Preaching to the Choir:
The Futility of Arguing on the Internet

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“Non in dialectica placuit Deo salvum facere populum suum (It is not by ar­guing that God chose to save His people”). —St. Ambrose

 

“troll, noun [ C ] (COMPUTING) › someone who leaves an intentionally annoying message on the internet, in order to get attention or cause trouble. › a message that someone leaves on the internet that is intended to annoy people: A well-constructed troll will provoke irate or confused responses from flamers and newbies.”—Cambridge English Dictionary.

INTRODUCTION

Some recent comments on articles in Catholic Stand and The American Catholic have disturbed me enough (even when I agreed with them) for me to repost a piece about the futility of arguing on the internet.

It’s my view that comments should seek to persuade, rather than to vent.  This rarely seems to be the case.  Most of the time we’re “preaching to the choir,” addressing those who agree with us.  And when people do disagree, it’s rarely by means of rational discourse.  Sadly, I’m as guilty of venting as some whom I criticize.

My constraint in commenting or replying to comments should be to not insult the motives, intelligence, or morality of others.  Most of the time I’m successful, but I’m sure some reader will be able to cite instances where I’m not.  (I can think of several myself.)

Here’s the problem: at present there appears to be no middle ground, in politics or Catholic teaching. In my own case, I’ve changed from a Jewish, liberal Democrat to a Catholic, conservative (whatever that means!) Republican over the course of 63 years, and I did so by listening to what people on the other side said.   I wonder whether now anybody listens or tries to understand what the opposing person is trying to convey.

At any rate, here’s what I wrote five years ago.  I think it’s still applicable.

IT DOESN’T PAY TO ARGUE ON THE INTERNET—WHAT THE PRIESTS SAID

Five years ago when I read an article in Crisis magazine by James Kalb, it reminded me of two homilies I had heard and of the lessons I should have learned from these. The homilies were given by two foreign-born priests: Fr. X, Vietnamese, one of the boat people who escaped the Communists at an early age; Fr. Y, Nigerian, a Dominican. (Aren’t we fortunate as a missioned nation, that bread cast upon the waters has returned?)

The Crisis magazine article is about the futility of argumentation on the internet, a conclusion with which I heartily concur. As the quote above suggests, argumentation is not the way to evangelize.

This was the lesson of the two homilies. It’s been a while since I heard them, so forgive me, Fr. X  and Fr. Y, if I don’t recast them exactly as you spoke.

THE LESSONS FROM TWO HOMILIES

Fr. X’s homily took off from the moving paean on the great gift of love in First Corinthians,“…If I have not love…” Fr X said we have to love our enemies and those who contest with us, otherwise we are not Christians. We cannot disparage them or wish ill for them.

Fr. Y was discoursing on the Gospel, Matthew 10, in which Jesus sends the apostles out and tells them

And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. (Matt 10:14)

In his homily, Fr. Y said that one should not contest with those—family members, friends, etc.—who dispute your faith. You should state what you believe and show, by the example of your life, what your faith means to you.

WHERE I SUCCEED AND WHERE I FAIL

I try to follow these teaching in my responses to those contending on the internet, but too often fail.

If a Geocentrist, or a believer in the Young Earth, refuses to debate honestly the scientific premises of their beliefs, I should do no more than point out where they might seek other opinions.

If someone advocates AGW (Anthropic Global Warming) I should do no more than give him data refuting that hypothesis and references amplifying these contraindicators.  I should not impugn his/her intelligence, integrity or motives.

If an atheist refuses to read the books refuting Dawkins that I recommend—I cannot, as with giving my dog medicine, coat the pill with peanut butter and slip it into his/her mouth. (One of our dogs was very adept at licking off the peanut butter and spitting out the pill.)

If someone says that everything Pope Francis has said is in accord with Catholic teaching, I should do no more than cite specific contraindications to that and, again, give references.  I should also (and I do) note wherein I agree with Pope Francis and show my respect for him as the Vicar of Christ.

So, the only thing to do is to love these people (even if I don’t like them) and pray for them. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will imbue them with grace, as it did one fervent atheist, Anthony Flew, who came to believe There is a God. And this is all I can hope and pray for.

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9 Comments

  1. The Internet has simultaneously provided more information to mankind then ever thought possible….and made mankind dumber than ever.

  2. There seems to be a large number of internuts on the internet.

    Penguins Fan, That may be a function of the general lack of background knowledge and context of most internuts.

  3. One nit.

    Sometimes is these “discussion”, you’re not talking to the “idiot” but are talking to the lurkers who might not have “made up their minds” on an issue.

    Of course, this can mean that while refuting the “idiot’s” position, you take care to not sound like an “asshole” yourself.

  4. I wonder whether now anybody listens or tries to understand what the opposing person is trying to convey.

    Sure they do– thing is, the body language has been removed, and folks have more time to consider “Am I going to respond to this at all?” with any ‘yes’ choice, and it hangs out once they have done so.

    I can’t agree with Father Y, though– it violates one of the works of mercy, informing the ignorant. Just telling someone they’re wrong doesn’t do any good, nor does telling them what is right, if you’re not going to bother to make any arguments for it.

    I know, I’m part of a generation that was abandoned to the “tell them what’s right and then live it, don’t bother saying why” method of religious education.
    Which is why I’m one of two kids, out of 20 in our youth group, who are practicing Catholics. And I know I hit a lot of bumps because nobody could be bothered to make an argument.

    Yeah, act with love– but there is nothing about arguing, even passionate arguing, which is inherently against love.

    Even arguing with someone who refuses to even consider evidence counter to their conclusions is useful– because, especially on line, you are not just talking to them. You are talking to everybody who might stumble across the conversation.

    And it works.

  5. Foxfier & Paul H: Great comments! Made me change my mind (sort of).

    😉
    I debated on if I should respond at all….

    I suspect we’ve come into what they call “violent agreement.” (that is, a seeming disagreement that is really just words getting in the way of what we mean)

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