They have been a little preoccupied of late at Dining @ Large with the issue of hostile comments.* These fall into two classes. There are times when a joke has been carried too far or someone’s feelings have been hurt, prompting an angry response. These incidents can usually be cleared up with little more than an explanation and an apology. More troublesome are the remarks posted under cover of anonymity or pseudonymity to make wanton ad hominem attacks.
I treated the subject briefly in an earlier post, “Enemies as a gauge of one’s worth,” that made reference to a particular person who has made himself well known in newspaper circles. For convenience, let’s refer to him as Mr. Animus. We know some things about him and can reasonably surmise others.
Mr. Animus made himself known by a single-minded attack on the influence of page design and page designers on newspapers, holding them accountable for all the misfortunes the industry has encountered. (Lately he has branched out to attack his fellow copy editors, particularly the younger ones.)
Mr. Animus, though he appears to have worked exclusively at a series of smaller Midwestern papers, speaks with authority about the operation of metropolitan dailies, of which he seems to have little or no direct experience.
Mr. Animus also despises the American Copy Editors Society, of which he has not been a member, and condemns the worth of its national conferences, which he has not attended. (It is also a point worth noting that someone setting himself up as an authority on language and editing should peculiarly think that variations on “fiddling while Rome burns” are fresh and striking.)
Mr. Animus singles out people for attack by name, but he does not praise.
Mr. Animus — and here pathos begins to overtake irritation — maintains a blog in which he posts and comments on his own posts, talking almost exclusively to himself.
He is a representative, and an extreme one, of a type that most of us have encountered: the person defined by anger, who maintains that anger at high flame and defines himself by it. It is not only his mode of operation but his mode of being, and he cannot be reasoned with. The Internet has given such people a tremendous megaphone. Such people are not only annoying to encounter on blogs and other sites, but also destructive to discourse, because they can discourage participation by others.
The question is how to deal with such people, given that it is beyond us to compel them to receive the psychological treatment from which they (and we) might benefit.
The Sun’s blogs moderate comments, and so comments do not get published without the blogger’s authorization. This permits a number of strategies.
When David Zurawik was writing about political coverage of the presidential campaign at Z on TV, he seems to have authorized just about everything, apparently assuming that exposure to the light would disinfect the ill-spelled, ill-argued, bigoted personal attacks that rained down on him. Perhaps so, but not everyone enjoys stepping through such ordure.
Some bloggers may decline to publish comments, which is not a course of action that fosters discussion.
Ms. Large’s core audience, the people who comment regularly, have become self-policing. If a commenter gets out of hand, the other readers call him on it, with reproaches in a calm, even-handed manner. Finding that rude behavior is not appreciated, commenters either behave themselves or go away.
The problem is that in the larger culture so much discourse is little more than shouting, which the maladjusted and resentful find exactly to their taste. Perhaps the most that one person can accomplish is to strive to create an island of civility.
Rules for commenters
Comments on this blog are subject to review. You Don’t Say is a publication of The Baltimore Sun and conforms to The Sun’s editorial standards. Obscene and profane language will not be published, and racial, ethnic, sexist and homophobic slurs will not be tolerated.
Commenters are welcome to challenge me or other commenters on issues of language and editing, and to do so vigorously, but insults and ad hominem attacks will not be published.
While I may summarize the content of personal messages in these posts, I will not quote any such correspondence verbatim or identify the author without the writer’s consent.
While I do post anonymous comments of innocuous content, I prefer that you identify yourselves by including a valid e-mail address with your comment. Your e-mail address will not be published or circulated.