Mar 20, 2015

When Ghosts Invade the Internet

By Anna Ilona Mussmann

The internet is haunted. Someone online might say, “American students need to learn from the injustices that have occurred throughout our history.” I would never disagree with the actual words of that statement. However, when I read it, specters arise immediately. I think of an elementary textbook I once read that equated the Puritans with Islamic terrorists. I recall my objection to the new AP curriculum, the feeling that hyper-liberals “hate America,” and the remembrance of being a small child who longed for heroes. Those memories are not part of what I am reading, but they haunt my interpretation of it. I am in danger of responding not just to the words on the screen, but to everything with which I associate them, even if doing so is unfair to this particular author.

After all, I don’t know the author in real life, and so I don’t trust him not to be one of “those people” who are wrong. The ghosts of association can so easily lead me to put the worst construction on other people’s words and ideas (after all, it’s easier to defeat and dismiss a straw man than a flesh-and-blood one). They can end the opportunity for dialogue and potential learning.

It fascinates me that even intelligent, kind, sincere people suffer from this syndrome when reading about certain topics online. We Lutherans are famously comfortable with accepting paradoxical theology instead of trying to use logic to resolve everything into tidy packages, but the ghosts of past arguments often crop up in our conversations with each other. Imagine that I wrote an article stating that the Christian need not do any good works. It would be a true statement--we are justified by Christ’s goodness, not by what we do. For readers burdened with a heavy conscience, it would be a liberating statement. Yet a few readers would instantly respond to a whole slew of errors which they would immediately associate with my words.

Suppose I said instead, “The true Christian will strive to do good works.” That, too, is true--as James tells us, faith without works is dead. Some readers, joyful and confident in their trust in Christ’s mercy, would nod and read calmly on. Others, full of anger at teachers who have truly burdened and harmed Christendom with a distortion of Law and Gospel, would soon be throwing punches in the comment section. In both cases, those who disagreed with me would probably not be arguing with me at all, but with other people in their past and present lives.

This is not all bad. Proverbs 27:17 says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Debate can be a way to learn. If no one among us attempted to correct the pendulum swing of ideas and perceptions, many errors would find themselves without opposition. It is sometimes our duty, in Christian kindness and charity, to tell others that they are wrong and, if possible, to point them toward the truth. In addition, we must recognize that many ideas do lead to certain unfortunate conclusions. Yet we ought not to always jump to those conclusions and chastise our sisters and brothers before sincerely listening to their words. When we do make that mistake, let us repent, because we are probably committing our hundredth (or thousandth) sin of the day and breaking the Eighth Commandment.  

My point is not to argue for moral relativism or for a soft, fluffy, foolish tolerance. My point is that we must watch out for ghosts because ideas and beliefs are matters of life-and-death. Truth matters. Right theology matters. That is why it is important that when we enter the arena of debate, we debate truly. That is why we should be discussing the issue at hand in as honest and just a spirit as we can, rather than typing unresistingly when the ghosts come swarming out to haunt our keyboards. This is also why it is helpful to practice self-awareness and to recognize that reading about certain topics might not be helpful for all of us at all times. Some of us are more inclined to be tempted by false guilt and shame than others are. Some of us are inclined toward a scornful attitude. Some of us get emotionally unstable when we are pregnant. If that happens, let us take our own issues into account before we click on an article that we will surely stir up all of our most self-focused emotions (or at least before we get worked up about that article). I’m as inclined as anyone else to be haunted, so if you think my ghosts are showing, please let me know.

Like all areas of life, this is one in which we will mess up. Let us rejoice in Christ's mercy, thanking God that that He sees us neither through the shadow of ghosts, nor even as we truly are in ourselves; but instead as He has made us through His saving work.


Anna writes as often as she can. After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin she taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their small son (and are awaiting the arrival of baby #2, due in July). Anna's personal blog is Don't Forget the Avocados and her work can also be found in The Federalist.


  1. Well this one gets me right- haunted, pregnant and all. Thank you for these words of reproof. I'm also reminded of another great enemy we have, our own tongues. So much easier to allow it to go untamed online.

    "Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble."
    "A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger."
    "So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!"

  2. I have noticed this type of behavior goes in waves. I (jokingly) refer to it as "that time of the month" even though it's not limited to women.

    When I feel haunted by things I read on the internet, I usually talk to my husband about it because then I vent my emotions. After that, I usually don't even feel the need to post a comment, let alone start a comment war.

  3. I hear what you're saying, Anna, but I don't find it practically (or philosophically) helpful or very constructive, really.

    There is no reasoning, no cognition apart from our biases (or, what you call "ghosts"). We were made to have biases (though not all biases are created equal: some are demonstrably, arguably, better or worse, true or false). We can't rid ourselves of biases, nor should we (though we need to be able to critically examine our biases in the context of opposing ones, and debate gives a great opportunity to do that very thing).

    It is by engaging each other in communication that we can come to appreciate the merits of another's biases and see the shortcomings/errors of our own.(all kinds of communication, from simple small talk / pleasantries to heated philosophical debate, carry this kind of risk/benefit and require both vulnerability and intellectual humility on the part of participants on both sides.

    Discouraging debate (whether in real life or in online forums) among Christians is not the way to create unity (ever wonder why Lutherans are constantly called out for their quietism? Do you think this is a demonstration of faith or of fear [trick question;)]?).

    I appreciate your attempts to bring soothing and calm to what might seem to you like hot-temperedness and discord, but I think that without actually yourself engaging in these debates, you're (by which I mean, anyone who fears opposition, not necessarily you, Anna) missing out on some of the personally transformative aspects of debate. I notice you have engaged in a bit of hyperbole to make your point: I wonder, what to you exactly constitutes verbally "throwing punches"? That will differ widely depending on an individual's personality and temperament. Disagreement in the comments section of a blog post is not necessarily mean-spirited opportunism, though some might well think so.

    Unfortunately, most Americans are biased to believe that 'argument' is a dirty word; what would be better would be if we all learned how to argue, and do it well (a little overview in comparative philosophies and worldviews couldn't hurt, either).

    Cultural engagement is tricky. Ideas don't exist in a vacuum ('ghosts' are our only way of understanding ideas - we observe and experience how certain ideas have been born out in our lives: the proof of the pudding is in the eating): they have both objective (theory) and subjective (practice) aspects. The one bias we all share is original sin, but it'll follow us wherever we are (wherever we are in community, in real life and online, too), and, at least in my opinion, even that is no excuse (not a good argument) for disengagement.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article, Anna!

    1. Alison, I agree with you that as a culture we often don't have a good understanding of how to argue in a productive way. I don't mean to say that we ought not to debate, comment, discuss, and thrash out questions. Nor do I mean that we should not use past *knowledge,* even experiential knowledge, to help us understand what we are reading.

      I do mean to argue that we should try to ensure that what we are debating, commenting upon, discussing, and thrashing out is really the subject under discussion. In my own mind, I wasn't attempting to tackle the issue of presuppositions and biases in general--just the human tendency (unfortunately evident in myself) to "read into" and dismiss other people's words when I should still be focused on trying to understand them as fairly as I can. Being fair doesn't mean that I'll agree with someone else. It might even be fair to decide that someone is entirely in error, exercising sloppy logic, and clearly influenced by, say, postmodernism. I just want to avoid deciding that they are a dumb postmodernist just because I'm feeling hormonal or because something about their words causes me to unfairly associate them (in a sloppy display of my own logic) with someone else who is a postmodernist.

      I just want people to "argue right." :-) When commenting, you, yourself, engage with people's words, respond to their follow-up, and give the impression that your purpose is to truly think about and learn from the arena of debate. That's the kind of argument that I think is productive. I don't mean to argue against that.

      Of course, you're also right that I tend to prefer calm and peace and general agreement. Perhaps that personality trait exercised an unintended influence upon the way that I framed the article.


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