ANONYMITY IS FOR COWARDS
Unsigned Claptrap: The Bane of Civil Discourse
Written by Al Hutchison. Last updated Thursday December 10th, 2009
By AL HUTCHISON
By its very nature, the state of civil discourse cannot be quantified, but there is overwhelming evidence that, in this country at least, it has fallen on hard times. You doubt it? Just check the online comments from readers who disagree with what is written by numerous Internet bloggers.
In my old age, it is one of my small pleasures to read several blogs on an almost daily basis. The ones I prefer are authored by reputable journalists, including those at The Washington Post and other important newspapers or magazines. The bloggers themselves may - to my way of thinking - occasionally exhibit a regrettable lack of logic or common sense, but there’s nothing wrong with that. We don’t all think alike.
What are really quite difficult to understand, though, are the often-vicious, vulgar and incredibly insulting responses these bloggers get from anonymous readers. And I would argue that the anonymity is at fault. When one is not required to attach one’s name to a rude retort to a blogger, then one need not fear the embarrassment and humiliation the comment otherwise would inspire (and deserve).
In short, in such situations anonymity is a form of cowardice, and those who seek its shelter should be ashamed of themselves.
Years ago, I was the editor of the smallest of three daily newspapers in a highly competitive Florida market. A salesman came by one day and tried to interest me in a machine that would allow the newspaper to record calls from its readers and then publish them. The calls would be anonymous, and it would give my paper a welcome competitive edge (or so the salesman argued).
It was a tempting idea, but I discarded it immediately because - like all the other newspapers I’ve worked for - this one would never publish unsigned letters to the editor in the belief that if the letter writers truly believed in their messages then it was only proper that their name (which could be verified) be attached to their letter. The recorded messages would be nothing more than unsigned letters.
(To those who argue that newspaper editorials are unsigned, I say this: A typical newspaper editorial reflects the collective wisdom and philosophy of its editorial board and does not necessarily represent the viewpoint of the person who actually writes it. In fact, in my day I’ve written editorials arguing positions I’ve disagreed with. I was just doing my job.)
Unfortunately, not all newspaper editors object to recording and publishing anonymous comments. The newspaper published in my community (I do not subscribe to it.) devotes an enormous amount of space to observations called in by grumpy readers who are not required to identify themselves. How do I know this if I don’t subscribe? My mother-in-law takes the paper and my wife and I are the ones who recycle it, so I look at it often enough to have a good feel for its multiple and sometimes astonishing journalistic inadequacies.
But the greater vitriol is found online. The two areas that seem to generate the largest volume of hateful comments are politics and sports. I like college football, and therefore during the season I like to read (online) the columns of Tony Barnhart of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who is widely regarded as an expert on the subject. He’s a regular on television because of his deep knowledge of the sport.
Barnhart is a graduate of the University of Georgia, but some of the greatest abuse directed at him is from fans of that university’s football team, and usually it is because he has had the audacity to criticize their precious Bulldogs and even predict their defeat on a given Saturday. (Others accuse him of being a “homer” when he writes something favorable about his alma mater’s team.) The fact that in 2009 the Bulldogs have had a mediocre year and that they, quite logically, were the underdog several times has not immunized Barnhart from the outright hatred of some Georgia fans.
But he’s not their only target: They also use labels such as “idiot” or “moron” (those are two of the milder words employed) to describe fans of Georgia’s two biggest rivals, Georgia Tech and the University of Florida. Gator quarterback Tim Tebow - who is generally regarded as perhaps the most accomplished college football player of his time and a model citizen to boot - is a favorite whipping boy of many who clog the blogs. On December 4, one person - unidentified, of course - even expressed the hope that Tebow would suffer a career-ending injury in the Southeastern Conference championship game the next day. Presumably the fact that Tebow and the Gators lost that game generated considerable giddiness among his detractors.
Here’s what I’d like to see: Every blog, regardless of its content or whether it is sponsored by an individual, a newspaper, a magazine or by any other institution, impose a temporary - let’s say for at least one year - ban on anonymous comments from their readers. Make those who would denounce others (and their opinions) announce themselves by name. In other words, deny the cowards the sheltering curtain of anonymity.
Would it make any difference? Nobody knows. But at the rate we’re going, the future of civil discourse in this country is a bleak one indeed; and in a democracy, that’s not a situation to be taken lightly. One small step to reverse the trend would be good for our national health.