The Internet can be a powerful tool for dialogue, a dialogue that could serve the church well. Conversations on ecclesial matters are no longer limited to professional ministers in the church or secret doctrinal offices. Blogs and online discussion boards allow many and varied voices to be heard. But, dialogue is not well served with mud-slinging brawls, mean-spirited comments and hate-filled diatribes.
I spend a lot of time (too much time!) reading Catholic news web sites, blogs and discussion boards. Some are a meeting place of like-minded souls supporting each other in their shared ideologies. These discussion boards can form a valuable community experience and a safe environment. This is a good thing, but it could also prevent a more inclusive dialogue.
The best discussion boards are those that welcome all voices while maintaining civility and respect in the discourse. Good and consistent moderation is the key as is maturity and discretion among the participants. It is sad to see the beginnings of a good dialogue dissolve into childish one-liner attacks that have nothing at all to do with the original topic. Which leads me to the issue of Internet trolls.
What are Internet trolls? Psychology Today, in an article titled Internet Trolls Are Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Sadists provides this definition,
An Internet troll is someone who comes into a discussion and posts comments designed to upset or disrupt the conversation. Often, in fact, it seems like there is no real purpose behind their comments except to upset everyone else involved. Trolls will lie, exaggerate, and offend to get a response.
The same article referenced a Canadian research that studied the personalities of Internet trolls, wondering if there was a link with “the “Dark Tetrad” of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism”. Not surprisingly, the connection was a strong one. To quote the authors,
Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others. Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!
It’s easy to spot the trolls on Catholic sites. They have no compunction in their venomous attacks. You can challenge their lack of basic Christian charity or compassion to no avail. Respond to them, and they will quickly respond back. You can almost picture them salivating with pleasure at the prospect of a long and dirty debate while you get increasingly more angry and frustrated.
The key is not to be taken in by these scurrilous scoundrels. A dear friend (and Archbishop) once told us that being a Christian never means being a doormat. Yes we can, and should, promote dialogue. Catholics include women and men on all points of the Trad-Lib spectrum and we need to talk in order to better know and understand each other. But, we do not have to listen to, or provide a venue for, those who are unwilling to listen and respond respectfully to others.
If an in-person conversation is going sour, it is often difficult or impossible to walk away without seeming rude. In online discussions we can leave the conversation by simply not responding.
Do not take the bait.
Do not succumb to the temptation.
Do not feed the trolls!