Friday, 4 May 2012

The blog problem: 'dialogue' vs dialectic as modes of discourse

Reports on the Catholic Media Congress are starting to trickle out, including a piece by Christine Hogan over at Cath News, and by Monsignor Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, at the ABC Religion and Ethics site.

Some of the discussion seems to indicate some moves in the direction of a little more openness to blogs and the social media as a means of engagement more generally.  But some of the comments, I would suggest, indicate a continuing ambivalence to the modes of discourse embedded in the social media today.

In particular, a reluctance to adopt the dialectical mode favoured by the new media that tests propositions through debate.

Read the blogs?

Over at Cath News for example, Ms Hogan reports that Monsignor Tighe encouraged participants to read widely, even (perhaps especially) of those critical of you:

"A little further down the track, Mons Tighe told the Congress on Tuesday: “We can use new media to learn about the people we are trying to engage with. Without having to respond formally to their questions [why not?] - read the blogs, read the people you don't like, read the people who are criticising you.”

Let's take his second point first, read the blogs. 

Personally, I do regularly peruse (when I'm feeling strong) the views of those I strongly disagree with and consider to be on the fringes of the faith or outside it, such as Catholica Forum, V2Catholic, Cath News and Eureka Street.

But like Ms Hogan (and I imagine many others) this can often be a fairly challenging task:

"Read the blogs! Sometimes it is extremely difficult to read the spin put on even the most anodyne blogs by people with a ferociously held and determinedly expressed agendas from the deep fringes of the Church’s extreme wings."

Where the centre is: orthodoxy

The first issue for me at least however is that criticism of one's (actual) views is one thing, promotion of outright heresy is another.

I rather think Ms Hogan and I would differ rather strongly on exactly what constitutes the 'deep fringes of the Church's extreme wings'.

In my view, what makes one's views fringe or extreme is not how many people in any particular time and place happen to agree with you, but where you stand in relation to the timeless teaching of the Magisterium.

The liberals may have control of most dioceses and their catholic media outlets at the moment, but like past such periods, this too will pass!

My personal view is that unless you have a very strong grounding in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and theology more generally, you should stick to blogs and other news sources that are at the heart of the Church, that is, that respect and promote its teachings, rather than subjecting yourself to those sources seeking to undermine the faith, directly or indirectly.

Or if necessary, use the orthodox sources to help you interpret what is coming at you from elsewhere!

Read orthodox blogs of the kind highlighted in The Pulp.It and New Advent (see the right sidebar).  Yes, they are often highly selective (you won't find my critiques of conservative American takes on social policy being picked up over there!).  But they will quickly lead you into the debate.

Look to news aggregation services that feed your faith rather than attempt to subvert it such as the Vatican, Pewsitter and the Life Site. 

And read Catholic newspapers committed to the promotion of the faith, such as the excellent UK Herald.

Then  set all of that context against what you are being fed from the more dubious sources!

Dialogue vs dialectic

The other part of Monsignor Tighe's comment though, that one doesn't need to respond to what is being said, I do take rather stronger issue with.

Part of the problem I suspect, for the generation whose world views was shaped by the revolution of the 1960s and 1970s is their commitment to the idea of 'dialogue'.

Dialogue in this context is a code word for tolerance of other views of the world, and the attempt to find good in the other.  And in a world where Catholicism was well-entrenched and most people absorbed their faith by immersion in it, it must have seemed a reasonably safe approach to try.  But in practice it tends to conflate the idea of respect of the other with a relativism that makes all religions and beliefs equal.

The insistence on dialogue was a reaction to what was seen as an undue insistence on the Church's monopoly as the custodian of truth.  The theory behind it, I think, was well-meaning: it reflected an assumption that hardline positions were offputting.  It is an assumption, though, which in my view has not stood up to empirical testing: 'hardline' religions such as Islam are growing rapidly; Western catholicism with its addiction to dialogue instead of dialectical engagement is collapsing!

Monsignor Tighe's piece draws attention to the Pope's insistence on the absolute nature of truth and rejection of relativism.  Yet Monsignor Tighe's piece over at the ABC still reveals something of this ambivalence in his comments on blogs:

"A similar phenomenon is emerging in the world of Catholic media, especially in the blogosphere, where often it seems not enough for protagonists to propose their own views and beliefs but where they tend also to attack the arguments, and even the person, of those who disagree with them."

Opinions, debate and the narrowing of discourse?

It is certainly true, as Monsignor Tighe points out, and I've argued previously, that the natural reaction to the vast volume of material of often doubtful provenance, is to stick to sources of information and opinion you find trustworthy.

He suggests that this can be a risky strategy:

"In the political arena, there is the risk that people will only engage with media that they know to support their particular views and they will not be exposed to alternative positions or to reasoned debate or discussion. This is turn will create increasingly polarized and confrontational forms of politics where there is little room for the voices of moderation or consensus."

But this is where, I think, there is a fundamental difference between the old media and the new that needs to be understood.

When it comes to the old media, for example, if you read the Australian as opposed to the Fairfax media, you know what you are going to get, editorial slant-wise.  If you want to get the range of opinions, you know that you need to read both.

When it comes to the new media, however, we are actively invited to challenge what is being said.  Many blog posts are themselves a commentary on a particular spin on an issue from elsewhere.  They explicitly link to other people's work. 

Or you can go to a blog post aggregation site like the Pulp.It and find a guide to the range of posts on the same subject.

We can add our comments to a blog post. 

And if the particular place that the opinion we disagree with won't let us publish our perspective, we can write our own blog piece.

Or we can draw attention to someone's views critically or approvingly with a quick twit, or facebook comment.

Blog debates can continue to rage for quite a while on some topics, until a working consensus of views, or agreement to disagree, is achieved.

Engagement is the real challenge

The New Media, in other words, reflects a broader cultural shift away from dialogue back to dialectics.

Personally, I think a dialectical mindset is truer to the Church's origins: think Our Lord with the Pharisees; St Paul in the market place.

The challenge for the Church then is not just to read and hear the criticisms, but to actively engage in the debate with a view to promoting truth.

And that requires a real shift in mind set for a generation that was trained to avoid apologetics and real debate like the plague!

It is, I guess, a natural reaction to see every challenge to one's views as a personal attack.

Too often those reacting to blogs and other new media sources from a 'dialogue' mindset seem to revert to distortion of what is said and personal attacks rather than genuinely listening and engaging.  There often seems to be a curious selectivity in the application of the rhetoric of dialogue: after all, surely conservatives and traditionalists deserve the same respect and commitment to dialogue the liberals accord to members of other religions and ecclesial communities!

Hear, reflect, respond

But true dialogue, dialogue aimed at recovery of truth, requires that we actually start from the proposition that is a mark of respect that people think your views are worth engaging with rather than simply dismissing them as something we are better off not reading or thinking about.

So here is my take out message for Catholics on the new media: engage.

So please, do feel free to comment here even if you disagree fundamentally with where I am coming from.

I'd welcome bishops, for example, engaging in some of the debates online..

 But whoever and wherever any Catholic omments, let me suggest some principles for engagement.

Stick to the actual stated views, not what you think they might be.  A good mode of listening is to summarise first, before you respond to them, what you think the other person is saying ("reflective listening") - not just the words, but the sub-text as well.

Then, when you respond, stick to the issues, don't attack others personally.

And don't over-interpret, colourful language is fine provided its accurate; don't take things that aren't personal as an attack on you.

Finally, when speaking, respect the limits of debate set by Magisterial teaching.  We can explain the reasons for Church teachings, explore how best to present it today, but the endless outright rejection of any absolutes is what turns me off those fringe sites...


A Canberra Observer said...

dialogue with the devil is never worth it ...

Mac said...

Kate, I just don't think dialogue is possible with the modernist elements in the Church. I've tried it for years with both laity and clerics. We speak a different language and come from different planets! One side is correct and the other will just have to die out.

Mac said...

Sorry for that post Kate; I was having a bad day! Despair is a sin but it was not despair but as I said, a bad day. Should have known better.
An explanation; I'm an old man now and have studied with a lot of these people I now condemn as modernist. I rejoice that I'm living to see the revival that I honestly thought was a generation away. It won't be a pre Vll church but it will once again be holy as was pre Vll. More than that we can just pray about.

Kate Edwards said...

While they may possibly be deluded, useful idiots, or worse, they are not actually the devil himself.

And while I agree that it is almost impossible to debate them, I don't think we have a choice.

In Australia at least, the biological solution is not yet working, as some of the new bishops being appointed (or rumoured to be about to be appointed; please God, not Bishop Putney for Canberra; keep the Queensland disease under quarantine!) are very liberal indeed.

And ageing liberals control the infrastructure and seem intent on taking the Church down with them.

Worse, there is really no alternative emerging that I can see.

Yes, there are a few young orthodox priests getting through these days. But not nearly enough of them.

The EF across Australia does not seem to be growing (indeed, my local one is shrinking, perhaps reflecting the fact that it has gone rabid, with amongst many other problems, wacky sermons urging a return to medieval sumptuary laws and attacking women wearing trousers.

The orthodox priest from my local OF parish seems to be overloaded with other diocesan responsibilities, so is seeking to escape. And given that the make up of the parish itself is very liberal indeed (this is the group that imported Clifford Longley to speak last week!), navigating a path through the rocks in even this quite small parish must be a task indeed!

At the more prosaic level, I get sick of the weekly personal attack from the 'V2 catholics' blog (which has suddenly discovered the virtues of comment moderation after a few responses of mine pointing out the more egregious of their author's errors in his regular ad hominem attacks!) and the distortion and ridicule I get from the semi-official Cath News blog.

Now ok, maybe that's my little bit of pain and suffering to add to the pile, but we surely have a duty to pray and work for their conversion. And to hope and pray for a miracle through the working of grace!

Kate Edwards said...

Mac your sentiment was fine. As you can gather, I have may bad days as well, we all do!

Kate Edwards said...

PM said:

This isn't the only sphere in which 'professionals' are becoming edgy. After decades of shutting down debate fobbing off parents with soothing cliches and reassuring non sequiturs, the educrats are now to their horror finding that even bishops (albeit too few of them) have the temerity to question them.

This goes, I suggest, to your concerns about accountability. The Catholic education establishment has overseen the most catastrophic failure to transmit the faith in the entire history of Christianity and has avoided being held to account.

I notice that you aren't dealing with the education ofices in your series on the dioceses. Is the pall of secrecy too impenetrable, or have you just written them off?

[Apologies for the dealy in this appearing - not sure what happened to it. Can I say how much I hate the new blogger interface!]

Kate Edwards said...

PM - I totally agree that this goes to accountability.

And I've been avoiding the schools catastrophe both because of the impenetrable secrecy (the websites are typically totally incomprehensible) and because I haven't found any significant positive signs anywhere!

Let the schools be razed and let's start again is my view!

PM said...

The raze approach certainly has its attactions, but I would be interested to know, for example, if the new curricula introduced by Cardinal Pell in Melbourne and Sydney, or the initiatives begun by Bishop Brennan in Wagga, have made any appreciable difference to the dismal outcomes of most Cathoic schools. What of the experiment in Wagga which I understand is something like a parent-controlled Catholic school? Can anyone out there break the wall of silence?

I don't, by the way, mean to besmirch all teachers. There are some who try, but they often seem to end up demoralised and unsupported by their own system.

A Canberra Observer said...

Yes, the rumours of Putney are scary. One wonders if the EF might need to lift its game in Canberra to stay afloat under such a regime.

However the EF in Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide & Perth is apparently moving forwards. Canberra is strange place - the level of liberality is very high to start with here, so the pool of potential OF refugees is probably finite and small.

Kate Edwards said...

The EF in Canberra needs to lift its game to stay afloat under any potential regime.