Monday, June 07, 2004

Idea Blogging, Part II

I told you before that I had more to write on the topic of why blogging on serious issues is not morally neutral. First, I want to make clear that the choices are not simply "blog about it" and "don't think about it at all". I will consider the issues of my age and the issues of any age, whther I use this medium to share my thought process or not. However, I would do well to be cautious of supplementing my discussions and reading with blogging on heavy matters, for several reasons.

A blog is too asymmetrical to be a dialogue. I get the "prime time" and the appearance of authority at Orthonormal Basis, as I was saying last time. Thus, I ought to be more responsible for the interpretations and objections that will arise from my posts. It's the same thing that gives rise to my griping about homilies. A bad homily doesn't usually give me the evidence to charge the priest with formal heresy, but that's not the point. The responsibility for reconciling his homily with the teachings of the Church should belong to the priest, not the congregation. At the very least, such a priest has done wrong by being unclear; at worst, he is preaching a different Gospel.

In private conversation, it's not as important to weigh every word and examine all my logic, as the people with whom I'm discussing the ideas can easily call me to task. When I have a public forum such as a blog, though, the responsibility incumbent on me is greater, as a comments-box critic does not appear to be on equal ground of credibility. Moreover, the concepts I advance will be judged on the merits of my exposition. One sloppy argument will undermine my point, whether it be correct or not; thus it is even more important that I not be careless as in my debates with friends. If I cannot express myself well in this blog, it would be better for me to wait on idea-blogging until I am ready to be articulate.

Secondly, there's an effect not only on those who read, but an effect on myself in the fact of my writing. Public expression always tempts one to conceit, as one can see in stereotypes of the narcissistic performer or the temperamental architect or the condescending novelist. The particular temptation in idea-blogging, or in publishing opinions publicly, is to grant oneself the authority of one's sources. This is particularly insidious when dealing with the Church.

I've seen too many Catholic bloggers grant the infallibility of the Church to their own interpretation of what the Church teaches. I'm guilty of this too. It's so difficult to have the mental discipline of Saint Paul, who prefaced his opinion on the situation of a Christian married to a non-Christian by writing "I, and not the Lord, say this" (1 Cor 7:12). The way I see this passage (particularly in light of the command in 1 Cor 7:10 from "not I, but the Lord" that a Christian marriage should not divorce) is as follows: Paul did not mean his thought was contrary to divine revelation; clearly he believed what he had to say was the truth. However, he had the humility to state that the conclusion was not contained in the knowledge they had on the authority of God; rather, his statement was based on his reasoning, contemplation, and experience, and was not infallible. To admit this in one's argument takes some courage.

What happens all too often in St. Blog's is that a person will start from authoritative truths, and then use their personal wisdom and reasoning to reach a conclusion about another topic. This is well and good, and in fact this sort of thinking constitutes much of the moral life. But, unfortunately, the person will then go on to say that the Church teaches the conclusion, or that a good Catholic must accept it. A serious and common example, committed by both sides: "It is morally unacceptable for a Catholic to vote X for President" is not taught by the Church. It may in fact be true about X, as it has been true about many politicians before. And as such, it is right to argue from Catholic doctrine on social and political issues that a vote for X is an immoral act. But that chain of reasoning is not doctrine, and I ought not treat it as such. I should also be wary of quoting my interpretations of others as if I could speak for them directly.

Thirdly, idea-blogging can so easily lead to personal fights. I remember a recent series of disagreements on The Passion between two bloggers, which took over both blogs for a time. The debate segued into a sequence of insults, as one accused the other of being party to anti-Semitism and the second questioned what kind of a Catholic the first was. It was ugly to see, and a scandal to St. Blog's. Certain blogs have developed a symbiotic system, by which each links to the other only to contradict them.

Sarcasm is deadly in print, as it becomes indistinguishable from contempt and condescension. Often, the bloggers I read bait their regular commenters with sarcastic remarks about what sort of replies they expect. Or, instead of posting their own content, they devote themselves to the task of attacking other blogs. I particularly abhor the practice of "fisking", where A copies a post written by B and interrupts it every few sentences to ridicule B, posting the finished product on A's own blog. This changes nobody's mind and only serves to incense anyone who agrees with B and massage the ego of anyone who agrees with A. On this front, I hope that I have been respectful in disagreement, but I know how arrogant I can be.

Finally, having this forum distracts me at times from life. It makes me think in terms of "what will I write about this?" when I'm out doing something, or in contemplation, or in a debate, instead of focusing on what I am presently doing. Never mind that my posts seldom come out quite like I intend them. I can pretend that I'm being productive by the very act of thinking about blogging, a practice remarkably akin to daydreaming. It was said of St. Thomas Aquinas that once, at a banquet, he abruptly slammed his fist on the table and exclaimed, "That ought to settle the Manichees!" Only in my more grandiose moments do I think it's best for me to spend my life preparing to write, like Aquinas; I have some of the talent, but I need to devote myself to other things as well.

So, these are reasons I ought to be careful about blogging on the heavy things, and they are not negligible. However, there is good in this as well, as I've written before. If I know what I am doing, and if I set out with humility and respect, I can grow in knowledge and truth, and help others to do the same.

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