Monsignor Charles Pope has written a fine post/essay, "Concerns for Civility: What Do The Scriptures Teach Us?", for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog. Here is a short excerpt from the conclusion:
Careful -Now be careful here. I am not saying it is OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then, we live now, and in our culture such dialogue is almost never acceptable. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard to define things is “I know when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly, we tend today, to prefer a gentler discourse.
On the other hand we also tend to be a little thin-skinned and hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are so easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we easily presume that the very act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further and charges of hate and intolerance go back and forth where there is simply sincere disagreement.
Balance - The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less hyper-sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. Perhaps an old saying comes to mind: Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.
Read the entire post. One of the challenges, of course, is gauging what is actually mean. There is, as Monsignor Pope notes, a certain grey area: "Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear." Over the years, I've found that some folks feel that any sort of strong or critical remark is "mean-spirited" or "harsh" or "nasty", as if rendering judgment on the logic of an idea or the veracity of an argument were was somehow an outright hate crime. Frankly, I don't understand such folks, nor can I quite fathom how they make through life without a sense of humor or real friends.
I've been chided and chastised more than a few times for strong remarks made on this blog. Once in a while, after considering the complaint, I have apologized for what I've said. But I find, more often than not, that the complaint reveals either an inability for a particular reader to cope with a strong but fair criticism, or a failure to actually take seriously the criticism proferred. What is especially interesting (and a bit funny, if frustratingly so), is when someone complains that a post is "mean-spirited" or "nasty" and then goes on for several sentences about what a horrible thinker, person, Catholic, etc., I surely must be. In such a case, it's apparent that unpardonable sin is failure to feel and emote in exactly the same way as the one complaining/lecturing.
Which brings me to this essential point: I try very hard to aim my criticisms—and especially my use of sarcasm—at ideas, beliefs, and utterances, not at persons. I think this is especially important in using the often unstable and unruly tool of sarcasm, which can detonate in one's cyber-face very easily. (There is also the problem of what is meant by "sarcasm", which has a wide range of meaning depending on who one is talking to; perhaps "caustic criticism" or "acerbic criticsm" is a better term.) But I also believe that sarcasm, used rightly, can expose error and wrong-headedness in a helpful and engaging way. However, it really shouldn't be used to demean and attack persons; rather, it should be used to expose and rebut pretense, falsehood, evasion, lies, fabrications, misrepresentations, cognative dissonance, dissent, and general charlatanism.
For example, here is a bit from a post I wrote back in September 2007 titled, "Hans Küng needs to write less and read more" ; the sentences in bold are from a piece by Küng, followed in regular type by my acerbic criticism:
• "The Romans, the Roman bishop, i.e. the pope, have a hard time admitting mistakes. When you have an ideology of infallibility, then infallible mistakes will be made, and those cannot be corrected." Wow. You would think that a guy who wrote an entire book on papal infallibility might actually understand what papal infallibility is. Which means that either he doesn't (embarrassing) or he is being misleading (worse than embarrassing). But, to point out the obvious, the Regensburg Address, while certainly a serious and important pronouncement, was not "infallible," nor did anyone with any commonsense or knowledge of Catholic teaching act as though it was. Well, take heart, Hans Küng: at least your many mistakes aren't infallible. Just embarrassing.
• "Desperate young people resorted to terrorism. Of course we have to judge suicide assassins and assaults. But we have to think about why so many young people became so desperate to make themselves available for such assassinations." Yes, we sure do. And we need to consider strongly the possibility—which does have evidence on its side—that poverty and "desperation" are not the primary motives of Islamic terrorists. But, of course, you are so busy blaming everything on America and George Bush, you haven't time to read about other perspectives on the matter.
• "Religion can co-exist with democracy. The leading architects of Europe, from Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer to Robert Schuman and Alcide De Gasperi, were all pious Christians. The reason why Islam has more problems with democracy than Christianity is that Islam, in contrast to Christianity and Judaism, had no Reformation and Enlightenment, leaving out a few special circles." I take that to mean that if it weren't for Protestantism and secularism, many Catholics would be just as violent and murderous as some radical Islamists are today? Is this guy serious?
My post was certainly caustic, but it was penned in response to some truly ridiculous (even insulting) remarks by Küng aimed at Benedict XVI, and my focus was on skewering Küng's claims and remarks, not on taking personal shots at him. And yet, sure as shootin', someone left this comment: "These comments mirror intolerance and evilness. To sum up: HK, don't write, don't think, obey the Pope." Really? Well, sure, I am intolerant of passively accepting Küng's dubious remarks as true and well-argued in the lights of facts and basic logic. But "evilness"? And so it goes; and as long as there are blogs and a free exchange of ideas, there is going to be those sort of remarks. Oddly enough, they usually come from people who insist they are the most tolerant, openminded, and expansive-souled folks in the cosmos. Such talk is cheap, and false tolerance is easier to steal and abuse than true civility is to learn and use rightly.