The Rule of Mount Carmel

A recent comment I made over at Cathedra Unitatis’ blog made me realize that I had better lay down ground rules for this blog (see the post that inspired this here: 

http://cathedraunitatis.wordpress.com/2007/03/25/hope-against-hope/#comments)

I started debating on the Internet at the age of 16.  Obviously, I still do it on an infrequent basis, so I must think that the practice has some merit.  However, Internet debates often get messy, and everyone usually walks away frustrated.  After I had debates of that sort (which happened way too frequently), I always felt dirty, as if I had killed a kitten or something.  Fortunately, I have developed a few general rules which help to minimize the problems with Internet debates.

1.  Keep it pithy.  Granted, some issues, especially philosophical ones, have had much ink spilled over them over the course of thousands of years.  Therefore, it seems like an injustice to limit how much a person can say about these topics.  However, I look at it from another angle:  if no one has yet solved these problems, then we aren’t going to solve them in an Internet debate, either.  It is possible to be pithy and still get your point across.  Dr. Vallicella’s blog, The Maverick Philosopher, is the paradigm instance of how to be both pithy and clear.

2.  If it is impossible to solve some, single problem in an Internet debate, it is darned near impossible to solve many at once.  If you disagree with Catholicism because you see the Papacy as an aberration of earlier Tradition, and you disagree with the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, fine.  But if one of those issues isn’t going to be solved in an internet debate, then discussing them both simultaneously will be even worse.  In addition, discussing multiple matters at once turns into quote wars, which both violates (1) and inevitably leads to people misreading a person’s position due to the sheer volume of what is written, leaving everyone frustrated. 

3.  It’s okay to have strong opinions, but polemics are verboten.  Sometimes it is hard to draw a line between the two, because polemical people are always people with strong opinions.  But there is such thing as a polemic.  I’m not going to outline them here, but I’ll be sure to speak up if I see it.  Often, for instance, polemicists violate (4) for instance.  Basically, since I am king of my own roost, I am the final judge of who is being polemical and who is not.  And no, this is not unfair:  think of me as your loving father, keeping you from leading yourself into sin.

4.  Even if you are strongly opinionated, you must be an enquirer into Truth.  This doesn’t mean that we are necessarily “open minded” in the sense so often used today.  For instance, I will discuss with an atheist whether or not God exists, and no matter how badly I get thrashed I probably won’t change my opinion (however, this doesn’t that the honest enquirer cannot change his mind ever in debates; I just don’t see it happen often).  The human psyche doesn’t work that way, and no one should expect it to.  As William Vallicella has said, show me an argument dealing with a philosophical issue of substantial weight, and I’ll show you what’s wrong with it.  Rather, the enquirer into Truth seeks to test and purify both his own position, and the position of his opponent  (Of course, the object of debate tends to be to make your opponent purify his position more than you purify yours!).  If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, read some of Plato’s dialogues (and if you’ve never read Plato’s dialogues, I feel very, very sorry for you.  They are such a treat to read!).

5.  If you ever notice that

a) you get upset while you are reading/ responding to a post, and/or

 b) find yourself angry at the person you are arguing with, then

stop the debate.  The debate has probably outlived its usefulness, and the only reason people usually continue to debate is because they have issues with pride, thinking that their opinion must be heard, or that they won’t let their opponent get the last word.  Life is a much richer thing than Internet debating, and in the grand scheme of things the state of our immortal souls is more important than getting the last word. 

6.  We are all Christians:  act like it.  And if you aren’t a Christian, you should be, and therefore you should act like it.  That means that Truth must be balanced by charity.  This is very difficult enough as it is in the real world, but it is tough on the Internet, too.  When we aren’t encountering people as we do in real life, we often do not realize that the person we are arguing with is another human being.  And since we are protected by the walls of our rooms and oftentimes a few hundred miles between us and our opponents, we often find ourselves being a little harsher than prudence would suggest.  I admit, I’m guilty of this myself at times. 

7. On a similar note, since we cannot read people’s body language or listen to the tone in their voices to sense their mood, we often supply the mood through our own interpretation of their words.  Avoid projecting your mood onto their words as much as possible.  There is nothing worse than projecting anger on a non-angry opponent and then having them respond in kind.  But on the flip side, make sure that you check your own words and see if something could easily be misinterpreted as angry, sarcastic, or anything else that could be inflammatory.

I may add more rules later, but for now these are the rules.  I’ve lived by these rules for a long time, longer, in fact, than I’ve been a practicing Christian.  Therefore, as far as this blog is concerned, they are, pace Captain Barbosa, not just guidelines.

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