Many years ago, one of the evening news shows included a “point-counterpoint” segment, in which a conservative and liberal would have a brief exchange of views on an issue of the day. As many of you will recall, Saturday Night Live had great fun with its own parody of the segment; I think Jane Curtin and Dan Akroyd played the debaters. Curtin would make her case, after which Akroyd would launch into his response by saying “Jane, you ignorant slut.” It was funny because we all know people who just can’t seem to distinguish between an ad hominem insult and reasoned argumentation.
Anyone who ventures to express opinions through columns or blogs has to be prepared for less-than-civil responses. Between my years at the ACLU (where one critical letter was “hand delivered”– wrapped around a brick and thrown through the window) and fourteen years as a columnist for the Indianapolis Star, I’ve developed a pretty thick skin. Very few responses still have the ability to surprise me. But I still haven’t figured out why people invest time and energy in unproductive invective, whether directed at me or posted to someone else’s comment page.
I was reminded about those questions again the other day, by an email from someone who really, really didn’t like a recent IBJ column. (My favorite part: “I never read your columns, and this is an example why!”)
Disagreements with my columns or blogs come in two kinds. Every so often, I get a message saying something along the lines of “I disagree with what you say, and here’s why,” or “I think you got your facts wrong; take a look at XYZ source.” Those are great. They begin a dialogue. They aren’t always persuasive, but often are. If I’ve misunderstood a situation, or failed to address a perspective, letting me know about that educates me. I’ve altered blogs more than once to reflect new understandings or correct factual errors. Those writers may embarrass me, but they do me–and my readers–a real service.
Those folks are, unfortunately, rare.
Far more common are the (usually ungrammatical) messages that simply name-call. They write only to let me know that I am a blot on the human landscape. And that raises the question: what do those correspondents think they are accomplishing? Surely they realize that calling someone names, or calling their parentage, religion or intellectual capacity into question is unlikely to change the recipient’s opinions, or persuade other readers of the superiority of their own views.
It’s equally unlikely to elicit a response. (I mean, what sort of response to “you left-wing elitist bitch” is available or appropriate?)
If someone isn’t interested in engaging in genuine conversation, if he (it’s usually a he) cannot or will not ground his criticism in fact or evidence or analysis, cannot point out where the offensive opinion is deficient–why write anything at all? What are such “messages” supposed to accomplish?
As the King of Siam famously said in The King and I, “It’s a puzzlement.”