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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