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August 03, 2010
Someone’s wrong on the internet
By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *

By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *

“And you call yourself a Christian!” Intemperate remarks in website comment boxes –even at Christian and Catholic sites--are a regular source of agitation, disappointment and bemusement.

Any internet discussion has the inherent limitation of being unlimited. Since anyone from any perspective and any level of knowledge can join in at any point in the conversation without having read what’s gone before, it can be hard to define terms, find a point of agreement and move the discussion forward from there.

We probably have to learn to be satisfied with website conversations being an inconclusive sharing of experiences rather than philosophically exact. Otherwise we’ll exhaust ourselves explaining to each newcomer what we didn’t mean and didn’t say and aren’t talking about (as you would know if you’d read carefully!)

At some point it’s best to let it go, in the spirit of the cartoon you’ve perhaps seen. The feverish typist explains to his spouse why he’s not coming to bed yet. “Can’t sleep. Someone’s wrong on the internet!”

Then there are the remarks I call “SCUD missiles,” after the clumsy Iraqi weaponry. That’s when an obviously emotional commenter details his or her painful personal circumstance and proclaims any discussion of the topic insensitive. How could you even bring that up, don’t you know you’re hurting people?

Nice weather we’re having lately!

That’s about all that’s left to talk about if the rule is that if anyone is sensitive on the topic, no one else is permitted to explore it.

The passions we have always with us, our time no worse than any other, except perhaps in one respect. Whereas in healthier times a person might have been expected to have enough self-awareness to say, “I can’t talk about this now, I’m too emotional,” we now practically consider unwieldy emotions the ticket for admission to debate.

The more caught up I am in the middle of a difficult situation, the more “authentic” my opinion is considered and the more it will be solicited by reporters so their stories pop with “human interest” and by politicians to illustrate the urgency of their proposals.

It’s not the end of the world in a comment box, but this privileging of passions endangers rational thinking about the common good.

Experience can bring wisdom, but generally not while we’re in the throes of experiencing. It’s the passage of time and cooling of blood that brings perspective.

Suggest that the law ought to nurture marriage and one is sure to get an earful about innocent spouses abandoned to poverty by heartless partners or likeable same-sex partners doing a better job raising their adopted children than some abusive traditional couples we know.

But this is to ask the law to bear more weight than it can bear. It is not possible to craft a statute that can cover every conceivable permutation of circumstance; to insist otherwise is simply to admit no standard at all –and indeed that is the effect the relentless litany of “hard cases” paraded before us on the evening news is having on our public policy. Even putative pro-life, pro-family voters have difficulty defending marriage law, lest someone like someone they know or heard about get hurt.

Hard cases are what judges are for. The most the law can do is establish a desirable norm that covers the majority of cases. It falls to the judiciary to examine how and whether the law applies in a particular case, granting prudent exceptions when necessary for justice.

We can’t help thinking about how proposed policies will affect us personally, but we have to strive to move from the purely personal to the common good. Benedict XVI addresses this problem of emotional turmoil corrupting the political order when he points out in his first encyclical that “Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively.”

Only by holding ourselves to a standard outside ourselves, only by liberating our ideas from our passions, can we reason clearly, debate productively and form a more perfect union.

Launching those conversational SCUDS sure feels good. But it halts the rational dialogue necessary to a free society.

Rebecca Teti is a wife and mother who writes for Catholic Digest and other publications.
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