Is dialogue impossible? I hope not!

My bags are packed and I’m flying out to Lima tomorrow. Here’s one last post before I go. It’s actually a two for one special.

The National Catholic Reporter recently suspended their discussion boards due to increased negativity and lack of civil discourse among some respondents. NCR was known for its active comment boards. “NCR Today”, their online blog, received the 2013 Catholic Press Award for its far-reaching discussions. Many of us are missing these discussions, even if they did get nasty at times. Here’s a piece that I wrote for NCR Today on this issue.

In the article, I’ve included a link to a Prairie Messenger column I wrote before Christmas addressing the issue of modern day Pharisees in the Church. (Spoiler alert; Pope Francis is on our side!)

And now I’m off. See you all in two weeks!

In much gratitude for the many good women and men who add to the dialogue with insight, inspiration, and respect.


26 thoughts on “Is dialogue impossible? I hope not!

  1. At first I thought removing the comments beneath articles was almost un-American. Yet, I have always found (stress always) that the comments’ section dwindled into rants against others, whether it was the actual article itself or other commenters, and way too often became very personal with snide remarks. And NCR is not alone in this problem.
    The issue isn’t dialogue. The issues are temperament, rigidity, narrowness, an inability to speak to the topic itself and alone, suspicion, fear, self-righteousness, and more. In an anonymous format, and unfortunately in today’s volatile political climate even not so anonymous, it is the “attack ad” style of communication, the one-liner, the dagger Tweet, the punch line, the piercing comment that wins the day. And it is more the effort to ‘win the day’ than broaden the discussion that permeates the comments.
    While I miss, selfishly, the opportunity to throw in my two-cents, I am at peace that NCR has dropped the comments. Much too often in reading the comments the article gets lost. That is not to say the articles are always gospel or open-minded or correct in their perspective either. And I agree that open, honest ‘dialogue’ is essential to our church. But in today’s commentary world I’m just not sure we are up to it. And once NCR or any publication starts to moderate or censure a comment, the question always comes back, why this one and not that one? Or to paraphrase Pope Francis: who are you to judge?
    I don’t know any answer. But I believe it speaks sadly of where we are at with all of our communication tools and processes available.
    Thanks for allowing your readers to respond! (Of course, the irony)

  2. “And it is more the effort to ‘win the day’ than broaden the discussion that permeates the comments.” Ah, this is the difference between debate and dialogue. Just as there is an art to debate, there is an art to dialogue. Your description of the tone of most comment boards is spot on, and shows how far most are from understanding this art. Thanks for your comments, David.

  3. I would like to respond since I was one of the primary targets in the article on gay marriage that resulted in the suspension of NCR comments. In one of my posts, I shared that fact that after 26th years and on the day of our anniversary (Jan 9th), my partner would be legally married in the District of Columbia. That post resulted in the most vile, hateful and judgmental comments imaginable. In no way would similar comments ever be tolerated against any other racial or ethnic minority — NEVER. There is no right side to a wrong issue. I am very glad that NCR suspended the comment function until a more responsible and transparent method to identify commentators can be developed.

    1. I am truly sorry that you were attacked, and I believe that there is no place for hateful comments about any person or group. But what I don’t understand is why those comments were not simply removed and the account of the person who attacked you was not blocked.
      It seems to me that by discontinuing the comment section, NCR let the posters of the homophobic and other attack comments win. It seems to me that by posting the hateful comments, the attackers were trying to silence those of us who disagreed with them. And they seemed to have succeeded. How sad!

      1. That was exactly the nature of my response to NCR. Thank you! NCR
        changed its method and went with DISQUS. It was after this that the
        very slanted comments, mostly from the right, started showing up. The review process was not tight and now depended on other commentators
        flagging the abusers. The NCR staff was only reacting to the flagged comments. DISQUS severely damaged the blog by having the thumbs up/ thumbs down capability. It was a step down. In cancelling the section
        NCR managed tp paint everyone with the same brush. I still check in to NCR and feel quite stifled that I cannnot comment. I am sure eventually they will relent and find a means to improve the blog. Hopefully DISQUS
        will not be part of it. They also could have jumped in more forcefully much earlier. I got the feeling that they were not that involved with the process.
        I am sure there are many of us who would be more than willing to help.
        I too miss it, deeply.

      2. Tatiana – Thank you for your reply. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just one comment (or even a few) but a deluge of very disgusting and obscene comments repeatedly made by a number of people. The obvious take away was of being hated. Please note that these comments were picked up as part of a GLBT listserv and were noticed by others. Again and as I state above, such unbridled animus is not a “dialogue” and cannot be protected under the banner of “free speech.” It’s just intolerable hatred. Language creates reality with definite consequences. For example, 40% of US homeless teens are GLBT. They are kicked out of their homes b/c of their parents’ inability to reconcile their children’s sexual orientation to their religious belief. And there are just so many, many other examples.

      1. Isabella – Thank you for your kindness. Long ago we learned not to look outside of ourselves for any validation. But with the recent change in law (both the US Supreme Court and the IRS), legally married, same-sex couples now have access to over 1,000 benefits available to opposite-sex, married couples.

    2. Chaplain Bill,
      There was not a place to reply to your reply, but I wanted to respond, so I’m doing it in this space.
      I share your feelings of hurt and outrage. I agree completely with all that you have written. I do not believe that “hate speech” is the same as “free speech”. The thing is this: I believe that we, as a people of God are truly moving forward, although often in starts and jerks. I remember VERY clearly when it was acceptable to use hate speech against all sorts of groups — Blacks, Jews, Irish, Italians, the Polish, the handicapped, just about everyone who was different from the speaker. I clearly remember that when one would take offense at these remarks, one would be demeaned — even in so-called “polite society”. Things have changed markedly. To tell you the truth, I really don’t understand what it is about the LGBT population that inspires so much fear (because I believe that is the basis of all of this hatred). However, things are slowly changing. I know it is too slow for those who are suffering, but I see so much positive change, and this gives me much hope.
      I honestly don’t think that shutting down civil dialogue is the answer to stopping the hate speech. I remember seeing many comments of support to the victims of the hate speech, and I remember many disapproving comments (many there were not enough strong disapproval, I don’t know) to those who were committing the attacks. I think that we have to work harder at educating and at changing people’s minds. Their hearts will follow … eventually.
      In the meantime, once more, I want you to know that I am truly sorry about the attacks that you and others suffered, and that I will be much more active about responding to such remarks wherever I encounter them.

  4. Thank you very much, Isabella, for your article. You said essentially what I was planning to write in a Letter to the Editor.
    Although I did notice an increase lately in attack comments, unlike David, I did not find the comment section always turning into rants. I found a good amount of honest conversation. The comments provided valuable and interesting insights, which I usually found interesting and thought-provoking. Many of the commenters were very knowledgeable, and I learned a lot from them. I miss this. Without the discussion of the comment section, it’s as if the articles were incomplete.
    Although moderation of comments can be heavy-handed, it does not have to be so. I think that the comment code of NCR was clear and easy to follow. I see nothing wrong with deleting comments that attack authors or articles or of other comments, or those which attack a particular group. The comment code does not preclude stating varying points of view. A comment code can be refined with time and use. I much preferred a moderated comment section to no comment section at all.

  5. Hi Tatiana. I hope that the good folks at NCR can find a solution. I agree that careful moderation is the key, but I can only imagine how overwhelming it must be for the web editor when the boards are hyper-active with a hot button issue. Perhaps in these cases, a simple “closed to comments” will suffice. I’ve seen it done on some news discussion boards when responses become nasty and insensitive. Basically, suspend further comments on the one article.

    1. NCR originally screened all comments. I can imagine the cost and the time this would have taken. perhaps the DISQUS approach alleviated some
      of this ‘chore’. However it appeared to me that the DISQUS event brought
      on-line a whole other category of commentator. They were hard to live with. However, not noticed perhaps were those cases where there were
      ‘converts’ to a better form of communication. Some of those people became regulars. It was not a matter of changing opinions so much as
      learning to respect people with different opinions. The idea of closing the
      thread would have mixed reactions. It would be far better to simply remove
      the offending comments. I confess that I have had a comment or two
      denied. I have no problem with that at all. That is a positive step which
      not only protected NCR but me also. Blogging is essentially fast response
      writing and any of us can make a mistake. Thanks for your thoughts.

    2. Isabella,
      I know that some sites utilize volunteers to help. I know that I would be more than happy to dedicate some time to the task, once I was given clear guidelines. It seems to me that at least some of my fellow commenters (I know, that’s not really a word, but I don’t think that “commentator” quite applies in this case — but that’s my idiosyncrasy!) might also be willing to help.
      Again, thank you soooooo much for this article.

  6. I’m so glad that this article started a good discussion, and I hope that it continues. As I mentioned, I am travelling to Lima tomorrow. The settings on this blog require approval for all first time comments. If your post is not published, it is not necessarily that you are not approved. It’s just that I won’t have access to the internet for the next day or more. Peace to all!

  7. I, too, miss the comments section. I learned much from others on those boards that gave me hope. Just the contact with other thoughtful, well-educated Catholics was life-giving.. I loved as well the ability to express myself. As one who worked for the Catholic church for 24 years, I so enjoy the free speech of retirement!The tit-for-tat responses which developed interpersonally and ideologically were quite tedious and childish.Those could well be deleted. NCR said that they reserved the right to delete responses which strayed from the topic, but I rarely saw that happen. Bottom line: I hope they bring back comments with better controls.

  8. There were just as many liberal “trolls” as there were conservative ones. Better and more frequent moderating is the key

    1. I guess that it all depends on your definition of “troll”.
      However, I agree with you that moderating is key.

      1. Tatiana, I honestly believe that NCR thought Disqus was a good idea
        that would save time and energy. It backfired. having thumbs up and thumbs down was a giant step in the wrong direction. Moderation of some sort is essential. I am sure many of the regulars would be more than willing to help. Surely in this time of easily working from home, time could be donated.

      2. I sent a Letter to the Editor with that very suggestion (volunteer assistance with moderation). Perhaps if enough of us write in …..

    2. And that’s exactly the issue! If you see my mentioning that I was civilly-marrying same-sex partner of 26th years as “liberal” and not as basic civil rights issue then any dialogue is just impossible.

  9. Thank you Isabella for this post and for the related article at NCR. My response to NCR was that by terminating comments and discussion they have indeed ceded victory to the defamers, racists, bigots, homophobes, misogynists and radical fundamentalists. They won. NCR has lost in a very significant way, not by defeat but by surrender.
    In addition, once engaged in the value and practice of transparancy and community of dialogue, withdrawing from it because it was more difficult, more trepidatious, is akin to adopting some of the very characteristics of church which NCR was challenging- preaching without the risk of listening. While irrelevant, vitriolic, bottom-crawling/dragging is deplorable it is part of the reality we inhabit.
    While a more stringent censoring is necessary – albeit more demanding – it is foolhardy to pretend such opinions and mind-sets do not exist or that they can be discounted because they are distasteful. So to it is foolhardy to believe they can or should be “fenced off”, ingnored, let alone reasoned with. Hatred should be challenged, not tolerated by default.
    As it is with each of us our demons need exposure to be dispelled; our darkness needs light to be healed. So too, collectively, exposure – whether it is the abuse of reason or authority by absolutist patriarchy, the unbending rejection of personal intelligence and will, or the venom of threatened stereotype, emotionally held values of exclusion, hate, these cannot be healed only by constraint.
    I suspect that the increase in volume and intensity of vitriol etc., was partly attributable to Discus which exposes availability to a wider coterie of possible participants and thus disturbers. It is also my opinion, that some of it is/was engineered by deliberate collusion. Google might provide vocabulary and citation but some of the verbiage appeared to be constructed with a knowing ambiance.
    When I read articles now and scroll down to empty space, it saddens me. The dialogue in most respects encouraged me to “stay”, it maintains my interest and fueled faith, in church and in community. The sense that there existed a “we”, as feeble and distended though it might be is not supported by a “one-sided” conversation.

    1. Thank you Dennis. I agree with your sentiment. I cannot fault NCR for
      feeling swamped and helpless. Perhaps they could invite some of the regulars to help police the blog. It was never a matter of Conservative versus Liberal. That is patently false. One comment here indicated that
      there were also Liberal Trolls. In years of blogging on NCR I never saw
      a liberal voice deal in the kind of indecent slurs which caused the shutdown. I doubt that NCR realized in any way that they were conceding victory to anyone but for those of us who lived through the very painful time it was very evident that they achieved in their terms a big victory.
      WE can hope better days are ahead.

    2. Dennis,
      I agree with what you wrote so eloquently. Perhaps you would be willing to write a Letter to the Editor of NCR. I just did. Maybe, if they get enough of such letters, it may make a difference.
      Here’s to more conversation!

      1. Thank you Tatiana. I have written and expressed pretty much the same points. I noted in that letter as well the irony of having a post censored the day before their cessation that suggested a “sacred space without walls” that seems to be a characteristic of Pope Francis. A “space” that is more communitarian and non-judgmental wherein those not of good faith will be exposed for what and who they are.

      2. The response I got in a conversation with a rep was that they intend to
        restore the function and are working on how to do it.

  10. In addition to the many homophobic comments from the anti-SSM side, there were many on the pro-SSM side speculating on the sexuality of their opponents as the basis for their opposition to gay marriage. It was disgusting all around and I’m glad you addressed this.

    I wonder, however, if calling your opponents “Pharisees” as you do in your article is not the same sort of thing. In NCR, even a description of church teaching was met with much calumny.

    My preference would be for NCR to limit comments to subscribers of the newspaper.

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