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Very Online Toxicity & Catholic Commboxes

A couple weeks back, I announced that I was temporarily turning off our comment section as a desperate attempt to help keep my head above water. With an overwhelming amount of feedback from a couple of pieces I’d written still generating emails, direct messages, and comments, and a brand new baby in the house, along with my own stated fedupitude having reached critical mass, I needed a breather.

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the commbox. I started my online Catholic activities in BBS forums in the early 1990s; in the early 2000s, I moved to blogging and leaving comments on the big Catholic sites of the day — blogs like those of Amy Welborn and the at-the-time-still-sane Mark Shea (Shea having now tragically become the paradigmatic example of online Catholic toxicity). In a very real sense, you could say I “came up” through the commboxes, refining my rhetorical style through a bit of online pugilism with others. And because of this, I’ve always sought to stay engaged with my audience via the same — I try to pop in to commboxes, reply to tweets and Facebook threads and emails and messages, etc.

And truth be told, I have often found the feedback received via our commbox on articles we publish to be helpful in evaluating whether our content is hitting the right “notes,” as it were.

But on the whole, managing the comments here at 1P5 has eaten up an inordinate amount of my time; arguably, if you tallied it all up, I’ve probably sunk years of my life into these kinds of discussions and debates, and many of them have proved futile. That’s not time I get back. It’s not time I get to give to my wife or my kids. It’s spent. And I don’t know what the return on my investment really is.

Enter Eric Sammons, my long-time 1P5 colleague and friend turned Editor in Chief of Crisis Magazine. (Crisis was, incidentally, the first publication that paid me to be a columnist, marking the start of my professional writing career, and I will always have a fondness for it.) Eric wrote up a thing last Friday about “The Scourge of Toxic Online Catholicism” that I appreciate very much. I’d like to share a few excerpts, starting here:

Any Catholic who’s been online for even a small amount of time quickly encounters the darker side of the Catholic internet. The Catholic subgroup with the biggest reputation for toxicity is the “trads” (traditional Catholics), and while that reputation isn’t wholly undeserved, it’s not any more unique to them than it is to Shea and his ilk. Unfortunately, every subgroup within Catholicism has its toxic supporters, ready to attack anyone who doesn’t pass the chosen purity test.

This is an area where Eric and I have disagreed a bit, and have done so publicly. I do believe that the very-online version of traditionalism produces more of the kind of nasty judgmentalism and petty tribalism than any other community of folks I’ve run into on the internet, and I’ve been playing around in these online communities for almost 30 years — 17 of those years as a traditionally Latin Mass-exclusive “trad”. In general, I find that trads tend to be better in person, if not less opinionated, but traditionalism, inasmuch as it only exists on the margins of the Church, tends to attract the marginalized. It’s an actually oppressed group of people, and it carries with it both victim status and stigma — and the chip on the shoulder that goes with it. And because traditionalism is, generally speaking, very concerned with the re-institution of rules, doctrines, and rubrics that have been left on the cutting room floor, it easily lends itself to an over-emphasis on checking the right boxes and saying the right things. If you misspeak, if you intentionally say something that’s too cozy with the post-conciliar way of looking at things, you WILL be called out for it.

Unsurprisingly, this makes traddy forums, social media, and commboxes into places that often look like war zones. Admonitions and purity spirals are common features. And it takes a very thick-skinned moderator with a lot of time and patience to wade through hundreds of comments per article — many of them five or more paragraphs in length — to keep things on the level.

I have been re-aligning my priorities, and this isn’t where I choose to spend my time. If I get to the point where I feel that I have to intervene in a discussion gone of the rails, I tend to get a bit snippy about it, as you may have noticed. My patience for this sort of thing has long since worn out.

More from Eric:

Before I continue I should note that while I do believe toxicity exists in online Catholic circles, I also believe many people today are too thin-skinned. Even a reasoned, balanced criticism is labeled an “attack” these days. It’s a textbook liberal move to play the victim whenever someone dares to disagree, and sadly conservatives have embraced this move as well in recent years. A healthy Church includes vigorous debate; charitable, yes, but not wimpish. Disagreeing is not toxic.

But even granting that people can be too thin-skinned, it’s still true that too often online Catholic debate crosses the line. Why is it that Catholics love to attack Catholics online? Original Sin is of course the easy and yet true answer. But it’s not like Catholics are haranguing and accosting each other outside of Mass each Sunday, which is often exactly what happens when you log onto #CatholicTwitter. I would argue that there are two main factors at play.

First is the lack of strong ecclesial leadership in the Church. It’s the duty of our bishops to proclaim, defend, and teach the Catholic Faith. We all know how rare it is to see that in practice today, however. A wolf like Fr. James Martin can prey on Catholics with his sweet sounding heresies, and not only does he not get disciplined by his bishop; he gets appointed to a Vatican position!

In response to this void of faithful leadership, many Catholics take it on themselves to promote, defend, and teach the Catholic Faith. And, frankly, this isn’t a bad thing, as the rise of lay Catholics such as Scott Hahn and Janet Smith have helped countless people live their faith more fully (and hopefully the writers of Crisis fall into that category as well). But it also means that everyone with an internet connection can use his or her virtual soapbox to proclaim what they believe is true…and anathematize anyone who dares to disagree. It can be a recipe for unnecessary—and toxic—conflict.

Amen. 100%.

Eric goes more into the nature of the internet as a catalyst for toxicity, where pseudonymous commentary has a big role and people don’t react to each other like real live human beings. As he says, it also encourages “a constant stream of mostly mindless commentary” where it’s “easier to shoot off a quick insult than to spend time crafting a well-thought-out detailed rebuttal.” He points out that this is why Crisis tries to “focus on articles that make you think, not just react.”

If you’re thinking that’s a jab at the growing sensationalist scandal-du-jour model of Catholic tabloid journalism, you’d be completely justified in reaching that conclusion. As I’ve said countless times from these pages, staring into the abyss every day is dangerous. The abyss stares back, and it changes people for the worse.

And then Eric drops the other shoe:

This brings me to an announcementCrisis Magazine is shutting down our own website comment section, effective immediately. This decision is driven by a number of factors, including some related to combatting the problems I noted above. While our comment section has many valuable and charitable contributors, it’s also true that at times Crisis commenters do not reflect the better parts of human nature, and we spend an inordinate amount of our resources moderating the combox.

Practically speaking, only about 1% of our readers comment on our articles, yet far more than 1% of our resources are spent moderating those comments. Although software like Disqus helps with moderation, it’s ultimately still a largely manual process to check each comment.

Inevitably some toxic comments are missed, which reflects poorly on the magazine. For we’ve also found that even though our comment policy made it clear that “Comments do not represent the views of Crisis magazine, its editors, authors, or publishers,” many people do associate the most toxic comments on our website with the magazine itself—an association that does not happen with comments on Crisis posts on third-party platforms like Facebook or Telegram.

I’ve been saying for years that I was toying with this idea. I’ve even put it to a reader vote on at least one occasion. Some people really do come here for the community and the comments, but others are very much put off by them.

It is my personal experience that a lot of folks use comment boxes at their favorite sites to get up on a soapbox and grandstand. It’s easier than building their own platform. They get to hold court and critique whatever they like without ever having to offer anything constructive. Building a site with engaging content that does more than just tear other people and things down is not as easy as it looks, and I think some folks know this. Others might just not believe they have what it takes. I certainly did it for a long time in other site commboxes before striking out on my own. And it really is a tiny percentage of the readership that participates.

I am at a crossroads in life, where things are changing rapidly, and hard decisions about a number of things seem to be piled up on my plate. Having read Eric’s reasoning on this, and having experienced my own uneasy sense of relief (uneasy because I know it’s unpopular) in turning off the comments here temporarily, I have come to the conclusion that leaving them off is the correct thing to do. It’s time. I tried for years to identify volunteer moderators who already had a strong presence in the comments, and one by one they all burned out and handed back the keys. I simply can’t do it myself, and I don’t know that it’s for the best in any case.

We all need to spend less time arguing online, and more time figuring out how to live right in an age dead set against that. Think about it for a while, and I’m sure most of you will agree. I know that many of our readers found the community particularly helpful, and that makes shutting the comments section down is hard for me to do.

With that in mind, I want to thank those of you who have offered so many insightful and educational comments over the years. I hope you’ll continue to find ways to make your voices heard – perhaps even in the form of articles published here at 1P5.

Thanks for your understanding, for your readership, and your support.

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