Discussion vs. Ear-Piercing Debate Online

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CS_SocialMedia2_pixabayTwitter can be a harsh place. I get responses daily to my tweets that might make your hair rise on end. Here’s the most negative tweets – unfiltered – I got in a random week (April 21-28, simply the week before I wrote this intro):

  • “As the False Prophet, he [Pope Francis] will be one of the greatest deceivers in human history.”
  • “No matter how u twist & turn & contort the English language there are no rational religious beliefs.”
  • “Councils (Trent) were of Holy Spirit? Was the torturing & murder of 75 million people of Chirst?”
  • “The real problem is that JEWS decide which media personalities get fired for making the “wrong” statements.”
  • “Apparently, your collar doesn’t make you bright.”
  • “Mr. Pontifex takes a breath of fresh air, awaiting the arrival of his Muslim masters.”
  • “Isn’t she [Elizabeth II on her 90th birthday] the queen of freemasonry?… She’s had time to convert, hopefully b4 she dies.”
  • “and the church suddenly has an interest in science? Figures, it’d be pseudo science #propaganda”
  • “Allah The Most Gracious The Most Merciful The Only One True God Has Saved Jesus Christ.”
  • “Another shameless photo op” [referring to Francis hearing confessions in St Peter’s Square]
  • “I am sorry the education system has failed you so thoroughly.”
  • “#ProLife activists like @FrMatthewLC will be happy. Vote for #Trump! Back to middle age in a few months.”
  • “that could only have been written by someone who isn’t in a loving relationship where you give yourself completely lovingly.”

I’m sure many of you have noticed how online there tends to be more ear-piercing debate then honest and thoughtful discussion. People even made jokes about the YouTube comments section as a place to find the lowest dregs of humanity. Instead of narrowly talking about Twitter or YouTube, I want to address online discussions in general. I want to look at the philosophy that divides us, how technology enables negativity and yelling, and a few ways we can respond.

A Culture of Relativism Is a Culture of Ear-Piercing Debate, Not Discussion

Rene Descartes flipped truth on its head: instead of “I am therefore I think” he said “I think therefore I am.” The consequence of this is that truth is no longer based in objective reality but in my perception of reality. He still argued for objective truth but slowly over time his thoughts transformed into a complete relative isolation of truth. How often today do here lines like “Well, that’s your truth but is not my truth”? Yet objective truth is a common good to all human beings – mine and yours can’t be different.

Even what would seem like scientific truth has become relativized. For example, I’m not an expert on gun laws. I hoped to be convinced by clear science showing what their effect was, but when I tried to research I found people claiming that both pro-gun and anti-gun legislation reduced crime; there are seemingly scientific statistics to show both. (Note: If you want to debate this, please take it elsewhere rather in the comments as there’s a wide range of acceptable Catholic positions on this and I’m not exactly sure where I stand.)

Our culture makes it very difficult to know the truth because it believes it does not exist. We live in what Benedict XVI called the “Dictatorship of relativism,” which he says, “Does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

If we let relativism reign, then the loudest voice or the largest group is the closest we can have to truth. This encourages loud, uncivil, boisterous, unfounded and ear-piercing debate that goes nowhere. Exactly the current environment in online debates.

Online Disinhibition Syndrome

People have this sense that what they do online is separate from their off-line lives. In “real” life, people have to look at the people they are speaking to, noticing their facial expressions, and explaining things in a way they can understand. This requires a great deal of what psychologists call “theory of mind,” which is a human ability that allows us to perceive what the other is thinking and feeling. Online, someone sits in their bedroom and types away to somebody or some group randomly as if simply writing a personal diary. Their theory of mind is greatly hindered because the other is not perceptible, only conceivable through a complex thought process of imagining them and guessing what their reactions would be.

Historically, people thought of all their online interaction as consequence-less. However, slowly our perceptions on this are changing: social media investigation has become an ordinary part of the hiring process, people have lost their job over their posts, and even a sitting politician was kicked out of her party over

Most people feel less inhibited online. For example, pornography viewing and addiction has increased dramatically as the user no longer has of having to walk into a “naughty” store and come out with a brown paper bag. Sometimes this inhibition is actually a good thing, for example, the young lady behind Common Catholic Girl on Twitter told me that the internet allows her to express her Catholicism boldly while living in the Deep South.

All of these add up to “Online Disinhibition Syndrome” which gets worse when things are anonymous. For example, one study found that 53% of anonymous comments are rude; only 29% of registered attributed comments. Anonymity also breeds polarization both from the nastiness of the comments and from becoming a kind of “minion” for the cause. You can see this minion-ization when you look at all the anonymous Twitter accounts with the words “Trump” or “Bernie” in the name which tend to see themselves and be seen as proxies for their favorite candidate. However, anonymous comments were less likely to change someone’s opinion, being possibly automated, being unreliable, and being that the person seems unsure of themselves because they don’t want to attach their own name to the comment.

Stop Feeding the Trolls

Several key strategies are important to bring back discussion over relentless and volume-increasing debate.

First, whenever you make a comment online, imagine you are sitting at a restaurant chatting with a large group of mixed friends. Or as I sometimes think, “If my mother read that, would she be proud of it?” This helps us overcome the inherent theory of mind difficulties caused by task indication rather than oral, facial, and/or bodily communication we do off-line.

Second, ignore anonymous comments. If someone isn’t sure enough of a comment to attach his name to it, we can ignore it. There are a few exceptions to this such as whistleblower comments but as a general rule it applies. Never feed the trolls who want to bring the rest of us down to their disgusting, low-life existence of pure crude anonymous negativity. Troll-recognition is now 2nd nature for me but it is definitely a learned skill as in my earlier days I fed the trolls too much.

Third, be the same person all levels. It’s in Facebook and Twitter’s economic interest to make your public self and your private self the same. To a large extent, much of what was previously considered private life is no longer private – there are some things we lost with this but there are other things we gained and I don’t think is a way to turn back the clock on the short to medium-term.

Fourth, don’t be anonymous online. I also think that in general Twitter accounts and Facebook pages of individuals are better than of groups because these apply to be authentic and for you instead of being restricted to not comment on issues that the group simply doesn’t have an opinion on because of its focus. For example, my religious community focuses our message on spirituality, communion, and mission but at times on my own account, I’ll note things like how cute my nephew is or how the presidential election has becoming tiring. Such comments seem fine from a priest because they are real but it would seem awkward sending them from my community’s account.

Fifth, believe that we can know truth. If I don’t begin with this belief, I can never be proven wrong because wrong is the opposite of truth so only exist when truth does.

Obviously, there are other factors that cause the intense polarization and loud debate in our current society but I want to focus on the biggest two and provide some solutions rather than just complaining about how horrible it is. The dictatorship of relativism and the inhibition present in the online world tend to produce interminable debates. Our response should not be simply to retreat back into a corner and scream all the more but to bring out a Christian worldview where discussion is a mutual seeking for truth.

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10 thoughts on “Discussion vs. Ear-Piercing Debate Online”

  1. Anderson Thomas

    Legionnaires of Christ. from Wildly leftest Anti Catholic Canadian Catholics. That explains this articles. Speaking the truth is is now untruth, (political correctness) Hear no see no evil and speak no evil) or as the words of ( scripture /bible) God says about the end time. That which is evil will be call good and good will be called evil. Nope never call a spade a spade .I’m OK your OK!!! Oh unless I call out evil then you are OK and I am not. Be nice children, play nice, don’t post brutally truthful realities.

    1. Dear Anderson-You have made a very good restatement of what I call the liberal/dissenter/Democrat standard of truth: the Principle Of NonNonContradiction or “NonNonCon” truth-a thing can be and not be at the same time. For example, it is a mortal sin to vote for HillaryDemon and it is not a mortal sin, simultaneoulsy. For example: Hell is forever and no one is condemned forever. Guy McClung, San Antonio, Texas

  2. I admit I do not post comments under my real name, ever. Early on in my online presence I often spouted blunt and inflammatory responses to articles or comments that outraged me. But I found that often my comments spawned what I thought were viscous, retaliatory, ad hominem attacks that never really countered the point I had tried to make, and only escalated the outrage.

    So, first, although I still always post under a false name, I have really toned down what I write online. I try to write reasoned and thoughtful comments, not insulting or calling anyone names or impugning them or their intelligence. And then I generally leave it. Sometimes I go back to see if someone has responded to me, but most times I don’t even go back. And if I do go back, if there is a response and it is reasonable, I might answer, but if it’s just a hostile name calling response, I don’t even engage. I do this because I have found my conscience bothering me after I got off the internet — and I found I thought the tone and content of some of my comments were sinful, and took them to confession. And resolving to reform my ways, I just stopped doing it.

    Second, I now generally avoid sites that inflame me and stoke a desire to argue my position in a mean and ugly way. If a site has these kind of comments all the time, I start to avoid it. I don’t need to listen to things that are inflammatory or promote a mob mentality in me or others. If I do happen to read an article that generates very negative comments, and I notice that, I just stop reading the comments section. And I avoid Twitter completely. I have yet to find anything at all worth reading on Twitter.

    Sometimes comments sections remind me of a 10th grade boys’ locker room. The only difference is the kinds of topics discussed. But often the level of intellect and argument is about the same. Not a fun place to be most times. And not worth wasting your time on.

    1. I created a Twitter account last summer to speak out, in love, against abortion. No matter what I said, the responses were hateful, and some were downright vile. I tried to respond in kindness, but to no avail. I found myself being sucked in. I recently stopped logging on because of that and because I couldn’t even read a tweet from Pope Francis without seeing the most vulgar and vile comments made to him. I decided that I did not need that in my life.

  3. There are clearly reasons for anonymity on blog sites. We use anonymity to avoid the censors of thought who can easily block us from comment by name, e-mail, IP address. If you do not like to have your beliefs challenged or doubts sown or contradictions pointed out, you can block the person from future comments or delete their comments. Hence, some of us need a pseudonym and a constantly changing IP. I would happily use my real name, and I would be blocked here. Trust me I know….I have experience.

    1. Marion (Máel Mhuire)

      There are two kinds of persons who make a habit of challenging the beliefs or pointing out contradictions in the beliefs of others: (1) persons with normal mental and emotional health, who have a sincere interest in the topic at hand; (2) serious trolls -, i.e., neurotics who like to stir the pot about something, anything, because if their personal issues weren’t causing them to go online and stir the pot about matters of religion, they would be spending all their free time online stirring the pot about whether schnauzers or dachshunds make better pets, or about the war records of officers in the Iraq war, or about the right way to discipline children, or what have you. This is not about a sincere quest to bring the truth to light; this is about the neurotics’ quest to gain attention and to feel “superior” to others, pure and simple.

      Persons with a normally functioning personality and a serious interest usually set up their own websites, and invite others to it. Trolls spread grafitti on other peoples’ websites, and play Whack-a-Mole with other posters, (“Yeah, but what about . . . ?” is a favorite edition of that game.)

      Persons with a serious interest may use a pseudonym on their own website, but they will use one pseudonym and stick with it. Trolls will rotate through more pseudonyms and IP addresses than a roulette ball on a Saturday night in Vegas right after the tour busses arrive.

  4. The Tower of Babel has been rebuilt and at the top is a minaret, a crucifix, a cross, Tibetan pray flags
    and the Star of David. Also a white flag representing atheism and a rainbow flag representing sex. An
    elephant and a donkey also fly from the top, one on a blue field the other on a red field. Also present is
    a hammer and sickle. Along this tower are the flags from hundreds of nations each with their own history and take on history. There is an Olympic flag with 5 rings representing all the races and two defining the genders. Is it any wonder that it seems impossible to synthesize the truth ?.

  5. Either you have the _____________ (fill in the blank: fortitude, guts, conviction of what you believe,) to state your name, or you hide, for whatever reason. There are a few reasons to hide that are good; but I think many commenters want to be a like a heckler at a political rally, they do not want discussion, they certainly don’t want anyone else’s take on the truth aired. To me what is most ridiculous is seeing one anonymous name pop up on multiple sites when the subject is – you name it, perversion, priestesses, demoncrats, democatholics, pederast bishops, heretical hierarchs to the very top, injury to children raised by two persons of the same sex, politicized “sainthood” conferral and denial, warmist religion, and of course all the protestant heresies, sola etc. – you know the list – and then another well-known anonymous cybercoward chimes is with the same replies, and the same anonymous arguments go on and on. Their anonymous spouting is “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” I believe the least I can do when I spout is to add: Guy McClung, San Antonio, Texas [and yes sometimes I add “USSA”]

  6. Well known Catholic theologians of today such as Bishop Barron with polarizing YouTube commentaries evangelizing the faith are forthcoming about welcoming any and all viewer comments.

  7. Marion (Máel Mhuire)

    There are ways to remain anonymous online while keeping yourself accountable: to pick just one screen name and use only it, making sure that your friends from the parish, including your priests and pastor, and your extended family all know your screen name, and have your permission to come after you personally – in real life – if you ever act like a jerk online. To establish and maintain a “brand” for your screen name that you won’t want to sully, such as by acting like a jerk online, by engaging in pointless bickering, etc. And most of all, to remember that all your time spent – all of it – should be spent serving the Lord, which means remembering that if you aren’t sincerely serving the Lord with your online time, then you should be offline, doing something else, instead.

    Sometimes when commenting on another Catholic author’s personal blog, I have sent an email introducing myself, giving my real name, home address and the name of my parish, along with my screen name. So far, the authors seem to have appreciated my subsequent comments posted under a screen name.

    I point out all of this because online security experts recommend that females never use their Real Names or provide identifying personal details online, particularly when discussing what might be considered controversial topics – a category that includes many points of Church teaching. Many of the women I know use their real first name and the initial of their last name – “Laura D.” or “Heather K.” for this very reason: their real life friends and family know who they are, but potential stalkers won’t have an easy time locating their home addresses or their cell phone numbers.

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