Friday, August 7, 2015

Conversing and Converting: An Examination of Blog Conversations (and Why I'm Shutting Down Conversation Threads for the Weekend)

Chris responded to what I posted yesterday by using the phrase "somewhat sour." I myself have been feeling strongly the acerbic edge of conversations here in the past week, when what was for me something of a mountaintop experience at the SNAP conference on the weekend somehow became an occasion for bickering, nit-picking, attacking, heckling.

And so — mostly for my own sake, as therapy — I'm going to shut down conversation here over the coming weekend for the blog postings of the past week, at least.* If nothing else, I need time and space to search my own soul and see to what extent any sourness others perceive on this blog and in its conversations emanates from me. 

Meanwhile, here are some reminders I'd like to issue about blog conversations:

1. Please proceed with respect for other commenters and for the blogger who is maintaining a particular blog, if you choose to respond to blog postings and enter conversations on this and other blogs.

2. As I invariably told class after class in the years in which I was in the classroom, the word "respect" comes from Latin roots meaning "to look at a second time," or "to look at intensely." Respect is the attitude that happens when we don't simply pass another human by as just another object in the landscape, but stop and take a real look at him or her, and glimpse something of what's inside.

3. Some kinds of language — the language of bellicose attack, of ridicule, of easy, glib profanity — are inherently disrespectful, and do not conduce to meaningful encounter, meaningful conversation.

4. Respect demands that we give others a chance to talk, that we do not bigfoot conversations in which we're involved, that we not turn them into a soapbox from which we shout our usual fixations without having listened respectfully to the other.

5. Leaving one comment after another on the heels of another, without listening to others and giving others a chance to speak, is what I mean by "bigfooting" the conversation.

6. When these relentless comments are related to the subject being discussed (the subject discussed in the blog posting to which you and others are responding) in no shape, form, or fashion, you're not showing much respect at all for the person who has posted something, or for comments that have chosen to engage the actual arguments of the posting.

7. When you proceed in this fashion as a commenter, you also help to create a sour conversation space in which some of the most thoughtful — often, the quiet and careful-thinking — dialogue partners will not feel welcome. I happen to know those people are out there reading this blog, because they email me or send me Facebook messages and tell me that the sour, contentious way in which some people approach conversation on my blog makes them hesitant to air their own views.

8. Everything I'm saying here applies to conversations in "real time" every bit as much as it does to conversations online. Conversations online are different from face-to-face conversations only in that they take place without the body-language and facial cues that permit us to know if another person is being facetious, or ironic, or emotive in some other way that body language reveals. "Real-time" conversations work only to the extent that we respect the person with whom we're having a conversation, give her a chance to speak, listen intently to what he is saying, and then respond in a way that links to what has been said and does not overwrite it with our own agenda.

8. Conversation of this sort — conversation at its best — is an art and not a science. I cannot provide you with a set of rules for how to carry on conversations here or anywhere else. There are no such unvarying, hard and fast, set-in-stone conversational rules. I'm trying to sketch parameters and boundaries with these remarks. Any rules I'd offer you would necessarily be culturally conditioned and strongly tinged with assumptions from my own upbringing in a family with deep roots in the culture of the American South, where the art of conversation has long been valued, emphasized, and taught by elders to young folks, with a strong emphasis on engaging everyone in a room in conversation, making those left out feel included, and with a strong penchant for badinage, dry wit, storytelling, and understatement. This cultural baggage has long made me a complete outsider to most American Catholics, whose roots are in different cultures, ones that view conversation in a totally different way.

9. Ultimately, because this is my blog, I'm responsible for monitoring the quality of conversation that occurs here and for making judgment calls about it. I am far from infallible, and those judgment calls will often be wrong ones. I myself do not always model the kind of behavior I'm sketching as an ideal here. I fail to do so, in part, because it takes extraordinary energy both to write blog postings on a regular basis and to respond to comments in threads. Sometimes I simply become exhausted with the work.

10. And a final reminder about conversations here: though I try to respond with at least a modicum of respect to those posting here (even as I have no problem quickly banning obvious trolls who are out to derail meaningful conversation), I do not by any means agree with every opinion aired in conversations here. I do not take responsibility for what others post here. I do take responsibility to monitor what is said on conversation threads here, and sometimes to block commenters who persist in disrepecting others, making false statements, using bellicose and needlessly profane language, etc.

Thanks for understanding how I understand the conversations that occur on this blog, and what I aim at in maintaining a conversation space that is inclusive and welcoming for many different kinds of people who share (as my blog's mission statement says) with me and others the goal of building a more humane world for all of us, regardless of our ideological, philosophical, or religious starting points. My own understanding of conversation is radically influenced by the work of Catholic theologian David Tracy, a mentor of my dissertation director Roger Haight, which highlights the etymological connection between the words "conversation" and "conversion," both rooted in Latin words that refer to "turning with" another person. Conversation that means anything at all exposes us to the risk of conversion, as we listen, consider other viewpoints, and discover that our own way of seeing may well need to be opened to other perspectives.

* I am leaving this posting open for conversation.

The graphic appears at many sites online. I haven't found any that provide an indication of its original source, however.

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