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Anatomy of a Commonweal thread

I suppose as the weather gets colder, more of us are indoors hunkered down over our computers for stimulation and entertainment. Maybe that explains the fact that three or four threads have recently pulled in 100+ comments.

Thought it might be interesting to look at how some of these big discussions play out, and I'll use the "Backlash?" thread below, which had attracted 154 comments when I last looked at it.

In searching comments for language that reflects the original post ("Barna," "bigger sin," "study," "non-Christians," "unloving" and "contempt"), I came up a total of 24. That doesn't mean the remaining 130 posts were off-topic, but if you read through the comments you'll see they tend toward a more general discussion of homosexuality than on the Barna study--i.e., that young Christians and non-Christians feel homosexuals have been treated with special contempt by Christians.

One might have imagined (even hoped) that the topic would encourage us to look at the way we talk about homosexuality, to ensure that we speak of homosexuals with as much love as we do condemnation for homosexual sins, though certainly "live" discussions range beyond the original topic and become more diffuse as time passes.

Another observation: I counted 14 participants in the discussion. In a relatively equal exchange of ideas, everybody would kick in about 11 comments (154 divided by 14). However, the number of comments from each of the individuals varied from a high of 38 (about 25 percent of the total), with the next highest numbers 28, 18, 17 and 15 from four other individuals. The rest of the participants were at or below 11 comments each.

As one of the bigger blabbermouths on the blog (though not in the "Backlash?" thread), I offer a few suggestions that might make the blog more productive:

1. Keep your comments focused on the topic. It's often helpful if those who initiate threads pose a question they want people to address (something I don't always think to do).

2. If you see something on a thread that suggests another line of discussion, ask that a new thread be opened. People have written me offline several times to request another thread, and I'm usually happy to do that.

3. Try not to hog the thread. Lord knows there are topics we can all get worked up about, but it's easy to commandeer a thread such that you drive people away from the topic (mea culpa).

4. When you disagree with people, give reasons.

5. Close played-out threads so people can get onto fresh topics. Sometimes threads die a lingering death, with comments buzzing around the topic in a circular, repetitive fashion. I felt this happened on my Dumbledore topic, though I wish there was a way to close comments without hiding those that had already been posted. Maybe this will be possible in the new blog.

Just my opinions and suggestions, of course, and food for thought while I take a self-imposed vow of silence for a week or two as an exercise in humility and self-control.

Update Nov. 2: My husband and I don't agree on most things, so it was interesting to get his reaction to the "Backlash?" thread, which he found very enlightening because it reflected the whole range of Catholic reaction to homosexuality with references to important documents. He pointed out that on many other Catholic blogs, the conversations tend to be more strident but less deep and less well informed.

Raber also agrees with those of you who felt I had a lot of gall trying to dictate rules about posting. I did say they were suggestions, but apparently he wasn't fooled. Marriage is a great lesson in humility.

Back to further reflection and devotions for All Souls.


Commenting Guidelines

Just as a housekeeping thingie, you can see the comments of a closed thread if you click on the headline.

I can only say "Amen, Amen," Jean. I can also only wonder what it is about homosexuality or homosexuals that sets folks off on tangents. But of course I must say more, though this fake PEOPLE mag cover is very much on point, I would argue in my defense. And you must see it, if you haven't already:

Since I'm most likely the 38-comment winner, I might offer a few thoughts on this post. Even though that makes 2 now, and counting.Each of us (I presume) picks his or her own fights and tries to discuss them adamantly but fairly, and hopes to learn something.The stated topic of the Barna post, kid's opinions, could be taken for granted and was not really too debatable. Very quickly, in the 2nd comment (Jean's) gave way to a discussion about whether in fact the Church is unfair to homosexuals. The topic shifted, and probably was intended to.But anyways this isn't a thread. It's a blog. Some people are probably going to comment a moderate amount on many topics. Some will choose which threads to engage, and will engage them very thoroughly--especially when called out repeatedly to defend previous statements.But anyways, how about other threads (like homeschooling) which individuals choose to sit out? How about threads that a person decides to sit out until his or her name is called several times, thus: "I'm sure I know what Greg and Kathy think about this..." How is that thread (Birth Control Foe) statistically analyzed?I'm not sure numbers tell much of the story here. And I'm pretty sure these forensic experiments are not the solution to any problems that arose in the Barna thread.The real solution is to put Dumbledore back into the closet:,8599,1674550,00.html

As the biggest "blabbermouth" on the "Backlash?" thread, I have two suggestions.First, I would like to see a "model" thread in which the only comments are from the official Commonweal contributors. It might serve as a model discussion, and it would be interesting in its own right. If you read the profiles, you see there is a tremendous amount of brainpower in that list (and a few people we rarely, if ever, hear from). Second, I would like to see an area of dotCommonweal where somewhat more free-form discussions could take place, perhaps subdivided by major topics. It could be tucked away somewhere if necessary so as not to distract from the main discussion area. Failing that, there might be some other forum created for folks here who feel they haven't said all they have to say (or want to hear more from others). I could probably provide the space on my own website (, which visitors will note says "Coming February 1, 2005"--and that's because I updated it!I can't make a vow of silence, since I am unwilling to make a vow I am not sure I can keep. But I will try to go away for awhile.

Good ideas, Jean!

A well needed thread, Jean/ While david has a point about the homo(sexuality) issue, it's also trye that the sinful tempation to have the last word sems to drive a number of posts. Much implicit repetition then....

I would like to offer a qualified disagreement. I am not sure what is meant by try not to hog a thread. If it means don't reply so much, I guess I disagree. If there is a substantive post to which one would like to reply, then, I think one should reply; even if these means it ends up with some back and forth between two or three individuals for a while. Clearly, not everyone invests as much time and attention into these things as others, but I do not think that should count against those who don't. So long as the exchange is substantive, I see no reason why who is making the claims should matter.However, it can be hard to make discussions substantive. So I would like to propose two additional rules:1) Don't ask rhetorical questions that clearly have implicit arguments lurking within them. Be up front. If you want to lead with question, then follow up with as clear an explanation as possible regarding why that question is an important one to ask.2) Every now and then, try to anticipate what others in the thread might think of your claims and respond to these anticipated objections. That is, take the presence of those you are getting know in the thread seriously enough to indicate that you are trying to think with them, and not just at them.Perhaps I have far more patience for blogs than others because I see them as an opportunity both to participate in and to just watch informed discussions/debates of important issues. I don't even mind returning to the same issues over and over again, in part because there is a teaching function to blogs, and because it rarely hurts to try to polish one's old claims into something clearer and more concise.

Oops. I did not reread this before posting, as someone was knocking at my door. Having dispatched them, I now see that I meant (among mistakes) to say that it should not count against those wo DO invest more time in these threads if they get involved in something of an argumentative back and forth.

Are people aware that there is still a Commonweal group on Yahoo? It's pretty free-wheeling, and anyone can start a thread.

I wonder Jean if you regret making this observation. It is awfully hard to confine the comments of others because perceptions are so different never mind opinions. In every discussion group whether it is blog or email there are abundant suggestions for moderators and people generally ask moderators to intercede when they find it difficult to stand on their own two feet. In an imperfect world this blog has been remarkably good. Certainly there are prejudices and favorites and people tend to overlook the foibles of those they know for a long time. Egos are obvious in the comments, especially when the control is not possible that one has in the classroom or in one's chosen circle. Someone has said that the blog is the answer to the rejection many feel by being kept off the oped pages. The internet is the place where the established opinion makers cannot control and much needed opinions need to be expressed. It is the ultimate expression of freedom. Just as the three networks are becoming passe, so are many other spheres of influence. It is an entirely new game.Certainly there needs to be a modicum of respect and courtesy and as blogs go this one is hard to beat despite its necessary shortcomings.

I thought the thread, for the most part, kept to the original topic. I think you might have wished for consensus that a kinder and gentler response was warranted, but dare I say, you might be in a state of denial about what many people think gay "acceptance" means for them, along the lines stated by Unagidon somewhere in the middle of that thread. When my MIL, from Mass., began teaching in a southern school she couldn't get over how imbued everyone around her was with the Civil War (this was more than 50 years ago). When she asked one of the more vocal teachers why people couldn't just move on, the teacher said, succinctly: "You wouldn't have moved on either if you had lost."So it is with gay acceptance, not lost, perhaps, but recognizing the prospect of looming defeat, and not wanting another reprise of pining for a lost way of life. It stirs strong feelings. It would behoove all of us to understand even when we don't agree.

What i found interesting--and discouraging--during my participation in the "backlash" blog was how quickly some people jump to the wrong conclusions. In my comments, I criticized only Rowling's timing in making her announcement (after the book series was complete); in fact I eventually said I thought it was a great device for explaining the Dumbledore character's behavior. I also attempted to explain--when another poster raised the question--why some parents might worry about a gay theme but not the magical theme (as I pointed out--and had to point out repeatedely--homosexuality is real while magic is not ... regardless of what you think about homosexuality, it's appropriateness is something that people are debating whereas only some wacky fundamentalists actually worry about "magical" influences) ... anyway, these seemingly inoccuous points suddenly found me embroiled in a give-and-take exchange where I was accused of homophobia and likely other unpleasant traits ... a very sad example of how threads can get tied up in the wrong kinds of knots!

Whoops ... my mistake--I was referring to the "Dumbledore is gay" thread ... but my point is the same: a few people use these postings to make personal attacks that distort what other people have said, which I find unfortunate and inapprorpriate.

Barbara,Lost? Have we forgotten what red states and blue states look like? Or that 7 of the 8 marriage referenda that went to state ballot in 2006 passed?That means that a majority of the people in those states not only don't want gay marriage as their law. They also don't ever want the subject to come up again.That's actually not losing.My back went out so I'm lying here today, alternatively reading Mort d'Urrban, the Gospel of Luke, and A Confederacy of Dunces. Ignatius Reilly has just gone over in his pirate outfit, by taxi, to make a political speech at Dorian Greene's house where a party is in full swing."I only invited the better people," Dorian said to Ignatius."Good gracious," Ignatius sputtered. "I can see that we're going to have a great deal of trouble capturing the conservative rural redneck Calvinist vote..."

I don't think Jean intended for us to revisit the topic of Backlash so I'm not going to.

Um, okay.Speaking of the way bad habits can creep in unawares, has anyone besides me noticed that there have been quite a few comments lately of the "You're being mean so I'm not talking to you any more!" variety?I suppose comments like that can sometimes be necessary. But lately it seems like getting up from the table is becoming rather common. From my limited, not disinterested perspective, it seems too common.If the majority of the Official Commonweal Commentators think that this is appropriate discursive behavior among adults, I defer to their judgment. But really, we're just talking here. Is anyone really being mean?

"Whoops ... my mistake--I was referring to the "Dumbledore is gay" thread ... but my point is the same: a few people use these postings to make personal attacks that distort what other people have said, which I find unfortunate and inapprorpriate."I would too, if it were true.

Kathy,I don't know what you're referring to, but sometimes in the course of a thread it becomes clear that one is engaging in a war of attrition and the best thing to do in those cases is to pull out. And then there's a practical consideration: my ability to participate in a thread is constrained by my other editorial responsibilities. I presume others have similar constraints.

Grant,I wasn't referring to you, nor to the "I'm obviously much busier than you are"-type pullout, annoying as that is. There's a remarkably glaring example of what I'm talking about in the thread in question, and another in this particular thread.

But it's no big whoop. I'd just suggest that if people want to leave a thread, they just simply leave.