Snarky Commenters: Why Blogging Struggles with Unpleasant Discourse

I recently deleted a comment to an older post, my review of the cut-for-television version of Stigmata, a movie that came out back in 1999. In the middle of my review, I refer to the end of the movie where the writers take a suddenly serious turn by bringing up Gnostic texts. Since the movie in no way merits a serious discussion of, well, anything historical, I thought this was a mistake.

In my reference to the Gnostic texts, I make the point that as a conservative (libertarian), I accept the generally accepted scholarly understanding of Gnostic texts (e.g., they are much later than even the gospels; they are surprisingly chauvinistic and disdainful of the physical experience). I also point out that as a Mormon, I have no particular investment in the argument one way or the other.

The commenter proceeded to defend Gnosticism while angrily attacking me and organized religion. The commenter finished up by disparaging Mormonism.

I dislike this kind of “attack mode” commentary; it is pointless and rude. My interpersonal communications textbook explains that people will “flame” others on-line in a way that they will never ever do face-to-face. Being on-line gives them a kind of unaccountability, a "freedom" to be unpleasant and cruel in a way that face-to-face discourse would never allow.

Based on watching my students struggle with summaries, especially plot summaries, I think there is another issue at work here. Addressing the main point of a post or short story or novel is difficult. The main point of my review of Stigmata is neither an attack on Gnosticism (although my post makes clear that I have my doubts about the historical usefulness of Gnostic texts) nor, for that matter, a defense of Mormonism, which is mentioned only in passing. The entire point of the post is that a substanceless though beautiful movie does not automatically become more substantive because a historical note of doubtful plausibility is tacked on to the end. (Thank you, Eugene, for addressing that point.)

I confess, it is very easy to get distracted by a side issue when reading a blog, especially if the author of that blog is disagreeing with a closely held belief. Been there/done that! And if the commenter had simply defended Gnosticism, I would have let the comment stand despite the surly tone; however, the "I can't believe you don't understand how dumb you are not to think exactly like me; besides, ya ya ya, everything you believe is stupid" additions, however typical of web commentary, were so completely unasked for and nasty, I had no choice but to delete the entire comment. I am ultimately responsible for my blog, and I will not be party to allowing more bizarre discourtesy into the world!

But I couldn’t help but wonder: Is there a way that the commenter could have voiced an albeit problematic position with civility?


Here in sum are the commenter’s thoughts translated into civil discourse (all “attack” language and rabid tone removed):
I don’t think you should be so quick to dismiss the Gnostic gospels. A Gnostic text discovered in the 20th century shows that some of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, such as resurrection, were largely invented by later writers, especially since the Catholic Church suppressed Gnostic texts. Of course, I’m not a huge supporter of organized religion, so we’re obviously coming from diametrically opposed positions!
My civil response to such a civil comment would be as follows:
My understanding is that recent scholarship shows the Pauline letters to be the most recent of all documents coming out of Jesus Christ’s ministry. And the Pauline letters do support a doctrine of resurrection. I confess, also, that I find many Gnostic teachings to be a little too opposed to the physical world/body for my taste. I prefer earthy doctrines to abstract ones. However, as you point out, we appear to be diametrically opposed: I don’t think an argument based on “my scholarship” versus “your scholarship” will get very far!
That is a far more civil exchange than the exchange that this commenter was trying to set in motion (actually, I doubt the commenter was interested in any kind of exchange; many commenters of this ilk troll the net, making nasty comments and moving on). I really don’t understand the attack-mode, especially since it doesn’t work, simply making people cling more strongly to their opinions.

Of course, considering the purpose of this blog, I would have far preferred a review of Stigmata!

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