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.
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.
WOODLIEF'S RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
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.
Logic: The Almighty Creator, in his infinite wisdom, bestowed us with a world governed by rules, and with brains designed to grasp those rules. In short: A ain't B, and there's not much point in tussling with someone who doesn't see that.
Humility: If the goal of our discourse is to be understood, we have to be willing to understand, which means we have to -- truly, in the deepest part of ourselves -- be willing to be wrong. Perhaps it's possible that one or two of us are never wrong, but the funny thing about such people is that they are indistinguishable from the arrogant errants; there's no point in talking to members of either group. We should just let them hold forth, and then move on with the discussion.
So there you have it. Feel free to peruse my blog or other published work, find something I've written that violates what I've said here, and call me a hypocrite. (If you have trouble finding something like that, email me and I'll point you in the right direction.) Or give me a Bible quote (King James version, please!) that reveals the unrighteousness in one of my proposed rules. Or just call me a big fat stupid doofus, with sugar on top.
But don't expect a reply.
(PS: I wrote that last sentence with a cheerful countenance. If you don't believe me, look at my little avatar.)