I admit it: I’m instituting
a double standard
By Brad Warthen
Editorial Page Editor
SO WHEN AM I going to get off this “civility” kick? Soon. Very soon. After all, electioneering season is almost back upon us in full force; we start endorsement interviews right after Labor Day.
But that only gives greater urgency to an effort to encourage discussions on public policy issues that go beyond trite, partisan name-calling and sloganeering.
As you know if you haven’t just tuned me out altogether, I’ve been worrying about the tone of the discussions taking place on my Weblog. Don’t misunderstand: I get hundreds of comments from thoughtful people from across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, some really hostile partisans from both left and right have been running off the folks who want to have a dialogue.
It’s not that these folks can’t take the heat. They just don’t want to waste their time.
My greater worry is that such partisan, ideological nonsense is the very problem with politics in America today, aggravating reasonable people to the point that they just want to turn away. My column last week celebrating Joe Lieberman’s independent candidacy was about this same subject. I don’t have the authority to play umpire with regard to the national political discourse. But I can call balls and strikes on the blog.
So after an online discussion that drew close to 500 reader comments, I’ve come up with a new system that I hope will work. It’s far from perfect, and will be subject to change if it doesn’t appear to be working, but since I want the site to continue to be a place where people are free to disagree strongly, forget about perfect. I’ll settle for better.
Here’s the plan: I’m implementing a Double Standard (I thought I’d go ahead and call it that before the critics do, seeing as how that’s what it is). Or maybe you’d call it “behavior profiling.”
Some people will be free to post pretty much whatever they want. With them, I will maintain the same hands-off policy that I’ve applied to everyone up to now. But I’ll have a different rule for everyone not in that select group: I will delete at will any comments that I deem harmful to good-faith dialogue.
The good news is that you get to choose whether you’ll be a privileged character or not.
To be among the elect, you just have to give up your anonymity (just as letter-writers on this page do). You won’t have to fill out special forms or show your birth certificate or anything. Just fill out the existing fields that precede comments with your real, full name; your regular, main e-mail address (the one you use for friends or family or co-workers, not something you set up on Yahoo for the purpose of hiding your identity); and if you have a Web site, your URL.
If it seems necessary (either to you or me) to provide more info to establish who you really are, you can do so either in the text of the comment, or by e-mailing me.
When would it be helpful to provide more info? Use your judgment — if your name is John Smith and your e-mail is email@example.com, you might want to tell a little more, such as that you’re a Columbia attorney or a student at USC or whatever. And I’ll use my judgment — if you call yourself Mike Cakora (one of my regulars), but write something totally uncharacteristic of him, I’ll start asking questions.
To be in the other group, just keep hiding behind anonymity. I’ll still let you through most of the time, but I’m going to start deleting comments that fit into one of two categories:
- Insulting, demeaning personal remarks aimed at delegitimizing, discouraging or intimidating those with whom you disagree. If you don’t know what I mean by that, you’ll soon find out.
- Dogmatic, repetitive, sloganeering ideological claptrap that fails to move the conversation forward and just generally wastes the time of anyone who reads through it in search of actual, original thought. If you use partisan buzzwords and labels as a substitute for genuine argument, you’re in this category. Once again, some of you may have trouble understanding exactly what I mean by that (such rhetoric is so reflexive today), but I will do my best to demonstrate.
Between those two categories, I can tell you already that I will act upon the first with greater alacrity than upon the second. It is the greater offense.
But, some of you are by now sputtering, this is so subjective! Yep, and to some of you, that’s just plain shocking. Not to me. I’ve had to make millions of such judgments in my 30-plus-year career. It’s what editors do. Every word I have ever allowed into the paper has required, at the most basic level, an unforgiving yes/no type of decision. Space and time constraints require us to leave out a whole lot more than we’re able to put in. Those considerations don’t apply on the Web, but something at least as important does: The need to have at least one place where people can hear each other think without being drowned out by shouted stupidity.
I expect the number of comments will drop off for awhile. Some will depart in disgust, others in confusion. Still others will be more selective about what they post, which is actually the point of this. I hope we make up in quality what we give up in quantity.
If you don’t understand how to meet the new standards, here’s a hint:
Always try to express your ideas in a way that will actually change the minds of people with whom you disagree. Don’t write in a way calculated to win cheers and attaboys from those who already agree with you, or to give yourself a jolt of vindictive satisfaction.
Oh, and remember: You don’t have to worry about the standards if you have the guts to stand up and identify yourself. Just don’t be a wuss, and you can still be a jerk.
Unfortunately, given the present polarization of political attitudes, some of you will refuse to believe that “those other people” can ever be persuaded. You think there are people like you, and people like those others, and any attempt to reason across the divide is futile.
If that describes you, you’ve come to the wrong place. I believe that good-faith dialogue has the power to bring us together over what we have in common. If all you want to do is shake your fist and shout slogans, there are plenty of other blogs out there that welcome that. Just not mine.
And here’s where you find it: http://blogs.thestate.com/bradwarthensblog/.