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To Di or not to Di

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 23, 2009

From time to time we get feedback here to the effect that the wit of Diogenes (on display in Off the Record) is too sharp, or that Diogenes judges others too harshly, or that he presumes others are ill-motivated, or that he doesn’t love his enemies as Christ commanded us to do. These criticisms don’t arise often—perhaps a couple of times a year—but they do arise. And because I believe most readers can see why they should arise, I want to address the question here.

While the identity of Diogenes is a well-kept secret for a very good reason, in the interest of disclosing as much as possible, let me say three things: First, as the founder, President and Chairman of the Board of Trinity Communications, I have the final responsibility for determining what is or is not published on CatholicCulture.org. Insofar as Diogenes or any other writer is ever offensive, the buck stops with me. Second, Phil Lawler and I have discussed the highly acerbic nature of Di’s wit on numerous occasions; we have taken counsel with each other, with concerned readers, and even with at least one priest. Third, Diogenes has thought deeply about this matter himself. He deliberately tries to stay near the edge without going over it.

Now this last point is more important than you might realize, because the difficulty in this kind of writing consists not so much in objective moral analysis as in correctly gauging the sensibilities of one’s readers. If this seems like a bold statement, I invite you to join me in a closer look.

Insofar as objective moral analysis applies, it applies to questions of justice and charity. If the “thing” criticized is real and the point of the criticism is to show how this “thing” falls objectively short of what is right and proper to it, then the criticism satisfies the first claim of justice in that the criticism is true. If the person criticized is a free and responsible agent (as opposed to a child or a victim, for example), then the criticism satisfies the second claim of justice in that the criticism is fair. As to charity, if the criticism is made in a manner calculated to hurt the offender in ways neither related to nor required by the nature of his fault, then the criticism is uncharitable (or, if not ill-motivated, it may simply be imprudent).

It is under this heading that we find nearly all criticisms of Diogenes, for the heading definitely includes the problem of ridicule, which is one of Diogenes’ stocks in trade. Quite obviously, ridicule can often be damaging beyond what a fault requires—as, for example, when a brutal schoolmaster subjects a schoolboy to public ridicule because he has made this or that error on an assignment. Christians are bound to be on guard against ridicule in all close communities—among families, friends, colleagues and the like—where, by virtue of the close relationships involved, ridicule tends to cut the offender off in toto from the community on which he depends for his self-esteem and emotional well-being. Thus ridicule can damage the whole person rather than strengthening him through the correction of a fault.

But this is simply not operative, or at least extremely unlikely to be operative, among adults outside of close communities. It is not operative in the arena of wide public discourse, which is generally carried on among rival parties or factions. It is scarcely to be credited, for example, that the Pope was deeply hurt when Martin Luther called the Roman Church the Whore of Babylon; or that Luther himself was in danger of being bruised beyond recognition by the attacks of those Catholic apologists who heaped scorn upon his errors; or that John Henry Newman, when he decided to go to Rome, was likely to be extremely distressed by the mockery of those representing other schools of thought; or that President Obama is in danger of a severe depression induced by the snide remarks of Rush Limbaugh; or that Hans Küng should be inordinately distressed by the laughter and snorting which inevitably arises among young orthodox seminarians on being introduced to his works.

No, a person may be harmed when mocked or ridiculed by his wife, his children, his parents, his dear friends and colleagues; but no such injury can be inflicted in this way by those whom he knows only under the heading of “opponents”. Therefore, in all considerations of public polemical writing, the only hard question is the impact of the writing on one’s own audience. This is why I said that the difficulty in this kind of writing consists not so much in objective moral analysis as in correctly gauging the sensibilities of one’s readers. There are, it seems to me, three dangers.

First, readers might form the erroneous impression that the sometimes sarcastic tone of polemical writing is the desired tone for every situation. But no adult reader with any experience of life at all is likely to fall into such a trap. Second, readers might come to believe that the proper response of a Christian to other weak and fallen human persons is contempt. In fact, if all of the material on CatholicCulture.org (or even a significant percentage of it) were expressed in this tone—or if our users never read anything but Diogenes (a sad circumstance which Diogenes himself would deplore with an even more scathing wit than usual)—then I suppose it is just barely possible that some reader could miss the message that lies at the heart of our work here, to the effect that we must love the sinner while hating the sin. Barely possible, perhaps, but it would also be a colossal insult to our readership to think it likely.

Third—and now we come to it—some readers might be uncomfortable or just a little scandalized by Uncle Di, from either the frankness with which he discloses what is amiss or the contemptuousness with which he dismisses what he exposes. This, in fact, is what all of us, including Diogenes, think and wonder about: What is the impact on our readers? It is here that the question of prudence arises, the question which has to do with suiting a proper action to a desired result.

Thus, if readers frequently find the tone careless, the exposures unseemly, and the net effect depressing and dispiriting, then we have not only misgauged their sensibilities but misgauged them in a manner at once clumsy, damaging and even dangerous. But if they usually find Diogenes to be a breath of fresh air, welcoming him as a sane voice in an insane world, a voice that makes them laugh even while bolstering their own Christian confidence—if, to put the matter clearly, his rapier wit actually strengthens the Church by deftly cutting out infection before our very eyes—then we have gauged our readers just about right. That’s what I think Diogenes does, and I am also morally certain that this is why he does it: to strengthen the Church by bolstering the Catholic confidence of his readers.

Even so, it remains true that gauging readership as a whole is not the same as gauging each and every reader individually. No writer satisfies the needs and tastes of everyone. But Diogenes is very popular, and I do not intend to insult his fans, many of whom have given inspiring testimonies of their own deep Christian commitment, by claiming that they must like Diogenes for the wrong reasons. Perhaps I should be tempted to say so, for the writings of Diogenes are more popular than my own. Surely there must be something wrong? In fact, he’s even more popular than Phil Lawler, which provides only a little consolation. But that, dear CatholicCulture readers, is a question of pride—and a danger of a different kind!

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Show 15 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bugbyte1243319 - Dec. 09, 2009 9:06 PM ET USA

    Uncle Di is the main reason I check on this website and why I am donating; his humor is really great.

  • Posted by: Paladin - Nov. 25, 2009 7:52 PM ET USA

    This probably says more about me than him but I just wish Diogenes would stop sugar coating everything.

  • Posted by: gallardo.vm5565 - Nov. 24, 2009 6:09 PM ET USA

    To Di - for sure!

  • Posted by: dmillnerSanDiego - Nov. 24, 2009 5:42 PM ET USA

    I'm not a fan of Diogenes. Saracasm is valid form of discourse. It was G. K. Chesterton's stock in trade. But Di's inside humor is too subtle for me. The provided links are usually to outside sources and, without more context, I'm lost. I need footnotes!

  • Posted by: Bigs2480 - Nov. 24, 2009 4:18 PM ET USA

    Keep up the good work, Diogenes!

  • Posted by: kman - Nov. 24, 2009 3:07 PM ET USA

    I give money because Uncle Di lives here. Most other CC capabilities are duplicated at EWTN.com and good Catholic periodicals.

  • Posted by: Hal - Nov. 24, 2009 1:44 PM ET USA

    Di is one of the best things about this site. The truth sometimes hurts and he doesn't flinch. His style of humor is a way of making the sometimes unbearable, bearable. And he should afflict the guilty at every opportunity, since they seem immune to shame. Di Rocks!

  • Posted by: Wild Bill - Nov. 24, 2009 9:47 AM ET USA

    I'd say you gauge us right almost all the time. If you occasionally get it wrong, sic semper transit gloria mundi. Keep it coming.

  • Posted by: michaelwilmes - Nov. 24, 2009 9:15 AM ET USA

    To be perfectly honest, Diogenes is the reason this subscriber continues membership year after year. I cannot agree with Jeff Mirus' analysis more.

  • Posted by: mskrz2433 - Nov. 24, 2009 9:07 AM ET USA

    You know I think we need to cut him some slack.... This is the net, you can't see a facial expression nor hear the tone of a voice. I think sometimes his zingers are couched in humor, and we all don't find the same thing funny. I have a dry sense of humor and I find him funny. Christ laughed at the sons of thunder... and so do I....

  • Posted by: jjen009 - Nov. 23, 2009 8:38 PM ET USA

    Uncle Di had better stay - if Catholic Culture knows what is good for it!

  • Posted by: michaelrafferty5029 - Nov. 23, 2009 8:08 PM ET USA

    I have frequently seen the full spectrum of political and cultural pundits -- the full spectrum, left to right -- as the equivelent of professional wrestlers. They all play to the crowds and, by doing so, they diminish the quality of public debate. And, by doing so, you endorse the lowest common denominator.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 23, 2009 7:55 PM ET USA

    One of Diogenes' greatest gifts is his ability to allow the grandly foolish to speak for themselves. Yes, it's a target-rich environment, but it's one in which there is little danger of being uncharitable. Further, I think, perhaps, we have all been reminded of having uttered things that make us cringe and which we deserve in justice and in charity to be reminded of.

  • Posted by: Steve214 - Nov. 23, 2009 6:37 PM ET USA

    Diogenes rocks!!!

  • Posted by: parochus - Nov. 23, 2009 6:15 PM ET USA

    Apologia pro vita incognota.

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