“Imitation is the sincerest form of battery.”
This slightly modified saying could well have been my motto several years ago when I journeyed for the first time into the world of Catholic blogging. Instead of dipping a cautious toe into the uncharted waters of the blogosphere, I plunged feet-first into the intoxicating tide that swept me into the deep.
I found myself relentlessly proclaiming truths in the face of error (at least as I saw it), with little regard for my fellow Catholics who were also blogging and commenting away with wild abandon. And why? Because, as the meme goes, “Somebody was wrong on the Internet!”
Wielding Catholic truths like blunt instruments is not a plan for success in the Catholic blogosphere—or in life. This digital new-media version of the wild, wild West is not going to be won by the most clever insult slinger or the outlaw-folk-hero whose respectis earned in the eyes of some by his bad behavior. In the end, as I had to learn the hard way, being a Jesse James in Catholic media does not end well.
The blogosphere a place of total freedom that, combined with a previously unheard-of immediacy, is powerful and volatile. I’d like to share a few survival tips based on things I’ve learned the hard way. Observing some of the basics will help ensure that our participation in the Catholic blogosphere really reflects our call to communion—the call to love one another—as members of the Body of Christ.
DON’T: Be combative
Perhaps this will seem wacky (and I did it with intentional irony), but one of the first things I did when I launched a personal Catholic blog—which is mothballed and will stay that way until I believe I can live up to the demands of being a holy and charitable Catholic blogger—was to ban myself from my own blog. My worst self, that is.
If you’re around blogs for any length of time, you’ll likely witness bloggers who take a king-of-the-hill approach and quickly “ban” (block comments from) certain others—sometimes understandably so, sometimes not. So do a self-assessment. Be honest about your failings as a communicator and ban your worst self from being a participant in your own blog.
It will probably save you from the embarrassment of being banned by others if you keep your worst self out of the blogosphere.
DON’T: Play the WWJD (Who Would Jesus Dis?) card
Unfortunately, “Self” doesn’t like being left out of the blogospheric conversation, and there is one clever way it seeks to enter the fray. I call this playing the WWJD (Who Would Jesus Dis?) card. Yes, Jesus called people “hypocrites” and “whitewashed tombs” and “a brood of vipers”—so that means I get to call people names, too.
Except, no, it doesn’t. Appealing to the example of Christ to excuse our own displays of anger, or harsh criticism is a false appeal to authority because it belies a lack of understanding of our human weakness compared to Christ’s human nature. Unlike us, Jesus did not experience the wound of concupiscence—which disorders our appetites and passions—and so could never express anything but righteous anger.
Not so with you and me. Our disordered passions make it all too easy for us to slip from righteous anger to disordered anger. But, if you insist, try it out sometime in the wild, wild West of the Catholic blogosphere. I’m pretty sure those who witness your harsh language or name-calling will not assume it’s the expression of “righteous” anger! Rather, you’ll be written off as an ad hominem arguer who can’t keep emotions in check. It will weaken communion and communication.
DO: Craft a communication covenant
What is a “communication covenant”? Check out the sidebar on p. xx for some details. Briefly, it’s a means of reminding ourselves that communication in the blogosphere is with other persons.
One of the most misleading aspects of online communication is that it can seem we’re interacting with words and machines—and not people. This is a serious disability that must be overcome if we are to communicate effectively in the blogosphere.
If at any moment we forget that the online exchange of words in which we participate involves a exchange between persons—that real communication involves real communion—then we’re wasting time and possibly doing some real harm to others. Along with composing such a communication covenant, do one more thing. Use a “gravatar”—the icon that puts your face next to your name in a combox (a field where responses to a blog entry can be posted)—to remind you and others that the dialogue is with persons.
DO: Find an editor
Just as barbers typically do a lousy job cutting their own hair, writers typically do a lousy job editing their own words. While it’s true that, in its infancy, “web-logging” started out as this curious way for everyone with a computer to wax eloquent—and unfiltered—on any topic in the universe, it’s also true that this digital infant has at least reached adolescence. The blogosphere is no longer in its cute and cuddly newborn form. It can be and often is shrill, defiant, and rebellious.
Those who maintain blogs or frequent the comboxes would do well to find a trusted pair of eyes—an editor—willing to read their stuff before they press “post” or “send.” Test everything; retain what is good. At a minimum, at least imagine what your most trusted friend might think about what you’ve written in a combox before posting it. One might even want to tape a holy card with a favorite patron saint to your computer monitor as a reminder.
DON’T: Get drunk on the combox cocktail
Ah, comboxes—the verbal vodka of the blogosphere barroom. Their impact on online Catholic communication is vital and yet obviously volatile. Some bloggers avoid the volatility by disabling comments on their blogs—a smart thing to do if one knows that blog participants are not fully equipped to handle the deep draughts of the combox back-and-forth.
At the same time, when we Catholics choose instead to bring our best selves to communicate “covenantally” with our brothers and sisters in Christ, the combox can be a truly glorious and vivid expression of our calls to communion and holiness. In either case, avoid the “troll” role and know when to say when.
DON’T: Show; instead, tell
Let’s talk a bit about the kind of content we bring to the dialogue table in the Catholic blogosphere. Because of the rapid-fire potential for communication online, there is always a great deal more “telling” going on than there is “showing.” Rather than relying on original sources, people merely repeat opinions shared by others, as though such opinions were established facts.
Extreme example: So-and-so tells me that bad-Catholic X is a heretic, but I never ask So-and-so to show me a source in which bad-Catholic X is embracing heresy. I just accept and repeat the claim. But that’s not really good enough. We owe it to bad-Catholic X to say “Show me!” when someone makes such a claim. We need to make sure we know for ourselves the difference between hearsay and heresy.
DO: Always listen
Two ears, one mouth: Simple enough, right?
Listen! Listen at least twice as much as you speak. This will likely make what you have to say all the more wise and charitable. Nothing breaks down communication faster than when a dialogue partner just stops listening.
Often, we tell ourselves we don’t have to listen anymore because Confused Catholic Z over there is just repeating the same error we’ve heard over and over again. In fact, we get so overconfident that we start telling Confused Catholic Z what he really believes instead of continuing to ask him to try once more to explain it to us in case we’ve missed the point.
Believe me, no one ever complains, “You know what’s wrong with that person over there? She spends way too much time listening to what I have to say!” If your blogospheric communication is faltering or failing, just try it: Sit back, stop typing, and start listening.
DO: Ask for forgiveness
The Catholic blogosphere is a world of lost opportunity where grace and mercy are concerned. If we want to transform this online frontier into a place of sanctity and charity, the place to start would be to ask forgiveness from those fellow pioneers who have had to endure our failings.
Did I hurl a harsh word at someone who disagreed with me? I should tell him, “I’m sorry.” Did I escalate division in the comboxes by “othering” someone else instead of focusing on the substance of the discussion? I should apologize.
Even when I’ve unintentionally offended someone online, I should go the extra mile and ask for forgiveness and seek what reconciliation is possible. The sad truth is that, as I see it, the blogosphere could be a tremendous means of mercy and healing, but we’ve got a long way to go to make this happen.
DO: Embrace all the fruits of the Holy Spirit
In pursuit of holiness in the blogosphere, we should be making a conscious effort to live out the fruits of the Holy Spirit—not just a few of our favorites, but all of them. There are twelve: Charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control,and chastity. They all have their place in our communication covenant.
How about a little more patience and gentleness in the comboxes? Why not compose blog posts that express more kindness and joy—and charity—than we’ve exhibited before?
And let’s call out one thing not listed among the fruits of the Holy Spirit: vulgarity. Shouldn’t we avoid both the actual four-letter word and the euphemisms for such four-letter words that we seem to cherish a bit too much?
I doubt that any of us will face our particular judgment before God only to learn that he had hoped we would have made more liberal use of vulgarities and pseudo-swear words in this life. On the contrary, if we view the Catholic blogosphere as the public square—as a forum in which the very heart of what it means to be Catholic is on display for the world to see—then why would we want to offer such near occasions of sin as examples of what we hold dear? Embrace the fruits of the Holy Spirit—and the desire for street language will likely diminish until it disappears.
DO: Live out the call to communion
Lest there is any doubt as to the importance of holiness and communion in the Catholic blogosphere, let’s consider the words of Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who spoke of this in his presentation “The Call to Communion: Anglicanorum coetibus and Ecclesial Unity” at the Symposium on the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston, Texas, on February 2, 2013. Cardinal Müller said:
A culture of communion will not take hold if our default position is defensive or contentious. Unity is easily undermined by a culture of suspicion.
Communion must be fostered and expressed also in the manner in which we relate to one another. While the explosion of so-called “new media” has revolutionized human communication and offers many opportunities for advancing the New Evangelization, blogs especially have a way of promoting un-reflected speech. Judgment and criticism are certainly not bad things in themselves, but when opinions are advanced on an Internet forum unbridled from charity or an adequate knowledge of the facts, they can undermine the very foundation of ecclesial communion, which is love.
Like everything else in life, our call to holiness and communion in the Catholic blogosphere is a call to be a witness to—and source of—the very love of God so freely and lavishly given us. Let’s make it our shared prayer that all who find their way into this sacred arena of ideas will also find a way to be transformed by Christ into a beacon of his light and love, for the glory of God and for the good of all.