In his latest “From the Chapel” post, OSV publisher Scott Richert writes that “it has…
From the Chapel — June 30: ‘The centre cannot hold’
“From the Chapel” is a series of short, daily reflections on life and faith in a time of uncertainty. As people across the world cope with the effects of the coronavirus — including the social isolation necessary to combat its spread — these reflections remind us of the hope that lies at the heart of the Gospel.
For many years now, I have urged everyone who will listen (and many who won’t) never to read comments on articles and blog posts online. By following that advice, you may, of course, miss a long, thoughtful discussion that really engages with the main points the author of the article was trying to make — but probably not. Instead, you’re more likely to find a bunch of — I was going to write “ill-considered comments,” but that phrase implies that the commenter did consider his words, which implies that he actually considered the article that he is commenting on, which implies that he actually read it (much less read it all the way through), which is more often than not an open question. If I could bet a penny per comment on every article published on the internet for just a single day, with me losing that penny if the author of the comment read the entire article before making it and winning a penny if he did not, I have no doubt I’d never have to work another day in my life, and my children probably wouldn’t, either.
Most of the time, I have followed my own advice, even when — or rather, especially when — the article in question happens to be my own. My biggest failure — my constant, agonizing failure — is on my posts on social media. And since I quit actively using Twitter about five years ago when I got tired of being trolled by the “alt-right” and its defenders (especially those who just didn’t have the guts to come out and be the neo-Nazis they really wanted to be), that means Facebook.
There are more problems with Facebook than I have space to consider (and considering that this column will only appear online, space is essentially unlimited, so that’s a lot of problems), but two are especially worth noting: You can’t turn off comments, or even notifications of comments, on your own posts (which is something I urge everyone who runs a website to do — you can’t be tempted to read the comments if there are no comments to read); and even if you’ve been relatively indiscriminate in accepting friend requests, many of the people who comment on your posts are people whom you know, either personally or through long acquaintance on the internet. So refusing to read the comments feels rude, somehow, and nobody wants to be rude. Except, of course, that reading comments often gives one reason to want to be rude, and sometimes even an excuse for being so.
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” No, that’s not Facebook’s motto, but William Butler Yeats’s frank assessment of the state of mankind in the modern world fits the bulk of users of the social network to a T. Yeats wrote his poem in 1919, in the wake of World War I but also in the midst of the second wave of the Spanish flu. Yeats’ wife, pregnant with their first child, caught the flu and nearly died. (The mortality rate for pregnant women with the Spanish flu was as high as 70 percent.)
Such circumstances have a way of concentrating a man’s mind, especially one who has reached middle age (Yeats was 53) and has realized that life rarely goes as planned, even in the absence of world wars, social unrest (it was the early days of the Irish War of Independence) and pandemics. But Yeats had one advantage that we no longer do: Back in 1920 (when “The Second Coming” was first published), if you wanted to respond to an article or a poem, you had to write your own article or a letter, or at least find the author in his local pub and buy him a pint so he’d listen to your thoughts.
Now all you have to do is hound him on Facebook until he unfriends you or leaves the platform. Or starts listening to his own advice, and stops reading the comments. Which is what I intend to do.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.