31Oct Can we civilise the Catholic Internet?

Wild Cards in inter-Catholic Online Debate

This can be found in Wikipedia:

Godwin’s law (also known as Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies or Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies) is an assertion made by Mike Godwin in 1990 that has become an Internet adage. It states: ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches.’

That’s followed a few paragraphs later by:

Godwin’s law applies especially to inappropriate, inordinate, or hyperbolic comparisons of other situations (or one’s opponent) with Nazis – often referred to as ‘playing the Hitler card’.

Following Godwin’s observation, it is now an Internet convention that use of this card will usually be received simply as proof of intellectual failure by the person using it. (There must obviously be exceptions for situations such as historical discussion of the Nazi era.)

Is there a similar tendency (we need not call it a law) in inter-Catholic discussion, for someone eventually to play a familiar ‘wild card’ intended to trump an opponent and close a discussion in favour of the trumper? I’m thinking especially of casual yet damaging accusations: ‘modernist’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘Protestant’, ‘relativist’, ‘heretic’.

I call these ‘wild cards’ because often these complex terms are deployed without any attempt to justify their use, with much the same intent as that behind terms such as ‘Nazi’, ‘Fascist’ or ‘Racist’ – to use their pejorative clout alone to batter an opponent into silence. It is enough, too often, for the user that their rhetorical force may serve to intimidate anyone who disagrees: time need not be taken to invoke an agreed definition of the term or to clearly justify its application.

Do we need analogous conventions in inter-Catholic discussion for these wild card accusations listed above (and perhaps others)? Should it be agreed that their deployment without the citation of an agreed definition of the term, and of that passage in an opponent’s post to which it is alleged to apply, is equally null and bankrupt? If an allegation or implication of divergence from defined core Catholic doctrine is involved, should it be agreed that the doctrine in question must also be cited, if this conclusion is to be avoided?

This all falls under the heading of ‘civilising the Catholic Internet’: others may have different priorities under that heading . It’s based on my own limited experience and offered merely as a ‘starter’ for discussion of this larger theme. Who knows how many potential brilliant contributors out there hold back from Internet discussion simply because such verbal daggers are liable to fly about indiscriminately, without anyone shouting ‘enough’?

4 Responses

  1. Mary O Vallely

    Very timely, Sean O’C. It is partly intellectual laziness and maybe a lack of respect that causes these ‘verbal daggers’ to be thrown. Any “accusation” should be backed up with appropriate citations etc; I think we can all give your thoughts more consideration and take more care in what we write and how we write it. We can agree to differ with someone but we must do so with respect and with an openness to learning from that other person. It is all too easy to respond with almost playground-like taunts, name calling and labelling. Glad to see good sense prevailing and your gentle warning to us to THINK first before committing passion to page perhaps. Wise advice, sir!

  2. Martin Mallon

    Such arguments all fall under the umbrella of ad hominem arguments.
    According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary an ad hominem argument is one:
    1: appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect
    2: marked by or being an attack on an opponent’s character rather than by an answer to the contentions made

    Logically, use of an ad hominem argument should result in flashing lights and trumpets announcing that the person using said argument has lost the debate/argument.

  3. Margaret Lee

    Sean thanks for this. I think that sometimes we find it hard to hold two truths in our consciousness simultaneously and this leads us to dismiss someone who may hold a different viewpoint. Your contribution is a good reminder that we must focus on the proposed argument, not on the person.

  4. Nuala O'Driscoll

    Thank you. The simple pertinent guideline that is staring me in the face as i am typing..Be respectful..do not attack the writer…keep to the point…etc, should be reminder enough to respect the other person’s point of view. Once again thank you for this web site.