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My Rules for Discourse on the Internet

http[1]I could be having a great day and a nasty exchange on the Internet will always bring me down. Whether I am involved or not, uncivil discourse sucks the joy out of the Internet for me. I suspect it does for most people who are not secret psychopaths. I am especially discouraged when I see Christians ripping each other apart for the whole world to see.

In a recent exchange on Twitter, someone called a woman a “dumb nasty-deragatory-term-begining-with-a-c” for raising flags about some reproductive technologies. Other women, myself included, came to her defense calling the comment what it was: a blatant example of misogyny. The alleged misogynist then began to sling even more insults implying that he was the victim in the exchange. This then began a separate attack on my character because I have four kids and dared respond to a nasty comment about reproductive technologies.

The insanity of the whole business inspired me to write down the rules of Internet discourse that I try to live by. These all come from personal experience. Some of these I had to learn the hard way. And while I fall short sometimes, they are still ideals that I try and uphold.

Keep things private

Every once and awhile, I find a hit piece on something I have written. These pieces are often mean and snarky and sometimes written by people I thought were my friends, or at least on my side. Who needs enemies when you have friends who love to rip apart your work with sarcastic abandon?

My first impulse is to respond in kind. Within seconds I already have a mean-spirited retort composed in my mind ready to flow out my fingers onto my blog. Over the near decade I have been writing, I may have succumbed to that impulse a time or two… or three. It doesn’t help.

These days when I see a critique of my work that is less than charitable (or just flat out wrong), I respond in the way I wish I would have been treated. I e-mail the author privately with as much compassion as I can muster. Often they have some good points about something I may have overlooked, or they misunderstood what I was saying because I did not express myself well enough. I respectfully ask to discuss it further. (Sometimes I think I can hear their heads explode when the e-mail hits their inbox.) Occasionally, I will even post the exchange or clarify my original post.

Ideally we would all e-mail writers privately about errors or misrepresentations in their pieces before we run an expose or call them out in the combox. Sometimes a writer may have innocently overlooked an aspect that is important and making a public spectacle of it is not productive.

I feel a private e-mail exchange is always preferred to a public battle. If the writer does not see the error of his or her ways, or refuses to respond, then a I find a well-written blog post or comment is appropriate.

Don’t stoop to the ad hominem

In today’s logically challenged society, the ad hominem fallacy is a favorite. You are familiar with the ad hominem attack whether you know it or not. It goes like this “What ever you say about ______ is invalid because you are a __________.” It has many permutations: you can’t say anything about abortion because you are a man, you can’t say anything about infertility because you have kids, you can’t say anything about anything because you are Catholic.

Most people think this is a valid argument. Many throw it out there like a bomb and truly believe they have won the battle. Unfortunately, the ad hominem just makes them look stupid to people who know better. If a smoker tells you not to smoke because it is bad for you, you can think they are a hypocrite and call them names, but the fact that they are a smoker does not negate the reality that you should not smoke because it is bad for you.

I get the ad hominem thrown at me so often it makes me laugh. When I first started blogging it was tempting to throw the grenade right back at them. I have seen it happen. That kind of approach simply ends up in a mammoth thread of name calling.

Instead, I point out the fallacy and say that unless there is something else they want to bring to the table then our conversation is over.

Forget having the last word

Maybe it is because I am the middle child perpetually screaming for people to notice me, but I always want the last word in an argument. Always.

This a terrible trait to have if you are a writer or comment on other’s writing. It leads to days long comment threads where you and your Internet foe just talk past each other. It is exhausting and a total waste of time.

I have a personal policy. If after three or four comments, the argument is still going on, I stop commenting. It I cannot get across what I am trying to say in less than four comments, then I should not have a dog in the fight anyway.

Besides, other readers can spot an “I have to have the last word” type. They just look desperate and weak. I am constantly reminding myself not to be that person.

If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t type it

This one seems obvious, but so many people do not have a grasp on it. Here is something to consider: writers often read the comments on their pieces. They may not respond, but they are reading. I am always shocked to see what people say about me. I suppose they think I not a real person, just a byline.

This has led me to be very careful when commenting. If I would not say it to someone’s face, I don’t say it.

Please realize that when you comment/tweet/status-update everyone can see what you are thinking, including the author of the piece you hate so much.

Don’t follow the rabbit

Once I posted a quote from Time magazine where Albert Einstein praised the Church for her resistance to Nazi power in WWII.  The quote was accompanied by a link to the source.  Someone commented that the quote was fake. He presented a bunch of conjecture about what Einstein would and would not have said in regards to his other comments about religion.

It would have been easy to follow this guy down the rabbit hole and to try and refute each of his assertions. Instead, I asked for evidence from a reputable source that the quote was false, like a retraction from Time. He responded again with what Einstein would or would not have said with no links or sources. I asked for evidence of a retraction. He insisted on going over the whole thing again. I acknowledged that I understood what he was saying and then asked for a retraction a third time and added a smiley face for good measure. That ended the exchange.

I thought there was nothing extraordinary about the conversation, but another reader responded “I’m quite impressed by your skill in staying on track and being brief in sorting through JI’s silly tangents and red herrings…. Keep up the good work. The world needs more women like you.”

The world does need more people who do not get side tracked by tangents and stay on the main point. Don’t follow the crazy talking rabbit down the rabbit hole. It never ends well. This crazy comment thread on a cake recipe is the perfect example.

These are my attempts at keeping discourse civil on the Internet. What are yours?

Reprinted with permission from Creative Minority Report.


Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and a practicing pro-life Catholic who writes at the bioethics blog Mary Meets Dolly. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for six years and is a regular on Catholic radio.
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  • Claire

    These are great tips. Thanks for some important reminders about an issue that I completely relate to (and have handled poorly on many occasions).

  • melanie jean juneau

    timely and wise inights

  • Elijah fan

    Look at our key example of communication. The most media present Catholic for years on tv was Bill Donohue who investigates the past of groups like SNAP who crosses him and then he slimes them with that past. In the case of the empire state building owner, that ad hominem didn’t work but Donohue still tried to control the private owner through picketing to do Donohue’s bidding. And Catholics donate a 400K a year salary to Donohue because they like his acerbity ( or they don’t read the Catholic media which denounced his salary)….which means maybe…there’s a ton of ad hominem Catholics out there. Try to think of a nasty Protestant that has had major network tv access. I can’t. Does any Bishop fraternally correct Donohue for ad hominems and muckraking. I haven’t heard them.

    • goral

      The best thing going for Catholic media is Bill Donohue. You just don’t like the fact which he points out that liberals like you are “destroying religion and culture in America”. He hits the facts hard because they’re critical. There are no ad hominems in his criticisms. No bishop has any standing in confronting Donohue’s right minded and correct analysis.
      Admit it, you just want to control speech that is in opposition to yours.
      Put forth an example about his ad hominems. That’s exactly what you’re doing yourself.

      • Claire

        Amen, Goral!

      • Elijah fan

        No…I just don’t like that he bears no resemblance to reasoned charitable discourse WHILE DEBATING. I know little about SNAP but presuming they have done bad or they are connected to bad lawyers…whatever the truth…it is irrelevant when you are debating them. You should be able to debate them ON THE MERITS of your points. Sliming people is not debating people.
        Do you see the difference between sliming on the one hand and debating? Check a debate in a financial journal between Jeremy Siegel and Shiller on the future of the S&P in the next year. They never slime each other as part of the debate. Christ slimed the pharisees in order to shake them into fear of the Lord but not in order to draw efficacy away from a point they were making. Christ kept debate over here…and sliming over there. When you use slime as a substitute for debate, it is sin. Christ didn’t do that though He was tough to people to their face and in proximate distance…but when He was fraternally correcting them not debating them. When they seize the woman caught in adultery and bring her to Him and ask if they should obey the stoning law of Leviticus, Christ does not call them whited sepulchers THERE DURING THAT DEBATE. He softly tells them…”let him who is without sin, cast the first stone”. He keeps a debate at debate level…rational and soft…like Pope Benedict requested of Catholics on the net prior to retiring.

        • goral

          Another rule for discourse on the internet is when resorting to Latin, check your Latin grammar.
          The plural of ad hominem is ad homines. My carelessness in using the mongrelized English plural ending.
          In any case, Elijah fan, I’m still waiting for an example of the argumentum ad hominem of which you accuse B.D.
          “Sliming” is another accusation that you’re making, need an example. It seems to me that you’re focused on SNAP and the way B.D. has brought out facts about them to show that they are an anti-Catholic fraud organization. You have work to do before you make snap judgements about Bill. His information is correct and focused on their actions, not personalities.

          • Elijah fan

            Calling the owner of a private building, the Empire State Building a “bigot” because he won’t do what you want concerning Mother Teresa is normal to you? It reminds you of Pope Benedict and Christ? It reminds me of neither of those men. Show us Pope Benedict publically using manipulation techniques to get a private non Catholic to do his bidding. The Empire State Building is privately owned…period. They owe no one an explanation for any refusal concerning their lights regardless if they used them in the past for Popes. They can change their mind. They’re private and non Catholic. They may have thought to themselves that one day Muslims might ask for a fundy from their group to be feted. If they stop with all individuals, that won’t happen. Donohue is implying that the ownership cannot change their mind ever.

          • goral

            This is your best attempt at mounting an argument against Donohue’s alleged ad hominem attacks, are you kidding me?! Yes, the ESB is private property but, it is routinely used for public purposes such as lighting themes and money that it collects from tourists. How about $100-200 admission? You’re quite correct that they can do as they please. Donohue is extremely correct in calling them out on not honoring the greatest humanitarian of our time. One must conclude that it’s bigotry as they gladly do it for anyone who is in opposition to the Church. Out of all the lies and legitimate smears and accusations that float around on the internet, you pick a case with no merit at all and out of the blue launch an attack on Bill Donohue.
            I will not go down this rabbit hole with you because your accusation is bogus and your debating skills are as lacking as your supporting evidence. Your comments lack any coherence. You just don’t like the man, Bill Donohue and you weaseled your way through the back door of this article to tell us that.

            All quotes are from ABC News:

            “More unexpectedly, in 2008, the tower lit up in pink, purple and white on the occasion of Mariah Carey’s new album. It has also been lit in conjunction with AIDS, breast cancer, and other health-awareness events. In May, the tower was lit for the Salute to Israel parade. It was once colored tie-dye in honor of a Grateful Dead exhibition, and later this month, it will light up lavender and white for Gay Pride Week.

            Perhaps most galling to the Bill Donohue and the Catholic League was last year, when the tower was lit in red to recognize the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, “Even though 77 million
            innocent men, women and children were murdered under Mao Zedong,” said Donohue.

            The controversy over commemorating Mother Teresa has many scratching their heads.”

            “This is not a religious request,” said City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., one of the authors of today’s resolution. “Mother Teresa is possibly the greatest humanitarian the world has ever seen.”

          • Elijah fan

            ROFLOL. Folks, you’ve just witnessed why answering a kindred spirit of Donohue…the questioned he asked….is in fact…to open a rabbit hole.

  • Helen Hawkins

    I have learned to follow (much of the time) all of these rules except the last rule about following someone into the rabbit hole. At times I have wanted to disprove someone’s statement that I felt was wrong, but realized that I did not have the information I needed. I can see now that I can shift the burden of proof to the person who makes an false statement. Thank you for this strategy.

  • RaymondNicholas

    Since when do rules of discourse apply to the internet? I assure you, not when the theme is anti-Catholic.

    • cminca

      Thank you for the sweeping, and therefore meaningless, generalization.

      • RaymondNicholas

        Meaningless only to anti-catholics or uninformed Catholics

  • Jill

    This is a great post, especially: “If you wouldn’t say it to their face, dont type it”. If you modify this to: “If you wouldn’t say it to their face then don’t say it at all”, you have a great cure for gossip too!
    Have a blessed day!

  • goral

    Both my Latin and English teachers appeared to me in my sleep and wrote on the wall the correction to my correction.
    Ad homines is correct grammar but the fallacy has no usage in the plural (men).
    One would have to say argumenta (pl) ad hominem or ad hominem arguments.

    My Latin teacher’s canned response to our – “but I thought…”, was: “don’t think, you’re not equipped to do that”. I loved her style, God rest her soul.

    • Elijah fan

      Let it go…you’ll never regret it. I have six years of Latin and am not paying attention to your pharisaical hunt for mistakes.

      • goral

        How close are you to six years of English? I ask that with all humility so as not to break any rules for discourse or grammar for that matter.

        • Elijah fan

          Therapy goral…you’ll never regret that either.

          • goral

            Confession for Catholics works better than therapy. I only regret it when I’m next in line and Father has to end it.
            Benedict XVI blessings, it worked for the German football team.