The Stakes Are Small

This is an indirect response to a post over at Thoughts of a Regular Guy entitled ‘Turncoats in the Culture War’.

It is a cliche in academia that the disputes are vicious because the stakes are small. I think this is a useful saying to keep in mind for bloggers as well.

One benefit of the internet is that it allows people who would not otherwise meet to discuss and debate topics of common interest. It is easy to forget, however, that relatively few people frequently traffic political blogs (still less, Catholic political blogs), or are even moderately politically informed. Furthermore, the people who do traffic blogs tend to already have strong opinions about politics/religion/culture, and so are the least likely to be persuaded on an issue of significance. The influence of any one blogger (or team of bloggers) is fairly limited.

I say all of this not, of course, to argue that blogging is pointless; just that it is not as important as the tenor of some of our conversations would suggest. It is easy in practice to confuse two very different things: 1) the importance of the issue being discussed; 2) the importance of a given conversation about that issue. What this suggests to me is that blogging is a recreational activity which should be of service in some small way to others and to the Church.

It is not a forum to say the type of uncharitable things one cannot say in face-to-face conversations, nor a place to vent, still less a place to carry on extended grudge matches with perceived ideological opponents. I have certainly been guilty of all of these behaviors at various points. However, as far as I can recall, the only times I have actually changed my mind about an issue in response to a blog post, the writer made a well-reasoned case that took counter-claims seriously, rather than focusing on polemics or personal attacks. I doubt my experience is atypical. This is a long way of saying three things: 1) Strong personal denunciations are generally unpersuasive, uncharitable, and unnecessary (alliteration!); 2) It is better to focus on the merits of arguments rather than the people making them; 3) The following cartoon proves that a picture is more valuable than three hundred and sixty-two words:


7 Responses to The Stakes Are Small

  1. Gerard E. says:

    In other words, play nice in the sandbox, boys and girls.

  2. John Henry says:

    You have a nice way of getting quickly to the point Gerard.

  3. Ryan Harkins says:

    As a note, that xkcd comic tickled me pink the first time I read it, and it continues to do so. I haven’t spent as much time frequenting forums or discussion groups as I could have, but I have seen such a plethora of bad arguments that often my fingers twitch in an autonomic urge to respond. Of course, that doesn’t prevent my arguments from being bad themselves, but there is certainly an, “Aaaaahhhh! That person is dead wrong! The universe will come to a halt if I don’t rebut him!”

  4. crankycon says:

    but there is certainly an, “Aaaaahhhh! That person is dead wrong! The universe will come to a halt if I don’t rebut him!”

    Right on! I think I have gotten myself into more trouble hastily interjecting myself into a discussion because I have seen someone making what I deem to be a bad faith argument – not just wrong, but wrong and full of strawmen argument. I have tried more and more to let trollish comments pass, but it’s a battle.

    That said, I do think that we can distinguish between ad hominen argumentation and strongly worded arguments. I think that Paul’s post falls more squarely into the latter category.

  5. It does seem awfully easy in the blogsphere for quarrels to take on a family argument like quality, in which all slights are remembered as if they were yesterday and only unconditional surrender is acceptable.

  6. jonathanjones02 says:


    I agree entirely.

  7. John Henry says:

    That said, I do think that we can distinguish between ad hominen argumentation and strongly worded arguments. I think that Paul’s post falls more squarely into the latter category.

    crankycon – I am afraid I disagree. I thought the post did a good job of laying out the pro-life case for being concerned about President-elect Obama. And I agreed with quite a bit of it. However, I had the following problems:

    1) The post: There is no doubt in my mind that this swing is due in no small part to a small number of allegedly “pro-life” self-identified “Catholics” who argued loud and long that Barack Obama was somehow the more “pro-life” candidate than his opponent

    This assigns a disproportionate share of the blame for Obama’s victory on people like Kmiec and the VN crew, which I think is inaccurate (the economy and W. were the real causes). VN only attracts about a thousand visitors a day (most of them repeats) and the comment threads suggest most of these people have already formed strong opinions. Assigning a large share of an electoral defeat (particularly by 8 million votes) to them is misguided.

    2) I do not think it is fair to equate Kmiec (who really was a fraud) with the VN contributors, many of whom I believe are sincere on the whole, even if I strongly disagree with them on many issues.

    3) The post incorrectly stated that none of the VN contributors “have taken the slightest action,” that reflects that they are pro-life, when, in fact, they have spent a great deal of time over the past several weeks putting together an open letter to Obama addressing pro-life concerns.

    4) The attack on RCM seemed unnecessary and out of place in the context of the post.

    5) The end of the post had the air of an ex-communication. As these writers all profess to be pro-life Catholics, I think this type of personal denunciation is unfair. In the larger culture war, the VN contributors are on our side and they are our brothers ans sisters in Christ. As Darwin described above, the language from the end of the post sounds like it is from a particularly nasty family feud:

    And I’m calling bullshit on this band of turncoats, these deserters, these cowards, these Quislings, Douglas Kmiec, Nicholas Cafardi, Morning’s Minion, Michael J. Iafrate, M.Z. Forrest, Radical Catholic Mom, and all the others who claim to be “pro-life” but who argued for the abortion president to get the votes of pro-lifers.They are not pro-life, and they are lying baldfacedly when they claim to be….We have tried to persuade them. The Church has tried to persuade them. They will not listen even to the Church. Let them be to us pro-life Catholics as pro-abortion liberals and tax collectors. May God have mercy on them. I will not forget.

%d bloggers like this: