Thursday, August 26, 2010

Whatever happened to discussion and dialogue?

Whatever happened to dialogue and discussion? It seems that much that passes as interchange has disappeared, with the online world being the biggest killing field. Almost everywhere you go looking for intelligent input there is little or no thoughtful response to something that has been said or been posted. An honest and astute interplay of ideas is becoming rare because instead of responding rationally people seem determined to respond viscerally, ad hominen, and with raw emotions rather than enquiring mind.

Online forums (fora?) have become settings in which moderating or dissenting voices are literally drowned out by those who shout and pontificate. Each online setting develops its own peculiar brand of political correctness, and woe betide anyone who crosses a particular line in the sand. Often these correctnesses are contrary to the original intention of the owner of the site, and they will lean heavily in one direction or another. There is in many places what can be described as a Rush Limbaugh approach to conversation: not to listen to what another is saying but to shout the so-and-so down because he or she has no right to say such things in this setting, and besides, any fool knows that their position is wrong and not worthy of serious consideration.

The result of such a quarrelsome modus operandi is animosity so that those with helpful insights on a particular subject in that setting refuse to post there any longer because, honestly, life is too short to put up with that sort of wrangling. There is a particular site that I have visited for a long, long time and will probably continue to visit because it is helps me to stay up-to-date with things that are going on, but last week I wrote the owner to say that I will no longer be contributing because I just don't have the stomach for the bruisings I so often have been given. I am delighted to engage with people who read the materials and want to discuss them, but I am no longer willing to be treated as if I am weak in the head, apostate, someone who taken up arms against the western world.

Wherever I look, on either side of the Atlantic, there is animus being hurled around online as one adamant group takes on the other. Scurrilous things are said which people should not be allowed to get away with -- but because people like me have now opted out, they do. This only makes them bolder, less reflective, and more bombastic, so the whole sorry cycle is intensified. Whatever one's principles or presuppositions, some of the things that I have read about the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Newt Gingrich, James Dobson, and so on, and so on, should be challenged because they are a parody of the reality. If there is such a thing as freedom of speech, and I believe there is, then individuals should not be allowed to get away with some of the things they write or say.

In a sane and ordered setting this is possible, but in one where an unyielding pack mentality prevails, the pack's job is to pounce on anyone who strays into their little domain and questions what they hold to be precious and true. Anyone doing so reaches the point in the end where we find there is no longer any delight in banging our heads against this particular brick wall. Besides, no one is listening. The result is that creative debate does not take place, lines in the sand become concrete bunkers, and constructive dissent becomes impossible.

When I was in seminary and university in what is now the distant past we were rigorously schooled in the fundamentals of logic so that we might learn rationally to analyze an argument and respond to it in an informed and reasonable manner. It was some of the most valuable teaching I had, but in today's forums that rules of logic and principles of rhetoric have all but disappeared. We have delineated ourselves into what are essentially two armed camps slugging things out. Moderating voices are sidelined and so the answers now HAVE to be right or wrong, black or white, left or right, liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive, and so forth, and so forth.

I am not sure that discussion in most places on the Internet as they are presently configured can be redeemed, partly because I am not sure that those who shout and holler from atop their particular soap box want to hear any other position or view than their own. They are convinced that they are right, they have the truth, and others are so wrong that alternative voices do not deserve to be heard. To function this way is to stray into very dangerous territory that will have disasterous consequences in the long term.

When this happens among Christian people then we have to examine ourselves to see if this is how we learned Christ.

(Also posted on

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