Once upon a time, writers and journalists wrote editorials or op-ed pieces for that special section of the paper, and then, if people wished to respond they would write a letter to the editor and hope it would get published.
If the paper was the New York Times or the Washington Post, the chances were, well, slim, while small town papers afforded a better chance that your opinion could be heard; but in all cases the letter writers had to sign their names and addresses and were often called before publication to verify that information (I know, as I published many letters in both newspapers and magazines).
Most people, however, did not respond to an editorial with their own letter to the editor; if they disagreed with the opinion proffered they shook their heads or showed it to their spouse with disgust. If one agreed with the editorial, one often clipped it and mailed it to others of like mind.
All very civilized most of the time, although angry, bizarre, and off-the-point letters did, of course, show up from time to time.
But that was the back in The Day — before computers and emails were ubiquitous. The new form of “letters to the editor” is blogging. Because it’s usually done as a reflex, it is not considered. And so it follows that the level of discourse has seriously deteriorated.
Although I have only been blogging personally for two years, I’ve been reading newspapers online and websites and blogs for many years. Some few of the sites I visit regularly manage, with moderators, to remain (sort of) civil and even stay on topic for more than a comment or two.
But most sites, even those with intelligent information in the blog itself — and there are, fortunately, many of those — quickly veer off topic and just as quickly degenerate into name calling and diatribe, whether political (where I spend most of my time lately) or social (as in who’s doing what to whom and what it is supposed to mean for us, Al Franken).
In addition, anonymity seems to rule with many of the commentators. They use clever, silly, or downright ridiculous pseudonyms to protect their identities, which is one of the main problems with the comments in the first place. Who is that person yelling and screaming in all caps? Who called the blogger a name or made an assumption based on nothing in the article? Who is it that can’t seem to say anything but the same thing over and over and over and over…? And who is that one-note wonder, the one-issue “voter” who needs to publish his screed wherever and whenever possible?
I fear that polite discourse has gone the way of table manners and men removing their caps in restaurants. Polite discussion on issues and facts and information has descended to the netherworld of “my opinion counts as much as yours” (only if one is counting) and “you’re a jerk.” Tiresome. Dispiriting. Depressing.
Part of this, I believe, stems from our unwillingness to consider our own entrenched opinions. Bill Bishop, in his book, The Big Sort, made a lot of sense when he, in an interview on The Daily Show, said that most politicians work their magic by holding up a mirror in front of a group of people so that what they hear being said is what they already believe. As one reviewer of the book put it, “We can no longer even agree on what used to be called facts: Conservatives watch Fox, liberals watch MSNBC, blogs and RSS feeds now make it easy to produce and inhabit a cultural universe tailored to fit your social values, your musical preferences, your view on every single political issue.”
While he may be reductive, he has a point.
As Bishop points out, many of us, perhaps even most, live near, socialize with, and listen to other like-minded souls, and we are hard pressed to get ourselves around another’s opinion, no matter how much sense it makes. We are also hard pressed to hear our views critiqued, even if the critique seems to have some value.
Are any of us going to change our minds after, say, the age of twenty? Probably not. So what does that mean? No more opinion writing? Or no more publishing of one’s opinions in places where every reader might not agree? Or, just no more reading of anything that doesn’t mirror what we already think?
The closet optimist in me hopes that isn’t true.
Of course, there those reading this who are already girding their loins to call me an elitist or a pompous ass or something even more defamatory. There are those who will write to point out that we live in America, the greatest, most free country in the world, and therefore it is everyone’s right to say whatever he or she wishes, however vituperative, however wrongheaded, however downright nasty. And it is every man’s and woman’s right to say whatever he or she feels anonymously.
The problems with the relatively “open” blogging all over the Internet, and the subsequent online sites for more staid and entrenched news media (Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc., etc.) are therefore two-fold. One can use any sort of pseudonym one wishes and one can yell and scream nonsense and insults at will, at the same time veering far off topic and rendering whatever discussion might have been humanly (and humanely) possible unthinkable. It’s wearying.
What was probably meant to provide an open forum for discussion and opinion has in some cases completely disintegrated into a free-for-all of “opinions,” which we all know are like, well, you know. It’s all fart and shit, with no one taking responsibility for what he says. There is little or no consideration of what one has written before one just hits the “send” button and delivers the screed. Perhaps we would all do well to remember a couple of pieces of advice that I expect we all got from our parents: One, when we are angry, count to ten before responding, and two, when one wishes to write an angry missive, whether on paper or online, one would do well to write the thing and then put it away for a time before sending it out. Then, and only then, should one sign one’s name to it, mail it away, and prepare oneself for a response.
Blogs began as diaries, intensely personal, often sentimental: they referred to events in the diarists' lives and were not open to dissent. Now blogs are often political or social commentary, and it behooves the writer to back up his or her commentary. It also behooves those commentators to do the same, rather than just vent.
So How About a Blogger Code of Behavior?
I propose the following and I encourage those who wish to comment to add to the list, with constructive advice for a more compassionate, reasoned, less hateful, and more rational dialogue:
- Do your research. Back it up.
- Be prepared for ugly responses but do not succumb to the same name calling.
- When commenting, use your own name so that others can know who you are and what you stand for.
- Dissent at will but stay on target.
- Check your grammar, word usage, spelling, and logic. Do not get so angry that you type quickly and send quickly and wind up looking like an idiot.
- Be considerate.
- If you only have an opinion, keep it to yourself because you are the only one worthy of hearing such an opinion.
- If you have an actual point of view on a matter that actually matters, make it as you would in front of your mother or, say, the P.T.A.
- Take copious credit for the quality of your cogency.