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.