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6 Theses on Online Writing and Civility

June 7th, 2016 | 11 min read

By Jake Meador

Civility is being debated in the blogosphere once again. The impetus for the latest discussion is the recent firing of Matt Bruenig, a lawyer and left-wing online writer who used to publish with the small left-wing think tank Demos. Bruenig was fired recently after making some rude comments toward two women on Twitter, one of whom is the director of a major left-wing think tank, a long-time Clinton ally, and quite possibly Hillary Clinton’s future chief of staff. Vox has a good summary of the story.

While you’re reading, you might also consider this piece by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, Matt Bruenig’s wife, written two years ago about the way that civility functions in online debate. Given the complexity of this issue, we’re going to tackle it in an Alastair-style long-form review.

First, no one should be more sympathetic to the Bruenigs’ argument than conservative Christians.

If the Bruenigs are right, many of the rhetorical moves in online writing that are ostensibly about preserving civility and decorum in the public square, are actually a power play by the more mainstream occupants of that space meant to control and limit what dissident groups can say. Thus, it is a move meant not only to limit what can be said in the first place, but also to dismiss any opinions not on the basis of their merits as ideas, but because of the way in which they are said.

Given that ours is an era where many, including some justices on the nation’s highest court, believe that the only justification for opposing same-sex sexual acts, for example, is animus against LGBT individuals, evangelicals should be particularly aware of what our moment’s Overton Window is and of how it is enforced.

A friend of mine recently addressed this question well when he was asked about how to respond to someone asking questions about the traditional Christian understanding of sexuality. He said it’s important to distinguish between the different sorts who might ask this question: On the one hand, you may be talking to someone like a younger version of Wes Hill or Eve Tushnett, in which case you very much need to discern the sincerity of the question and respond with all appropriate compassion, gentleness, and pastoral sensitivity to the difficulty of their situation. On the other, you may be getting the question from a person not at all interested in conversation who is only interested in getting you to say something dumb or to somehow out yourself as some kind of bigot. It’s the same question, but with two radically different rhetorical intents.

Thus it is vitally important that evangelicals not only know how to make arguments, but how to read situations rhetorically and to make sound judgments on how to respond given their read on the situation. We have to be shrewd in how we handle these kind of situations.

While that shrewdness probably will not look like Matt Bruenig’s typical online demeanor, it should reflect the same sort of careful judging of one’s context and situation that Bruenig typically does when writing a post. And when we are being shouted down for a lack of civility, as orthodox believers inevitably will be at some point, we must be prepared to respond to fools according to their folly. (This assumes, of course, that the accusation of incivility actually is unfair. This is not at all license to be jerks for Jesus.) So while most people should not adopt Bruenig’s basic approach to online writing, they should learn from the way he analyzes the situation and shapes his rhetoric accordingly.

Second, the fact that we are in this position at all is something to be lamented and resisted, when it can reasonably be done.

At this point it is hard to maintain a total rejection of the Bruenigs’ critique of civility in online writing. There are simply too many examples, which the Bruenigs and Fredrik deBoer have written about already, to suggest that they are wholly wrong. That said, before we accept the current rhetorical landscape and respond, when appropriate, in kind, we must note something else as well.

While it is true that civility is frequently, perhaps even primarily in some corners of the internet, used as a form of tone policing and enforcing a narrow Overton Window, that is also a deeply unfortunate thing. First, it betrays an almost complete lack of understanding of what civility actually is. Properly understood, civility is a way of ordering debate and discussion toward the truth by encouraging participants in debate to represent their opponents accurately, to speak respectfully, and so on.

Civility has, instead, simply become a form of tone policing because many of those in rhetorical power at the current moment are not interested in truth so much as they are in retaining the status quo and squashing anyone who would challenge it. (And if you think this isn’t as true of evangelicalism as it is the mainstream center-left communities that the Bruenigs and deBoers have so antagonized, you’re kidding yourself.)

The result of all this is the understandable belief, amongst those so routinely squashed, that the only way they can get through to people is to follow Flannery O’Connor’s advice: “to the hard of hearing, you shout.” Of course, it’s not clear to me that advice reasonably applied to the hard of hearing can equally be applied to the hard of heart.

Third, the internet as a tool for publishing and discussing ideas flattens communication in ways that make it very difficult to establish norms for how communication ought to work online.

One of the chief problems behind the debate surrounding civility is that civility depends upon shared norms and the internet is mostly antithetical to creating shared norms between different groups of people. Whereas a face-to-face encounter typically happens in a defined space with shared norms that both sides understand, internet encounters often do not. Different sites will have different guidelines for how their writers report and argue plus the internet itself is such an adaptable technology that even individual users can develop their own rules and habits for using the web that are shared by a remarkably small group.

When you replace these thicker contexts with the comparatively thin world of the internet, it makes the sort of rhetoric police work of the pro civility brigade almost inevitable because a) no one actually knows what civility is for, and b) there are mean people online who really do deserve to be criticized for their rude behavior.

Fourth, our models for financing online writing incentivize the sensational, loud, or disruptive.

There are really only two workable models for building large-scale media enterprises online, as best I can tell: Generate a truly gigantic amount of traffic such that you can actually make enough money from advertising to support the site or rely on a billionaire or huge corporation to fund you. It is hard to say anything concrete about how the second model works out in practice because different billionaires have different values. Pierre Omidyar, who has provided the funds for Glenn Greenwald’s “The Intercept” has a different set of concerns than ESPN did when it provided the funds for Bill Simmons’ “Grantland” or Nate Silver’s “Five Thirty Eight.”

But we can say something about the first group: Sites built on various forms of advertising, including sponsored content and video ads, have an incentive to push whatever limits they can in order to generate more traffic. If you think about Buzzfeed, Vice Media, and Gawker in particular, all three have transgressed boundaries that were once reasonably well-defined.

Buzzfeed has discarded the idea that being “respectable” means maintaining a certain level of intellectual and aesthetic seriousness, instead choosing to finance occasionally excellent journalistic work with a deluge of memes, listicles, and relatively low-quality reporting on various online trivia. Vice Media and Gawker, meanwhile, have both made their money by doing occasionally horrible things in order to make their name and by using a generally brash and abrupt style that shapes nearly everything they produce. (Even these sites, however, are not immune to the problem of billionaires or large corporations basically having the power to arbitrarily censor stories they dislike.)

What this means is that the general ways and strategies for how a media company works online are defined by billionaires, brands, and media execs with enormous incentive to be rude or brash. So we shouldn’t be surprised when we have lots of rude, brash online writing.

Fifth, the technology of the internet itself creates an artificial urgency both about the content of our work itself as well as the timeliness of it. This urgency encourages aggression in multiple ways.

A further problem here is the issue of time and the pace of online writing. The process of becoming a writer who actually has something worth saying takes a tremendous amount of time. You need to be a good reader. You need to be disciplined as a writer. You need to understand how rhetoric works. You need a relatively low-pressure space to work on individual pieces and to work on your overall knowledge of your “beat” whatever it may be. All these things take a great deal of time.

However, the nature of the internet, particularly for sites that need to make a lot of money, is that you simply do not have that sort of time. Because of the reach internet publications have, you’re no longer competing, as newspapers once did, with one semi-local competitor to break a story—you’re competing with tons of well-resourced media companies all trying to get a story out first or a new #take on whatever the story of the day may be. You simply are not given the time to pause, reflect, and develop a cogent argument.

Of course, time is precisely what is needed in many cases to help develop a piece that is worth reading and has had the rough edges of a first draft polished away by careful editing and reflection on the part of the writer. Speaking only for myself, I would almost certainly have a far worse reputation online on this point if I consistently published first drafts just to “have something up” about whatever the story might be. It’s only with the time needed to improve and refine a draft that I’m usually able to take the time to ask if I really want to make a point in the way I’m currently making it in the draft. If Oscar Wilde was right and a gentleman is one who is rude only when he means to be, then we should note that deciding whether or not to be rude takes some time and the online writing economy generally doesn’t allow writers the time that choice may require.

Sixth, the growing popularity of private forms of online media could help create cultural norms for online writing that may help mitigate these problems.

This may help us end on a more hopeful note. Private email lists, private Facebook groups, and Slack channels are all ways that public, online communications can be brought into a more private arena where it is easier to regain some of what is lost with the transition to the internet as a default communications medium. If you have a private group, then you can easily define and enforce norms for the group, you can know something concrete about who you are talking with, and over time you will learn a bit about the day-to-day lives of the people in your group. All these things can help push back against the tendency to treat our ideological opponents as disembodied opponents who are (insert over-serious accusation here) and instead to see them as human beings.

This doesn’t completely solve all our problems, of course, because the problems with the work of online writing cannot be limited exclusively to the tools we use and how they shape us in destructive ways. We must also reckon with the fact that most online writers live in a decadent culture that largely devalues serious education and lacks basic forms of intellectual discipline. Put another way, the problem with internet writing isn’t just the particular internet tools we use; it’s also with the people using the tools. And those same people who make such a mess on blogs or public social media channels are the ones populating our private forms of online media. So even if we no longer have to deal with particularly destructive tools, we still must deal with the destructive sins we ourselves commit every day. A shift toward more private media, then, may help reduce the impact of certain problems created in part by bad technology, but it cannot solve the problem entirely.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).