Rules of engagement


A few years ago, after the actor Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn in "The Lord of the Rings") made some mindless comments on The Charlie Rose Show, I took him to task on my blog. What I didn't know was that a passel of neo-Nazis are big Viggo fans. Not long after, I discovered from the Web traffic coming to my blog (because I'm vain that way) that the neo-Nazis were having a debate, on their own website, about whether I was a Jew. They'd even posted a picture of me holding my son, so they could examine the shapes of our heads.

You can't make stuff like this up.

Anyway, I was shocked, and incensed, and so I wrote what I thought would be a biting and hilarious post about it. Well, before long there was a wide-ranging debate in the Comments section of my blog, with a handful of the neo-Nazis weighing in about race and religion, and several of my regular readers arguing with them, and me jumping into the fray from time to time myself.

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What sticks with me is that the neo-Nazis, despite their paranoia and the wickedness of their worldview, displayed more civility and logic than some people who post here.

That came to mind Friday, when I decided I was neither going to participate in, nor read, the WORLD webzine comments any more. I don't have time to spend correcting people who deliberately assume the worst about my motivations, I told myself. I have a PhD in political science, and I worked in Washington, went the internal, preening monologue in my head, and these people want to lecture me about politics?

I got closer to the truth when I admitted that it feels like a wound, to try to make a point in good faith, and to be beset by what seem to be niggling remarks, and sarcastic one-liners, and diatribes about my hypocrisy or ignorance. It takes too much emotional energy, I reasoned. I have to preserve that for the parts of my life where it's really needed.

Of course that wasn't really the truth, either. The plain truth of it is that I want to look good to others. I want people to read what I've written, hold it up to the light, and celebrate its shimmering brilliance. So while there have been times I felt wronged -- believed that a commenter wrongly assessed me as a person, or misread my words, or said something untrue and then failed to apologize when corrected -- my indignation still springs from a sinful place, which is my desire to be admired.

Cross it with the fact that I want to see this website become something important, and I have a dilemma. To pull away from comments completely is to forego an opportunity to help make WORLD's webzine a place where significant and thoughtful discussion -- and therefore valuable learning -- occurs. But to read them is to end up fuming, because of this nagging self-obsession that I have.

So I prayed about it, and discussed it with my wife. As I grow with her, I am discovering that helpmate means so much more than: someone who will cook your food. She gently confirmed my own suspicions about the matter, which is that I need to get over it, and participate where I think engaging someone might be worthwhile, and not let vanity put me on a path of "setting straight" every person who misperceives or misrepresents what I write, or who is simply mean-spirited.

This wise counsel, in turn, led me to formulate these rules of engagement, which I was going to keep to myself, until some reflection led me to think perhaps some of you might benefit from them as well. At the very least, you'll know why I ignore some comments and not others.


I will endeavor to exhibit, and will only engage in discourse with those who exhibit, the following qualities:

Civility: Just to be clear, I appreciate an articulate evisceration (Mark Twain's devastating and hilarious essay on James Fenimore Cooper, for example) and believe that, beneath the right pen, a lampoon or critical essay is a work of art. One usually finds such things written about public figures, who have afforded the critic a sizeable body of words and actions from which to draw conclusions about their motivations, personal qualities, and so on. I think in a Comments forum, however, which endeavors to be something like a roundtable discussion, and where the participants know relatively little about one another's lives, I ought not to attribute motives, ridicule someone's point of view, or speak in a generally combative or mean-spirited manner. Civility doesn't require that I refrain from disagreeing with someone. It means that I begin with the assumptions that: 1) I may be the only Christ someone meets today; 2) the person I'm addressing has good motives; and 3) my responsibility is to make a valuable point, not to score points.


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