group of people focused and civil when discussing controversial topics, even in person.

Perhaps, also, blogging is hard. It takes a lot of time and effort. Sometimes I say things I haven't thought through clearly enough.

On a lighter note, I'm tagging you for a quick six-word meme, even though you're really busy right now. Come by the clam shack for more info.

Btw, nice to have you posting again!

Jeff said...

Ha, Jen!! Now there was some chalk-talk that was easy to follow!

Hi Christopher,

Thanks for posting and for the well-thought-out remarks. One thing... I just want to make it clear that I'm not looking for trouble with the guy. One thing I've learned on the web is that trouble comes readily enough to us unsolicited without our having to go out and look for it.

Hi Liam,

You have a point, the political blogs are taking it to another level altogether, especially with this year's blue race. Thanks for the well-wishes on the house. It's just as tiring as I expected it might be.

Mike,

Thanks for the great commentary as usual.

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)" by Tavris and Aronson. I mention this for two reasons. First of all, I wouldn't have been tipped off to this life-changing book if it were not for a blog. Secondly, this book addresses squarely the issue of intense resistance to competing points of view.

Yes, I'd heard about that book too. Another one to add to the lengthening list.... I suppose you're right. We have to take into account the great aspects of the tools we've become accustomed to using now too.

William,

Perhaps, also, blogging is hard. It takes a lot of time and effort. Sometimes I say things I haven't thought through clearly enough.

You? Never... ;-) No regrets.

It can be hard work, can't it? Plus, people can change, and they have a right to change.

Fascinating meme. It took me a couple of times to read it through before I quite got the gist. This one is going to take a bit of thought. Thanks for the tag.

cowboyangel said...

Jeff,

One thing I've wondered about for you, Crystal, Liam, Jen, etc. is if you guys would ever consider doing a group blog on Catholicism?

I guess I'm thinking of how busy people can be. If you had several people writing about a similar topic or from a similar POV (granted, with some variation), then each individual wouldn't have to produce posts all the time.

Wouldn't mean the end of the personal blogs, but it might take some pressure off.

You might also be able to rope in those who care about and write well on the topic but don't have a blog of their own. (Mike McG, cough.)

One of the greatest things about the internet is the ability to foster collaborative projects.

Anyway, just a thought. . . .

Garpu the Fork said...

Hey that's a pretty cool idea...we'd have to do something like they do over at the seattle metroblog, though, namely schedule people.

Garpu the Fork said...

p.s. i'd say let's try to get aloysha from Cascadia catholics onboard, too. I know she's been insanely busy, but she'd have an interesting POV.

Charles of New Haven said...

I remember back when I was in college (ca. 1993) fighting the same polemical battles on IRC. As a neophyte I had a lot of zeal for beating on everyone with the truth.

When I first got into blogging about two years ago I got into the fights a little bit. But I got bored of it. I can't bear the uncharity of it on all sides. Anyone who deals with rubrics or whatever other pet topic around a parish committee table rather than over the internet learns real fast that hospitality and ordinary courtesy are more important.

And my credentials as a (theological) conservative are pretty good. My pastor calls me a "neo-con," but I don't get along with any of neo-con peers because my secular politics go pretty far in the other direction most of the time. Oh well.

I actually sometimes worry that I don't get more rude or otherwise unprintable comments on my blog-it makes me worry that I'm not really saying anything!

In a blogosphere-touches-real-life coincidence, I was ordained deacon with Mark Mossa. Maybe I'll send him a note to see if he wants to come back.

crystal said...

I used to belong to a group blog - me and a few Quakers and an Episcoplaian. We'd have a topic and each would post something about it. It still exists but now it's the personal blog of one of themembers.

Liam said...

I'd be interested -- but once we talk about schedules or deadlines, that might kill me.

Jeff said...

Charles, you're my kind of friar. A Franciscan who can be contemplative while listening to Rammstein's Rosenrot, yet at the same time, can craft neo-con theological arguments.

I know what you mean about early zeal on the web and other messaging forums. It reminds me of this cartoon I saw on the Ironic Catholic. "Are you coming to bed?" "I can't. Someone is wrong on the internet."

My first post on the web was to a Catholic apologetics board. After hanging around for a couple of years, I had to let it go. I didn't like what it was doing to me.

I actually sometimes worry that I don't get more rude or otherwise unprintable comments on my blog-it makes me worry that I'm not really saying anything!

Oh, don't worry about that. Keep doing what you're doing.

If you send Mark Mossa a note, please let him know that there are people out there who'll miss him, even if they weren't regular posters. It would be nice to see him come back.

Jeff said...

William,

A group blog? That's an intriguing thought. My question is, why would we want to do one without you?

Climb on board Peter's Barque and stick with it. If you were willing to take part, I'd give it some serious consideration. :-D

Liam said...

Jen has a couple of interesting ideas about the gb at her blog.

cowboyangel said...

Jeff,

I appreciate the thought, but I'm probably not "practicing" enough to be a good contributor. I'd be a reader, however. And I'm sure to start some arguments . . . I mean, leave some comments.

I don't know Mark Mossa at all, but why not approach him about being a guest contributor to a group blog? If the guy's a blogger, he's going to want an outlet, even if it's not his own blog any more. And you can genuinely say you were inspired by his own story.

Jeff said...

William,

Well heck then, what kind of evangelists would we be?

Come on, man... Get with the program. ;-) There is no outside. There is only inside. There is only one Church.

Now, as to the question of what "inside" represents, it may be true that the one Church includes more than just us, but it certainly can't exclude us either.

Charles of New Haven said...

Oops. As usual I subtracted wrong. Mark Mossa and I were ordained deacon a year apart.

Jeff said...

That's OK. Math ain't my thing either, friar.

Marcus Aurelius said...

Sadly I think that the nature of blogging-for-free is that it is only interesting when you have an axe to grind. Unless you are in a state of violent dissent or pharisee-lust conservativism blogging looses its splendor in a hurry. At first it is fun, then it gets old once you finish pondering what you wanted to ponder. So liberal catholic news guy is gone, the brave Winnipeg Catholic, and umpteen other liberal catholics. The lair of the catholic cavemen, et cetera, sadly remains.

I take heart in your blog and the several priest blogs that tend to be well written, intellectually stimulating, not overly dissenting, but also not overly SSPX schismatic-like. And then there are the Andrew Sullivan's and other liberal catholic authors out there who add a bit of nuance. Rocco Palma is also a generally good read.

Christopher said...

Andrew Sullivan? Nuanced?!?

Marcus Aurelius said...

I'm not well versed enough in Sullivan's writings on the faith to know how far he has crossed into dissent or not. I would agree that he pushes the envelop pretty hard from what I've read but seems to remain a faithful son of the church. I read an essay specifically respecting the church's position that all non-procreative sex is equally wrong.

Christopher said...

I'm not well versed enough in Sullivan's writings on the faith to know how far he has crossed into dissent or not. I would agree that he pushes the envelop pretty hard from what I've read but seems to remain a faithful son of the church.

I don't know Sullivan's writings well enough to judge his doctrinal adherence, but as far as being "a faithful son of the Church" -- you might want to revisit his vehement criticism of the Church on homosexuality and advocacy of gay marriage.

As far as "all non-procreative sex is equally wrong", it's hard to imagine this assertion coming from a man who so freely (on his blog) dispensed with the idea of monogamy with respect to his "partner":

"For me the interesting point came when Dan and I agreed that moderate hypocrisy - especially in marriages - is often the best policy. Momogamy is very hard for men, straight or gay, and if one partner falters occasionally (and I don't mean regularly), sometimes discretion is perfectly acceptable. You could see Jong bridle at the thought of such dishonesty. But I think the post-seventies generation - those of us who grew up while our parents were having a sexual revolution - both appreciate the gains for sexual and emotional freedom, while being a little more aware of their potential hazards. An acceptance of mild hypocrisy as essential social and marital glue is not a revolutionary statement. It's a post-revolutionary one. As is, I'd say, my generation as a whole."

Marcus Aurelius said...

Christopher,

Fair enough. We can place Sullivan in the dissenter camp with regard to sexual ethics. But he's still not the raving lunatic that the Catholic Caveman is, nor excommunication material like the SSPXers. It seems to me that the SSPX-like crowd do monopolize the blogosphere somehow and that more moderate voices are drowned out. Perhaps it is simply the fact that 99% of bishops and parish priests are more moderate than they are and they feel more marginalized?

For my part I quit active blogging after I finally got sick of being tag-teamed by them in their com-boxes and mine, and outright lied about. For example, I'm straight, they claimed I had confessed homosexual tendencies to them in emails, and published articles to that affect. Totally sophmoric and silly, but I found myself getting drawn into angry discussions about it. Not sure why it got under my skin but it did. At the end of the analysis I realized I wasn't having fun anymore, I had already pondered the issues I cared about, I needed to get more work and parenting done, and I had interacted with people with whom I had positive discussions (like Jeff) and I think they write more thoughtful and detailed artciles than I was anyway. So I really just didn't see the point anymore.

The schismaticly-ultraorthodox, let's call them schizzies for short, seemed to be hyper organized. They seemed to discuss things offline in other forums, and really passed the word around to bombard me with comments and so forth. I also saw some fairly orthodox folks like Tony at Catholic Pillowfight beat up on randomly, among others.

It doesn't take much to set them off. I think I annoyed them by pointing out that they were all SSPX sympathizers using various posts, and that seemed to really set them off for me. I just said things like 'Cavey is SSPX, don't listen to him', and 'Beware the Schismatics' and that really, really set them off. Honestly, I think I struck a nerve with a little bit of truth. Cavey for one several articles praising SSPX. He was quick to bash gays. He accuses Obama of being a closet Muslim and has little songs written about him to mocking him for being abandoned by his father... Some of these folks just don't behave like good catholics.

Christopher said...

Fair enough. We can place Sullivan in the dissenter camp with regard to sexual ethics. But he's still not the raving lunatic that the Catholic Caveman is, nor excommunication material like the SSPXers. It seems to me that the SSPX-like crowd do monopolize the blogosphere somehow and that more moderate voices are drowned out.

I don't frequent "The Catholic Caveman" and haven't run across that many SSPX blogs. Most Catholic bloggers that I'm aware of are orthodox, yet averse to the SSPX or schismatics (the "more Catholic than the Pope" types).

For example, I'm straight, they claimed I had confessed homosexual tendencies to them in emails, and published articles to that affect. Totally sophmoric and silly, but I found myself getting drawn into angry discussions about it. Not sure why it got under my skin but it did. At the end of the analysis I realized I wasn't having fun anymore,

Understandable that you'd be upset. Much of combox-bantering is on the level of elementary school playground chatter and about that level of maturity.

They seemed to discuss things offline in other forums, and really passed the word around to bombard me with comments and so forth. I also saw some fairly orthodox folks like Tony at Catholic Pillowfight beat up on randomly, among others.

A pity.

I confess my ignorance of both 'Catholic Pillowfight' and 'Catholic Caveman' and what goes on; apparently I don't get around much online as I used to.