An Atrophied Sense of Charity

by Conor Friedersdorf

Big Questions Online, a new Web site published under the always thoughtful stewardship of Rod Dreher (author of Crunchy Cons and a favorite contributor to Culture11), has led me to delve into a lot of the interesting work being done over at The Templeton Foundation, an organization I'd never taken the time to get to know before.

Thus far the site is refreshingly focused on writing that transcends the angry back-and-forth so prevalent elsewhere online.

Example the latest: a gem of reflection from Alan Jacobs, who writes:

I have thought a lot about why people get so hostile online, and I have come to believe it is primarily because we live in a society with a hypertrophied sense of justice and an atrophied sense of humility and charity, to put the matter in terms of the classic virtues.

The whole piece is worth reading -- I'll need more time to figure out what exactly I disagree with in it, but I think a lot of its insights are sound, and all are thought-provoking. Professor Jacobs is an occasional contributor to another place I write, The American Scene, and as his essay makes clear, heated confrontations online sometimes cause him to withdraw from debate (overcoming the impulse felt by that man in the famous cartoon about someone being wrong on the Internet). It's a strategy that works well for him, and I'm glad: the stuff he writes is what I want to read.

In my work, I've tried to engage even my most hostile critics, sometimes with good results, though other times I fear that I'm either getting sucked into fruitless exchanges, or worse still, participating in needlessly hostile discourse myself. As a friend recently put it, "I have to say, you keep trying to have a Lincoln-Douglas debate with feces-hurling howler monkeys, eventually you start looking silly too."

If there is a good way strike the appropriate balance I don't know it, though I hope that age and experience help me to have more wisdom than I do now. As yet, I often can't predict how a given exchange will play out until it's too late. Political discourse requires forceful disagreements and calling out destructive interlocutors if it's to function well. But sometimes refraining from comment or ignoring certain people is the best policy. I am still figuring all this out.