When someone is wrong on the Internet


Sometimes, I behave badly online.

No, really! Still, I am better than I used to be; and, as I always tell my kids, you can’t ask for more than progress. Here are a few things that help me from behaving too shamefully when discussing important topics (especially religious ones) online:

Remember there’s a person on the other end. When things get intense, I sometimes mention something personal to bring the conversation back to a human level: Instead of “I’ve wasted enough time with you, thickhead,” try “Gotta go throw that meatloaf in the oven now.” Someone else is likely to say, “Hey, we’re having meatloaf, too!” and everyone suddenly remembers that, if we were sitting around the kitchen and smelling meatloaf cooking, we wouldn’t be talking to each other so nastily (even if the other person really is a thickhead).

“Be gentle, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” You’ve arrived at your point of view through pure intellect, but they’ve arrived at theirs through pure malice or stupidity, right? Yeah, probably not. People who disagree with you are using their brains, but also their experience—which may have been nothing like yours. We are all kind of a mess inside, and won’t see ourselves or anyone else clearly until the Second Coming. Remember that there is no point of view in a vacuum: we all have baggage, and when someone disagrees with you, it may have a lot more to do with that baggage than it does with your idea or with you personally.

Pray before you comment. Not, “God almighty, enlighten these idiots through the workings of my keyboard,” but “Lord, bless Mr. Troll.” It couldn’t hurt, right? Or you could test out the idea, “I am pleasing God by writing the following,” and see if that changes your tone at all. If you’re unwilling to think about God being present while you write, that is a bad sign. The worst sign, in fact.

Fake it till you make it. It may be too hard to be civil for the sake of blindingly pure Christian caritas, so maybe just do it to make the next five seconds on earth more pleasant. If you can’t actually be a good person with your whole heart, the next best thing is to play one online. It’s okay to be angry, to acknowledge to yourself that you’re angry, and then speak as if you’re not angry. It’s pretty liberating, actually.  Occasionally, the person who lashed out at you, expecting you to respond in kind, will collapse and apologize in the face of kindness. And even better, speaking like a decent person may actually engender decency within you.  At very least, you’ll have refused to contribute to the overall horribleness of the world this one time.

Apologize when you’re wrong, and do it like a Catholic: in the active voice. If you’ve hurt someone, intentionally or not, then say you’re sorry for what you did—not “I’m sorry your poor widdle feelings got poked with the sharpness of my intellect.” If you got really carried away, a follow-up by personal email can make a big difference next time you meet online. If the other guy refuses to respond with his own apology, it’s his problem on his conscience, not yours.

Remember that the fate of the Church, the country, the future of the arts, the future of education, or the future of Western civilization in general does not rest on your shoulders. No matter how important the topic of conversation, it’s just a conversation, and your first obligation is to the people physically around you. Are you getting shaky? Have you heard yourself shriek, “Shut up, shut up, I’m defending Communion on the tongue!!!” Has your home shown up on Drudge with the headline “House of Filth?” If so, then whatever you lose by losing the argument is not as important as what you will gain by walking away.

Know when to go. If you’ve made your point as clearly as you can several times, and people still don’t agree with you, then there are three possible reasons: (a) you’re wrong; (b) you’re right, but not a good explainer; or (c) you’re right and eloquent, but this audience simply won’t hear you. In any case, it’s time to move along.

A version of this post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in March of 2011.


More family games you can play sitting down

We finally got some snow on the East coast.We were hoping to get out the sleds for Christmas vacation, but what’s covering the ground is more of an icy, grainy, slush, not great for coasting. So I’m wracking my brains to recall more family games, besides the ones I suggested for Thanksgiving gatherings. Here’s what we’ve been doing:


Caption This

My sister Abby (who may have invented this game, I’m not sure) describes it like this:

“One person writes a sentence or phrase and hands the paper to the next person. He illustrates it, and then folds the paper so only his illustration is showing, and passes it to the next person. He writes a caption for the illustration, and then folds the paper so only his caption is showing, and passes it to the next person, who illustrates the caption, and so on. The round ends with a caption at the bottom of the page. Then you compare the original phrase with the final caption.”

It’s sort of like Telephone, but with words and pictures. This game works the best if you have lots of people playing, and it’s actually more fun if the people involved are not great artists. We also made it zippier by making a thirty-second limit before you have to pass the paper along.

I wish I had a sample to show you, but I may have been filling some time this week by shrieking, “We need to get this place cleaned up! I cannot live like this! Get up, get up, we need to throw all this stuff away!” So I think we threw them away.


One-Word Round Robin Stories

In a standard round robin story, each player contributes several sentences before passing the plot along to the next person. In this version, each person contributes only one word. So you might end up with an opening sentence like this:

“One day, four miserable Russians decided to excavate their uncle’s bedroom floor, and they found something TERRIFYING.”

This works best when you play with siblings or people who know each other’s thought patterns well, and some element of telepathy helps to keep the sentences afloat.



Werewolf is an actual store-bought game with cards that one kid got for Christmas (we have the deluxe edition), and it’s been a big hit. The play is simple, but it’s the psychological aspect that makes it entertaining.

I’m not great at explaining games, but here’s the general idea: The premise is that, when night falls in the village, a werewolf comes out and kills someone; and everyone else has to figure out who the werewolf is and what to do about it. Everyone closes his eyes, and the leader instructs one person at a time to wake up, take a look at the card that reveals his role (werewolf, bodyguard, witch, villager, etc.), and then go back to sleep. There are several rounds of play, in which the players anonymously decide to kill, save, protect, or silence each other.

[img attachment=”86257″ align=”alignnone” size=”medium” alt=”Sometimes the werewolf is the last person you’d suspect” caption=”Sometimes the werewolf is the last person you’d suspect” /]

Then everyone has to vote on whom to lynch. Players are eliminated one at a time, and it becomes more and more evident who is killing everyone, who is being framed, and who is lying through their teeth (and, in my case, who forgot the rules and accidentally blabbed too much information).

[img attachment=”86258″ align=”alignnone” size=”medium” alt=”Sometimes they are a little too eager to lynch each other.” caption=”Sometimes they are a little too eager to lynch each other.” /]

Depending on your family dynamics, you may not want to play more than a few rounds of this game! It tends to bring everyone’s core personality front and center.

And oh yes, I do have  “Where, oh werewolf” stuck in my head 24/7 now.

So, what are you doing over Christmas break, if you’ve got one? Any games you can suggest for us? Because night cometh, and I may have given birth to more than one werewolf . . .



No, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” doesn’t need to be updated to emphasize consent

Unpopular opinion time! “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” isn’t a rape song. It’s not even a rapey song. It’s a seduction song, and we used to know the difference between seduction and rape, before we elevated consent to the highest good.

Apparently there is an arch parody that updates the song to emphasize consent. I despise arch parodies, so I refuse to watch it, and you can’t make me.

For the record, I don’t even especially like the original song. It’s okay, as far as cutesy duets go. It does an adequate job of capturing a familiar relationship between a man and a woman. As with any song, you can make it come across as creepy and criminal; but you can also make it come across as it was originally intended: as playful.  The couple is literally playing a game, a very old one, where the man wants what he wants, and the woman wants it too, but it’s more fun for both of them when he has to work for it a little bit. It’s a song about persuasion. That’s what seduction is, and that’s what makes the song interesting: the tension. If there is no tension, there is no song.

Here are the full lyrics. The woman’s lines are in parenthesis. If you’re convinced this song is a rape song, please do read through the lyrics before you read the rest of this post!

You’ll note that the only protests the woman makes are that her reputation might be soiled. She doesn’t say that she wants to go, only that she should. This is because  . . . I’m dying a little inside because I actually have to say it . . . she actually wants to stay. As women often do, when they are already in a relationship with a man they are attracted to and with whom they have been spending a romantic evening, and whom they have been telling repeatedly that they are actually interested in staying.

Most critics get hung up on the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?” The assumption is that he’s slipped a drug into her cocktail (or, occasionally, that he’s spiked her virgin drink with alcohol). Okay. Or maybe, at the end of an evening of dancing and drinking, he’s added a little more liquor than she’s expecting. Or maybe he hasn’t done anything, other than give her the “half a drink more” she just asked for, and she’s playfully making an excuse for what she’s about to do:  Whoo, what’s in this drink? I’m acting all silly, but it can’t be my fault, mercy me!  This was a standard trope of that era. Anytime something weird goes on, you blame the bottle.

Again: there is no indication, unless you take that one line out of context, that there is anything sinister going on. There is overwhelming evidence, if you listen to the whole song, that it’s a song about a pleasurable interplay between the sexes.

Heck, if we’re going to give this song the darkest possible reading, and single out one line while ignoring the context, why not call it the False Rape Accusation song? After all, the woman says, “At least I’m gonna say that I tried!” You see? She’s calculating a malicious plan to claim that she didn’t give consent, so that when her family and neighbors look askance at her for spending the night, she can make it seem like it was against her will!

Humbug. This is what happens when we’re all trained to see consent as the highest good. This is what happens when we’re trained to ignore context. People who can’t tell the difference between persuasion and force are people who have forgotten why consent is so important.

Consent isn’t valuable in itself. If it were, then it would be a holy and solemn moment when we check the “I agree” box when signing onto free WiFi at Dunkin’ Donuts. Consent is only a good thing because it’s in service to other things — higher things with intrinsic value, such as fidelity, free will, self sacrifice, respect, happiness, integrity, and . . . love. These are all things that you can’t have unless you have consent.

But when all you look for is consent, and you ignore the context, you get two human beings who see each other in rigid roles — business partners with black and white contractual obligations. In short, you have what modern people say they despise about the bad old days: love as a business arrangement.

My friends, I firmly believe there is such a thing as rape culture. When we wink and smirk and say, “Boys will be boys,” we degrade both women and men, and we teach women that they have a duty to give men whatever they want so they’re not a tease or a downer. We teach men that they can’t control themselves. We teach women that they can’t really say no, and that if they do, they’ll be scoffed at or blamed or disbelieved. When we tell the world that “no means maybe,” we’re setting the stage for rape.

But is this song doing that? Or is it just a little vignette of that deliciously warm in-between place, where reasonable people can have fun together? Because when we step outside, and make everything black and white, then, baby, it’s cold. So cold.

We degrade both men and women when we tell them that sex is just another contractual obligation — and that there’s no difference between a violent encounter between strangers, and a playful exchange between a romantic couple, and a violent exchange between a romantic couple, and a loving relationship in marriage, and a violent relationship in marriage. We’re told that the relationship doesn’t matter, and that the actual behavior has no intrinsic meaning. The only thing that matters is consent. We think that focusing on consent will ensure that no one will be degraded or taken advantage of; but instead, it has won us abominations like “empowering porn” and 50 Shades of Gray and even the suggestion that children can give consent.  It wins us a generation of kids that asks things like, “How can I tell if she consents or not, if she’s not conscious?” (A real question I read from a high school kid; I’ll add the link if I can find it again!) These miseries are not a side effect; they are the direct result of a culture that elevates consent to the highest good.

It’s not only promiscuous, secular types whose lives are impoverished by the cold rule of consent. I’m a member of a group of Catholics where one young woman wrote for advice about her husband, who, she tearfully reported, kissed her without first asking consent. This made her feel violated.

It was her husband.

Who kissed her.

And she thought he needed to ask consent every time.

This is where the pendulum has swung. We’ve pathologized the normal, healthy, give-and-take of love. We’ve taught people that there is no such thing as context: that’s it’s fair game to ignore the entire relationship and to reduce each other to business partners.

Now, if you’ve been victimized or abused, then this is probably not going to be your favorite song. You’re free to find it creepy, and you’re free to change the station. But we don’t heal from abuse by turning the whole world into an isolation ward. Healthy relationships, where the context does allow for some interplay and ambiguity, should be the norm, and they should dare to speak their healthy name.

And one more thing (and I could write volumes about this): not everything is a lesson. Not every pop song is a primer for how to behave. I tell my kids that it’s our duty to be aware of what the world is teaching us, for good or ill; but just because we’re learning something doesn’t mean there was a life lesson intended.  Sometimes art, including pop art (like pop songs) is just giving you a slice of human experience, and when it feels familiar, then it’s done well, period.

No wonder people have no idea how to stay married anymore. They expect everything to be a lesson, and they expect those lessons to be black and white. They think that life is going to give them crystal clear boundaries. They think that it’s always going to be obvious what they can expect from other people and from themselves.

I’m not talking about sex, here; I’m talking about love, and about life in general — life without context, life without tension, life without ambiguity, life without play. Baby, it doesn’t get any colder than that.

Image: Pedro Ignacio Guridi via Flickr (Creative Commons)
This essay ran in a slightly different form on Aleteia in 2015.


Stop by after work to visit the new baby!


Our Christmas art miniseries continues with the fresh and lovely work of Matthew Alderman, who graciously shared several of his drawings with us. Today’s piece is this remarkably lucid Madonna and Child, originally a Christmas card design.

When I saw his art, I immediately thought of the great Walter Crane, who illustrated so many children’s books around the turn of the century. This Madonna and Child recall that courtly, allegorical style, but in place of a characteristic smoldering, guarded expression, Mary and Jesus’ faces are open and enthusiastic, and the design looks nobly ancient rather than old-fashioned. Lovers of children’s books will also be reminded of Trina Schart Hyman, who drew heavily on heraldry and illuminated manuscripts, nodded at the pre-raphaelites, and then opened the window to let some air in.

Ohh, I have questions for Mr. Alderman! More about his extensive work later.

I chose this work of art for today because I can imagine Mary and Jesus having had a few days to rest and freshen up after the birth. They are clearly feeling fine and are ready to receive visitors. Mary wears rings and a circlet of pearls, as an honored queen, but just like any new mother, she is proud of her beautiful new baby boy, and wants to show him off.

[img attachment=”85785″ align=”alignnone” size=”full” alt=”christmas art Matthew Alderman madonna and child” /]

A nice reminder, on a day when many of us are heading back to work and taking up our daily chores and routine again. Take a moment, at some point during the day, to visit with this happy young mother and her wonderful Child. Praise him, and pass along this openness and joy to the next person you meet!



You can see the rest of this year’s Christmas art here: John the Baptist by Matt Clark, some pregnant madonnas by Teresa von Teichman, and Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming by the extraordinary James Janknegt.



See how the small king opens His arms to you with all His strength. See the roses blooming in the dead of winter.

It was hard to choose just one painting by Texas artist James B. Janknegt, who generously gave his permission to share his work. This one seemed to reach out especially to so many of my friends who are suffering today, separated from their children, spending Christmas day in the hospital, or waiting for the doctor to come, or looking forward to the new year with fear or dread, or facing the day alone.

See the roses in His palms, red as blood. They began to bloom on Christmas morning, and they are the flowers of love. His arms are outstretched for you.


Music for Christmas Steve

This is Christmas Steve. He appeared on the bottom of my son’s foot on December 24th, as a way of reminding me that some people haven’t had a shower in a while.

As you can see, Christmas Steve is running a little bit behind. Christmas Steve’s house is not clean. Christmas Steve may have made more promises than can reasonably be kept, and Christmas Steve is feeling neither calm nor bright.

However, Christmas Steve is going to make one last stab at getting it together. Christmas Steve is going to breathe slowly, drink plenty of fluids, and pause before speaking. Christmas Steve is going to set a good example for the next person Christmas Steve meets today. And it is going to be a good day.

Here is what Christmas Steve is listening to today (and yes, Christmas Steve is recycling this post from the Register last year):

1. Of the Father’s Love Begotten

Tell me again how there’s this wide, unbridgeable gulf between people who love theology and people who just love God. This is a pure love song, stuffed to the gills with doctrine. Read all the verses here.

2. Creator of the Stars of Night

I don’t know the musical term for this, but notice how each verse ends on a note that goes up, instead of down? But it doesn’t feel unsatisfying. Instead, it creates the impression that here is a song we could continue singing forever. Here we see the difference between a question that can’t be answered, and a question that we can delight in hearing answered forever.

3. The Friendly Beasts

It was strangely difficult to find a plain, pleasant version of this song that wasn’t gooey or groany. Some cowboys do a decent job with this good little Christmas tune.

4. How Bright Appears the Morning Star

I’m torn. The full-on Bach experience makes me feel like I’ve wasted my life, since I’ve never been one of the altos involved in this:

But on the other hand, this Texas Boys Choir does a neat, sweet job of it:

5. In the Bleak Midwinter

Now, give these young folks a chance! This is the Bombay Bicyle Club:

Or, if it’s not to your liking, here is enough Holst to hold you over:

6. Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming

At first I was skeptical at the slow tempo, but now I see how this rendition gives the music all the room it needs to expand, or, well, to bloom. Perfect.

7. Huron Carol

Adapted from a 16th-century French folk song by the missionary martyr John de Brébeuf. This version is in the Huron language and uses instruments like the ones that would have been played at the time.

8. Angels from the Realms of Glory

I couldn’t find the tune I’m more familiar with; so as long as I’m not getting quite what I want, here’s an Annie Lennox version.
Beause it’s Annie Lennox, she sounds earthy and androgynously powerful, but so fragile at the same time — and then it just sort of veers off into that trademark mechanized Annie Lennox boogie hamster wheel. Oh, well. Try it, you might like it!

9. Josef Lieber, Josef Mein

Whenever someone says they love some cheesy Christmas song because it makes Mary seem so familiar and so human, I want to say, “But wait, listen to this!” It doesn’t get more familiar than a young mother turning to her husband and asking for a hand — and he obliges so tenderly. This is a lullaby originally sang during Medieval mystery plays. Here are a few of the verses:

1. “Joseph dearest, Joseph mine,
Help me cradle the child divine;
God reward thee and All that’s thine
In paradise,”
So prays the mother Mary.

2. “Gladly, dear one, lady mine,
Help I cradle this child of thine;
God’s own light on us both shall shine
In paradise,
As prays the mother Mary.”

8. Little man, and God indeed,
Little and poor, thou art all we need;
We will follow where thou dost lead,
And we will heed
Our brother, born of Mary.

10. And of course we must end with In Dulci Jubilo.

Big sound from four singers here!

Today I learned the word “macaronic,” which refers to a style of work where all kinds of languages are thrown together, not necessarily in the most elegant or scholarly way. Like, apparently, a peasant dumpling.

Everyone should try singing this song at one point, if only for the sheer pleasure of saying, “Nun singet und seid froh!” (Pronounced “Noon zinget oond zide fro.”) A tasty, raucous dumpling perfect for the most international feast of all, where the whole world is thrown together to celebrate the birth of our king on Christmas morning.