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Painful cases

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.


* See “Dealing with a nasty post” and “What to do about snarkers.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:10 PM | | Comments (9)


John, I truly appreciate the need for establishing rules in regards to publishing comments. Being a part of the large - and very vocal - speculative fiction arena, I've been privy to some "flame wars" that have truly burned out of control. Setting up a standard of what can and can't be published ought to be more universally put in place because having discourse is much easier when people aren't having to defend themselves from attackers.

Nicely said, John. And much kinder to Young Animus than his track record warrants.

Yes, John, well said. We should not encourage cowardly assaults shielded by anonymity.

The blogs here at The Baltimore Sun are nowheres near as interesting, in a pathological way, as some non-moderated message boards at other sites, such as USA Today. When reading some of them I am reminded of Tom Lehrer's admonition, in Be Prepared, not to "write dirty words on walls if you can't spell."

non-moderated message boards at other sites, such as USA Today

The unmoderated comments on the Baltimore Sun website aren't usually any better (or worse, if you're billing pathology as a feature).

Bravo, John. Thanks for being an island of civility and a beacon of calm, reasoned discourse.

“What to do about snarkers.”

What do you think about a post whose topic is an ill-defined slang word? I got all pinot noir angsty and kirked out on my blomeys¹ last night about the word "snarkers". Any thoughts?

1 blog homeys

Another annoying blog commenter - the angry defender. You make an innocent comment on someone's site about the quality of their writing or the topic of their post, and all of their friends and MySpace buddies jump all over you. My thinking, if you're going to allow comments, you better be ready for comments and develop a thick skin fast.

It's why I don't allow comments on my site. Partly because I don't take criticism well, but mostly because I get sad when I post a genius thought and no one seems to notice...

The Internet exists for three main reasons: porn, Facebook and the sudden explosion of "citizen journalism" - or what used to be diary jottings that are now public fodder and quoted in respectable news sources as "facts" or "opinions."

Actually, it appears that there are four main reasons for the Internet's existence: porn, Facebook, "citizen journalism," and cat pictures.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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