The Value of Civility on Comment Threads

Several months ago, I posted an item on PJM lamenting the degree of incivility in the comment threads to various articles, and urging the virtues of discretion, courtesy, and, let’s say, a modicum of discursive urbanity. Sheer naivete on my part, obviously, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to give it a shot.

Since then, I’ve continued to scan the comments and, while finding many of these well-written, erudite, and informative, I couldn’t help but be appalled at the amount of boorishness and pure calumny often cluttering the lengthy caboose to an author’s train of thought. Naturally, the trolls are absorbed in their busywork, serenely oblivious to the shamefulness inherent in their disreputable procedures. Long before I began posting on websites, I’d written a poem about trolls and their congenial habitat, based on the famous Norwegian folktale "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." “Trolls live under bridges,” went the refrain, and among the various descriptive passages in the poem I compared them to “homeless toll-collectors [who] are always broke and hungry./Sometimes they even eat the bridge.”

I didn’t know how right I was. After all, I was just playing with images and having a good time managing stanzas -- one of the pleasures of writing poetry. The aptness of the portrayal came home to me with renewed force after my immersion in some of the talkback trailers on PJM and other conservative sites. The job description of the troll is not only to try and devour the billy goats clattering across to greener pastures but, in their trollish hunger, to disrupt, compromise, or thwart the transit of an idea, to eat the bridge of communicative reciprocity. Once the bridge is gone, all meaningful discussion ceases. Well, that’s what trolls do and I suppose we should expect no different, responding as best we can by building yet another bridge and hoping it withstands the mutilating appetite of the professional troll.

But not every misleading, tasteless, coarse or abusive comment is the work of trolls. Sometimes even the “good guys” tend to fly off the handle. It is precisely here I wish that common decency might prevail. This does not mean that rigorous and principled objections to or amplifications of an author’s argument are ruled out of court. Far from it. Controversy and the clash of opinions are the stuff of intellectual vitality. A perceptive comment, no matter how stinging, can always serve to rectify an error, misjudgment, or ambiguity in an author’s thinking, and I can vouch for having profited from such logomachic rebukes. Nevertheless, there is all the difference in the world between being hammered and being corrected, between indecorousness and subtlety.

This applies not only to the relation between reader and writer, but to exchanges among the commenters themselves, which frequently seesaw on the border between the tawdry and the obscene. I would prefer to imagine that we are all grown-ups involved in the give-and-take of important ideas, not bullies implicated in a schoolyard brawl. I would like to believe that as thinking individuals, regardless of our endemic fallibility, we are all reasonably mature. Let us “savor the indigestible grit of the world,” as the fine American poet Donald Platt wrote in his recent collection Dirt Angels, but let us tell about it with a certain decorum, as does Platt. It would help, too, if our response were leavened by a certain reflection and discernment.