(“Duty Calls” at xkcd.com)
I’m not always proud of my behavior online. No, really! Still, I am better than I used to be; and, as I always tell my kids, you can’t ask for more than progress. Here are a few things that help me behave when discussing important topics (especially religious ones) online:
Remember there’s a person on the other end. When things get intense, I sometimes mention something personal to bring the conversation back to a human level: Instead of “I’ve wasted enough time with you, thickhead” try “Gotta go throw that meatloaf in the oven now.” Someone else is likely to say, “Hey, we’re having meatloaf, too!” and everyone suddenly remembers that, if we were sitting around the kitchen and smelling meatloaf cooking, we wouldn’t be talking to each other so nastily (even if the other person really is a thickhead).
“Be gentle, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” You’ve arrived at your point of view through pure intellect, but they’ve arrived at theirs through pure malice or stupidity, right? Probably not. People who disagree with you are using their brains, but also their experience—which may have been nothing like yours. Your dad was great; theirs was a monster, and maybe that’s why they can’t accept the fatherhood of God. We are all kind of a mess inside, and won’t see ourselves or anyone else clearly until the Second Coming. Remember that there is no point of view in a vacuum: we all have baggage.
Pray before you comment. I don’t actually do this, but I know I should. Just a quick, “Lord, bless Mr. Troll”—it couldn’t hurt, right? Or you could say to yourself, “I am pleasing God by writing the following,” and see if that changes your tone at all.
Fake it till you make it. If you can’t be nice for the sake of Christian charity, do it because it makes you look good. If someone is being horrible to you, you can strike back horribly, and then no one is happy. Or you can respond with preternatural patience and a smothering kindness, which will at very least make other people rally around you. And occasionally, the person who lashed out will collapse and apologize.
Apologize when you’re wrong, and do it like a Catholic: in the active voice. If you’ve hurt someone, intentionally or not, then say you’re sorry for what you did—not “I’m sorry your poor widdle feelings got poked with the sharpness of my intellect.” If you got really carried away, a follow-up by personal email can make a big difference next time you clash with your opponent. If the other guy refuses to apologize, it’s his problem on his conscience, not yours.
Know when to go. If you’ve made your point as clearly as you can several times, and people still don’t agree with you, then there are three possible reasons: (a) you’re wrong; (b) you’re right, but not a good explainer; or (c) you’re right and eloquent, but this audience simply won’t hear you. In any case, it’s time to move along.
And finally, remember that the fate of the Church does not rest on your shoulders. No matter how important the topic of conversation, it’s just a conversation, and your first obligation is to the people physically around you. Are you getting shaky? Have you heard yourself shriek, “Shut up, shut up, I’m defending Communion on the tongue!!!” Has your home shown up on Drudge with the headline “House of Filth?” If so, then whatever you lose by losing the argument is not as important as what you will gain by walking away.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go throw a pizza in the oven.