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The Value of Civility on Comment Threads

Sarcasm is not an expression of mental acuity nor is derision a substitute for parody. Altogether, I find the use of the bludgeon far more distressing than the effect of the bludgeon. Speaking personally, after years of critical and political writing, I’ve developed precision calluses, my form of chain-mail armor, so I rarely suffer “blunt force trauma” injuries, like some poor CSI victim. But on those occasions when I’ve been the recipient of a deft rapier thrust, I can’t help but admire the dexterity and savoir faire of my assailant. Indeed, assuming I survive the stroke, I can learn from it. My reaction can best be described as a weird amalgam of chagrin and involuntary delight, lacerations notwithstanding. The performance is both entertaining and pedagogical, even if one feels a little like a fencing dummy.

As the Restoration poet John Dryden wrote in his A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire (1693), touting the ideal of “fine raillery,” there is “a vast difference between the slovenly butchering of a man, and the fineness of a stroke that separates the head from the body and leaves it standing in its place.” Nothing functions better in argument than a supple and exemplary reproach, for it betokens intelligence, flair, and savvy, and fulfills a didactic purpose as well. The target emerges chastened but not entirely or necessarily resentful, and instructed in more ways than one. He, or she, is often compelled toward a reconsideration, and may also pick up a valuable pointer in how to wield the pen in the future.

I think, too, of the eighteenth century cleric, essayist, and poet John Brown, (not the American abolitionist), who, in his Essays on the Characteristics (1764), distinguishes between three kinds of discourse: poetry, which appeals to the Imagination; eloquence, which appeals to the Passions; and argument, which appeals to the Reason (Brown’s capitalizations). Reason alone, he continues, “can distinguish appearances from realities, and fix the true nature of things.” Reasonable writing partakes of what he calls the “judicial faculty,” that which compares, probes, detunicates, and is nimble in its discriminations. True, vituperation also appeals to the passions no less potently than eloquence, and eloquence can butter our parsnips as well, rendering an argument more easily digestible. But the point is that argument, to be productive, should be  “reasonable,” that is, on the one hand, exacting, spry, and trenchant, on the other, accurate, substantive, and harsh if necessary but without being reduced to personal name-calling or gross invective.

Such admonitions are by no means archaic or risible but are counsels of perennial merit. They apply especially to the denizens of the left, who all too often traffic in cheap vulgarity and outright nastiness. Witness the comments on various left-wing sites reacting to reports -- false as they turned out to be -- on the death of Rush Limbaugh.

And of course, such execrable practices are standard fare on sites like the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos. In such cases, what we often put down on the page resembles, to quote poet John Keats from "Endymion," “slime/Left behind by men-slugs and human serpentry.” Surely this is the kind of excrescence we would rather avoid. But many commenters who are not so impoverished of mind and manners will nonetheless avail themselves of needlessly offensive and irascible language. (Keats gets a bye; he is speaking generally, and I quote him in the same spirit.)

Can we not, then, inject a bit of verbal gallantry in our textual aggressions? Can we not try to write honestly and maintain some degree of control, however minimal, over our rhetorical effusions? Is it too much to ask, even in the heat of ideological combat, for wit, aptitude, and the genuine satisfaction of skilled rejoinder? To be known, as novelist Frederick Rolfe, alias Baron Corvo, said of one of his characters, for “the felinity of his retort”? Perhaps it is. And yet it is only then, to cite Dryden again, that one can justly and effectively elaborate a “precept of moral virtue” or “caution … against some one particular vice or folly.”