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.

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.”