Sunday, June 18, 2006

Why I am Fed Up With Internet Discussion Boards

By Dave Armstrong

[originally uploaded on 10 October 2003. Revised on 20 January 2004]

* * * * *

I'm through with discussion boards. It's hard for someone like myself, who passionately loves good dialogue and discussion, to reach such a sad, despairing conclusion and to make such a resolution, but it is necessary. My disenchantment has been a long, slow process. I've always become eventually fed up with discussion boards, chats, and lists since March 1996 when I first went online and frequented the Religion Forum in Compuserve - even though I have managed to find good conversation on many occasions (as evidenced by dozens of posted dialogues that occurred in such places).

Anyone who truly wants to reply to a paper of mine or offer an intelligent, non-personal, reasoned, rationally-argued critique is fully encouraged to do so according to the criteria I have posted on my home page for many years now:

The only sort of letter that I am absolutely committed to answering, is a comprehensive, point-by-point (and amiable) critique of one of my papers.
That applies to everyone, no matter what I think of their theology. But they must do what my "offer" requires: not a scattershot, "answer whatever I think I can answer and ignore the rest and hope that people won't notice that I was conveniently selective" sort of approach.

The reasons for my negative conclusion are varied and many. As a very broad, general rule of thumb (with many exceptions), I don't think Internet discussion boards and rooms and lists foster good discussion. I believe that the medium is severely flawed (as many people have noted). The absence of facial expression, tone of voice, humor, smiles, body language, pauses and vigor of argumentation; the lack of personal contact and getting to know people before launching into discussions of great importance, and so forth, breed many misunderstandings which would otherwise be avoided. To put it another way: people act much differently in these places than in person or even on the phone.

In my own case, people form a vastly different impression of me in person than they have of me online or based on writing alone. Part of that is the unfortunate stereotype of the apologist as a dour, killjoy, know-it-all, ideas-without-feelings-or-compassion-or-love sort of person (see my paper, "Apologia for Apologists and Apologetics"). No one who has ever met me in person has ever thought that! I'm very easy-going, am described as "soft-spoken" (I rarely dominate discussion in a room full of people), and I love to laugh and have fun.

But the negative image of apologists is one thing I have to deal with in my "line of work." Part of my goal is to offer an alternative to what many people seem to think apologetics is about. My goal is to build up people's faith, not tear it down. Even when I interact with Protestants or Orthodox, I'm not trying to bash their personal faith or belief-system, but to show how a Catholic replies and defends their views, whenever differences occur. I am a Catholic until and unless I am persuaded otherwise; and I will defend Catholicism. At the same time I rejoice in the many beliefs that all Christians hold in common. Ecumenism is no more contrary to apologetics than love itself is.

I also think that many people on these boards play to the crowd, and the atmosphere lends itself quite often to a sort of macho enterprise of showing off and sophistry, illegitimate rhetoric and propaganda and polemics, putting others down, "kicking people's butts" and so on. Boards are places where huge egos thrive, and where they feed themselves at other peoples' expense. These factors bring out the lowest instincts and faults of man (particularly spiritual and intellectual pride), feed on human insecurities and petty jealousies, and kill good discussion whenever they are present (which is very often). This state of affairs doesn't inevitably have to be, but human nature being what it is, that's how it is.

I want to make it very clear that I don't deny that there are many, many exceptions to this, and don't wish to denigrate anyone who enjoys Internet boards. If that weren't true I would have come to my despairing conclusion in 1996 or 1997 at the latest. All the good things kept me coming back. But the negative stuff is an overwhelming tendency I have noted and have become increasingly disgusted with. If someone is finding good discussion and opportunities for outreach, more power to them.

A lot of this also has to do with my own extreme lack of patience with anti-Catholics (those who think Catholicism isn't a Christian belief-system). That is my fault, but until I am more patient in that regard it is best to remove myself from situations where I am prone to becoming very angry - not an emotional anger, based on something "personal", but a detestation and despising of the ideas of anti-Catholicism and how they are so destructive of the faith of Catholics and of Christian unity. I've dealt with most of the major Internet anti-Catholics in writing. I don't have to deal with them also in boards and rooms.

I have found boards far more frustrating than edifying. I suspect that it may have more than a little to do with my being fairly well-known in apologetics circles and particularly the Internet apologetics "community." People keep telling me that I am cited frequently on many Internet boards, perhaps more than any other Catholic apologist. I've often heard this, even from my opponents (who cite that as one reason why they feel led to oppose my ideas).

This is a very nice compliment to receive, and personally rewarding (every writer wants to be read by many, of course), but I think it may also be a curse (at least on an experiential level), because along with the "popularity" comes a sort of a generated "gunfighter" mentality, where I come onto a board and certain people want to "put me in my place". I've tried on many occasions to have a more personal relationship with some of my critics, but several have persistently refused to do so.

For example, a few months back, one of my harshest critics and I were both in a live chat room (the last time I was ever in one). It was cordial enough (I was also talking to another woman present). This was a chance to cut through the crap and get to know each other as human beings. But this person made it clear immediately afterwards that it didn't change anything. He took a positive, human, real thing and made it negative as fast as he could. An opportunity was thus lost; a door closed. People don't want to get to know each other.

Boards operate on an extremely male-oriented approach to human relationships. Women understand this very well and do far better, I think. Men can get together and completely skip over the personal, "how are you doing?," "what's going on in your life,?" "what has bothered or hurt you lately?," "how is it going with x, y, or z problem?" They go right to the intellectual and the problem-solving theological, apologetic types of discussions (especially on the Internet).

The problem with such a "disembodied" ideas-only approach is that, oftentimes, once disagreements set in, there was no necessary prior build-up of trust and good will, within which constructive discussion and discourse can only occur (at least for any decent length of time). So when the disagreements come, usually on these boards, personal insults immediately enter into the previously-constructive and amiable discussion, because the people don't really know each other. They assume the worst and the accusations fly, because they don't know the other person well enough to know that they are not closed-minded, obstinate, or some other charge that so often comes out in these discussions.

I keep maintaining that good dialogue has to take place in an atmosphere of good will and mutual trust and respect. So when those things are noticeably absent, in my opinion, the discussion is sabotaged and ruined from the outset. Nothing can come of it and nothing positive will be accomplished. This is why I consistently refuse to interact with anti-Catholics, unless (in some particular exceptions which I make) the discussion is removed from a "live chat" or "public board discussion" environment, which only accentuates and exaggerates the problems here discussed.

Why, then, do people still want to engage in discussions, anyway, when there is ill will and bad feeling and little respect beteween two parties? Well, because it is a macho, competitive, "get the heretic," "show how ignorant and stupid so-and-so is" mentality (at least that's my best guess). Why in the world should one try to do a discussion with someone, with all that baggage, coming into it? What's the point? This is not good-natured dialogue or charitable, gentlemanly discussion. It is a mud-wrestling match.

On Internet discussion boards, people often play to the crowd. I don't care about ANY of that. I care about the truth and the ideas. I'm not into apologetics for the sake of my ego, or to "prove anything" on a purely personal level or to belittle others or make them feel dumb or inferior. I don't do this to win a popularity contest. I do it because I am called to it by God (I've known this since 1981) and I love sharing Christianity and the particular message of Catholicism with people. So I care nothing about getting patted on the back by others in a room. Of course that's nice; everyone likes encouragement (I'm no different), but it is not why I do what I do. It plays no part in that whatever.

I'm not about "winning" and "putting people in their place." I got over that phase (one which many young apologists fall into) in the early 80s. I'm about seeking the truth; sharing it when I think I have a bit of it (by God's grace alone) to share, and learning more of it whenever I can, in dialogue with people who care about the issues and truth as much as (or preferably more than) I do. But personal attacks and cynical second-guessing about motives kill discussion, and this sort of nonsense is largely the reason I am through with discussion boards.

I kept moving around, hoping to find a board which was always pleasant and fun and enjoyable; not filled with personal attacks and unethical silliness. I never managed to find one like that. I was severely disappointed every time. I can find a type of dialogue on the Internet very easily, by interacting with existing online papers, or reading and "dialoguing" with classic works and people like Luther, Calvin, Schaff, Edwards, Wesley, Orthodox authors, atheists and cultists, Orthodox Jews, etc. I can engage people in private correspondence and then post it on my website. There is plenty of that to be had.

I would like to read much more than I have the last few years. I have plenty of books in my library just waiting to be absorbed into my brain. People lived before the Internet and discussion boards (even computers). They survived without it. They didn't go insane. They figured out something to do to pass the time. People even survived before TV!

If it is addicting, then I suggest that people reconsider and re-evaluate its place in their lives. No doubt families and marriages are being adversely affected. I do most of my writing late at night and spend time with my children and wife every day (my wife and I try to do something fun - music, movies, documentaries - almost every night, if we are at home). That hasn't been a problem for me, but I know that it must be for many people, if they have fallen into an addiction.

Fighting and wrangling (rather than dialoguing) on these boards is a waste of time and energy, is a bad witness to the world, and divides Christians - all of which are the devil's victories. May God help us to see this. I urge all Christians to deeply examine what occurs in Internet discussions, and if they are contributing to the poisonous, spiritually-destructive environment that often is the status quo. If their conscience is clear after such an examination, great (I am not their judge), but if they see the things I have been describing, may God give them the will and resolve to spend time in more fruitful pursuits. Maybe we can start a movement or new trend . . .


Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

I am very ill ecquipped right now to answer above point by point. I will cut it into two major points:

- ill manners and lack of charity on the boards

- addiction or affecting personal life.

As to the last, I have as yet no wife or children. Also, computers are most of the time only available in things open typically 11am-10pm - with line-ups between every forty minutes - or 10am-19pm/13am-19am et c. depending on the day of the week - without direct access to blogger/blogspot commenting and several blogs on blogspot - so internet does take up so much of my time that an addictologist would be alarmed. I tend to take Chesterton's view of addictologists (cryptomuslims).

Now, bad manners: yes, people calling me mad, incoherent, childish et c. have occurred. And may probably have affected my offline life adversely as well - if they are powerful enough, not as individuals but as per connexions.

But a discussion with such people can be sifted from their personal insults. Here is a blog with discussions reposted, and first about the kind of editing I did:

What kind of editing I did ... and what kind of copy-pasting

Then a link to my threads on Catholic Forums:

A thread from (more may be added) [More was also added]

Then click top of either page and enjoy the by now 44 discussion messages!

But FB discussion groups basically suck (excuse expression), because the comments get so many so quickly, and because unlike either of the kinds of forum I took above from, it is hard to link an answer back to what one answered if it was posted some 30 - 100 messages ago.

Matt. said...

Dave thank you for this article.